3 things to watch: Packers at Cardinals

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb looks to make a move after catching a pass as Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson defends at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Quarterback battle

Carson Palmer never has won a playoff game and hasn’t played in the postseason since 2009. The torn anterior cruciate ligament that Palmer suffered midway through last season derailed the Cardinals’ chances at a lengthy postseason run. However, everything seems to have aligned for Arizona this year. Palmer, who turned 36 last month, had his best professional season since bursting onto the scene in 2005. The former Heisman Trophy winner set career highs in passing yards (4,671), touchdowns (35) and passer rating (104.6). Now, can he do it on the big stage? His opposition, Aaron Rodgers, didn’t have nearly as fine of a regular season, but is tempered for the postseason. This will be Rodgers’ 13th career playoff game. He’s completed 274-of-423 passes for 3,193 yards with 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions (100.3 passer rating) in his seven consecutive postseason appearances. The scale easily tips in Palmer’s favor in terms of his top three receiving weapons and tight end. Larry Fitzgerald has enjoyed a renaissance at 32 years old with 109 receptions for 1,215 yards and nine touchdowns. Roughly half of those yards have come from the slot with John Brown and Michael Floyd keeping defense’s honest deep. The emergence of rookie running back David Johnson in place of injured Chris Johnson (leg) gives Arizona a comparable running game, as well. Rodgers has a bit more of a motley crew with Davante Adams (knee) ruled out, and Jordy Nelson (knee) and Ty Montgomery (ankle) out for the year. It’ll take a group effort for the Packers to keep pace with Palmer and the Arizona’s top-ranked offense. “Bruce does an excellent job of calling it as far as the balance between the run and the pass,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “You know their perimeter group, and Carson Palmer is playing the best football of his career. So we've got to match up and make plays.”

Chicken or the egg?

Outside of an awful first quarter, Green Bay looked a lot more like its old self in Sunday’s 35-18 win over Washington. The question is whether the Packers suddenly found the offensive rhythm they’ve been seeking for the past two months or they simply were preying upon the NFL’s fifth-worst defense. It’s probably a little bit of both. Washington has a few playmakers, but was hamstrung by injuries and poor play. The Packers’ receivers, who so often have struggled in man coverage this year, looked like Pro Bowlers matching up against 31-year-old Will Blackmon and Washington’s soft coverages. The ability to throw the ball forced Washington out of its base formation, which then opened the seas for Eddie Lacy and James Starks to combine for 107 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the second half. The idea of throwing to run the ball is one the Packers rarely have explored this season and could be catalyst for improvement going forward. McCarthy’s liberal use of receiver Randall Cobb in the backfield in the first half was exactly what the passing game needed to takeoff. It remains to be seen whether the Packers will be able to do that again with Adams unlikely to play, voiding one of the perimeter receiver spots. His absence leaves only James Jones and little-used No. 4 receiver Jeff Janis as the Packers’ natural boundary options. Where the Packers decide to use Cobb could go a long way in determining whether they advance to the NFC championship for the second consecutive year. “Frankly, the way they play you during the course of the game may take you one direction or another, too,” said McCarthy when asked about Cobb in the backfield this week. “We’ve seen more base defense against our sub offense this year. So those are the kinds of things you look at and you weigh it. But that’s all part of game-planning.”

Up to the challenge

Palmer isn’t the only opponent the Packers’ defense will be facing Saturday night. It also must be prepared to go tit for tat with Arizona’s own 3-4 scheme. The Cardinals lost outside linebacker Alex Okafor to a mysterious toe injury earlier this week and signed veteran Jason Babin, who hasn’t played since September. Still, veteran Dwight Freeney and massive defensive end Calais Campbell (6-8, 300) gave the Packers a ton of fits in their first matchup. Campbell, who had 2½ sacks last month against Green Bay, has an enormous wingspan that also can eat up ball carriers. The Packers don’t have a lot of giants on their defense outside of Julius Peppers, but are relativity healthy on their own defensive front. The only two outside linebackers on the injury report, Mike Neal and Jayrone Elliott, were full participants in Friday’s practice. The Packers still don’t know whether they’ll have cornerbacks Sam Shields (concussion) or Quinten Rollins (quad) available. Arizona is playing without one of the league’s best, Tyrann Mathieu (torn ACL), but Patrick Peterson is arguably the best in the league at cornerback. Defense likely will set the tone in this game. If the Cardinals keep the Packers’ offense on lock down early, it’ll be up to Clay Matthews and the rest of Green Bay’s defenders to contain the league’s most explosive offense. “A lot of guys have been in this position before and we understand what’s at stake,” Matthews said. “We put a lot of work into this and hopefully that kind of passion and energy and renewed focus and enthusiasm comes out this Saturday. We’re going to need it. The reality is if you win you obviously move on to the NFC championship game. If you lose, then it’s another season in which you have regret.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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