The Opposite Sideline: Cardinals cautious

Stu Courtney
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Each week, Press-Gazette Media will get the lowdown on the Green Bay Packers’ next opponent from a beat writer who covers that team.

Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11) celebrates with teammate Lyle Sendlein (63) after scoring on a touchdown reception against the Packers at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Twenty days. That’s all the time that will have elapsed Saturday when the Green Bay Packers return to the Arizona desert for a rematch with the Cardinals, who humbled them 38-8 in Week 16 of the regular season.

Two strip-sack fumbles by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers that were returned for Cardinals touchdowns blew that game open in the third quarter. But the turning point came late in the first half when the Packers were driving for a touchdown that could have pulled them to within 10-7 at intermission. Instead, Rodgers was intercepted in the end zone and the Cardinals then drove for a quick TD to claim a commanding 17-0 lead. It was a crushing 14-point swing.

Since that game, the Packers have blown the NFC North title by losing at home to Minnesota and then gone on the road and won in convincing fashion, 35-18 at Washington. Arizona, meanwhile, enjoyed a bye week after essentially taking another week off in losing 36-6 at home to Seattle in their meaningless regular-season finale.

Can Green Bay expect more of the same from Arizona in Round 2? We asked Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic for an update on the Cardinals’ state of mind entering Saturday’s rematch:

Is there any risk of overconfidence for the Cardinals after winning so handily in December?

KS: “I guess there’s always a risk, but immediately after that game the message in the locker room was that’s not the real Packers team and if we play them again in a few weeks, it’s not going to be like that. … They’re not expecting a blowout.”

The Cardinals can’t expect to score twice again off strip sacks. If the Packers can avoid turnovers and sacks, does it shape up as anybody’s game?

KS: “Certainly, the way the Packers looked against Washington, you would think that’s the case. In that Packers-Cardinals game, it was a close game and if Aaron Rodgers doesn’t throw that interception in the end zone, who knows how things turn out? I think the Cardinals also feel like, hey, we’re a No. 2 seed for a reason: We’re a very good team and we’re playing at home. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t win this game.”

What happened in the regular-season finale vs. the Seahawks and was that a wakeup call?
KS: “Yeah, in the sense that they know if they come into a game and they’re not ready to play and focused and all those other clichés, then that can happen to anybody. I think at least subconsciously they went into that game knowing it didn’t mean anything and you could tell. It just went south on them very quickly, but I don’t think they attached any significance to that, especially since they won at Seattle earlier in the year. But for those whose attention may have been wandering, it should have grabbed it.”

Did the Seahawks expose any Cardinals weaknesses? Was injured safety Tyrann Mathieu missed more in that game than he was against the Packers?

KS: “Probably, because Seattle does so much with Russell Wilson getting out of the pocket and he absolutely killed them with roll-outs and misdirection. The Cardinals were playing some young guys and they botched assignments. … That will be an emphasis this week, for sure.”

What did the Packers show in their win over Washington that should concern the Cardinals?

KS: “The Cardinals have to look at it and say, we absolutely have to stop the run. We can’t let Eddie Lacy and James Starks run like they did against Washington. The Cardinals have had a good run defense all year long, much better than Washington. They’re thinking, if we can control the run we’ll take our chances with our secondary versus those receivers. The Cardinals think they’ll win that matchup.”

Aaron Rodgers’ wealth of playoff experience was a big factor against Washington matched up against a young Kirk Cousins making his first postseason start. How do you think Carson Palmer will handle the playoff pressure? He’s a veteran but hasn’t had a lot of success in the postseason, do you think he’s ready to deliver on the big stage?

KS: “I think he is. He’s been around long enough and is enough of a veteran that he knows how to handle this. I would imagine at the beginning he’ll be a little excited, a little geeked up and that may lead to some errant throws early. He’s done that before a little bit and then settled down. It’s a pretty veteran group on offense, pretty steady … they’ve got a lot of guys who have been in this situation before, guys like (wide receiver Larry) Fitzgerald, (center) Lyle Sendlein and (tackle) Jared Veldheer, etc., so I think they’ll be just fine. Carson is usually a pretty calm guy, not much gets to him.”

The Packers had no answer for Cardinals rookie running back sensation David Johnson in the first meeting. How do you think the Cardinals will use him?

KS: “They’ll use him obviously in the run game, but he’s such an excellent receiver, they’ve gone to a little more empty-backfield sets and put him at receiver to try to get him matched up against a linebacker. They did that successfully against the Packers in the first half and then the game got away from the Packers so Johnson didn’t play much in the second half. … That’s their game, they want to be able to run the ball at least efficiently and set up the play action so Palmer can go deep when he has the opportunities.”

The odds-makers have made the Cardinals the Super Bowl favorites. Are they comfortable with the favorite’s role?

KS: “It’s definitely new for the Cardinals when they get to this stage. The only Super Bowl they went to (after a 9-7 regular season in 2008), they went through the playoffs being the underdog and no one expected it. They supposedly were the worst team in NFL history to make the playoffs. It’s a pretty mature group with some pretty good veteran leaders throughout the roster. So I don’t think they’ll let all this go to their head and (coach Bruce) Arians has been pretty good at guarding against all these things.”

The Packers will be coming off a short week, a six-day turnaround after winning at Washington, while the Cardinals will be well-rested after a week off. Is that another big factor in Arizona’s favor, and how do see the game playing out?

KS: “That’s definitely a factor in Arizona’s favor, when you consider Green Bay getting home late Sunday night and having to formulate the game plan on Monday, install on Tuesday and basically have two full practices and then travel halfway across the country. That’s a distinct advantage for the Cardinals.

“It’s going to be much closer than the first game, it has to be. I expect Aaron Rodgers to trust his receivers more, figuring ‘What have I got to lose? I’m going to throw these guys open more, I’m going to take my shots.’ But I just think the Cardinals have too much firepower. I think they’ll be much better at shutting down the run than Washington was and it will be big advantage playing on a longer week with the bye and playing at home.”

— and follow him on Twitter @Stucourt

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