Packers can find hope in '08 Cardinals

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy (27) breaks away for a long run during Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field.

In 2008, the Arizona Cardinals didn’t just lose to the New England Patriots in their 15th game of the season. They were punished and embarrassed, 47-7.

Yet six weeks later, the Cardinals, who finished the regular season only 9-7, were alive and well in the Super Bowl, where they lost to Pittsburgh on a touchdown in the final seconds.

So much for needing a hot hand late to make to it to the NFL’s title game.

The Green Bay Packers play an Arizona team on Sunday that’s in a much different position than in ’08. The Cardinals have the league’s best scoring differential (12.6 points a game) and the second-best record in the league (12-2). They’re one of the favorites to win this year’s Super Bowl.

But the Packers aren’t all that different than the '08 Cardinals heading into the same 15th game of the season. Both had clinched a playoff spot, and though the Packers’ record is better (10-4), their playoff prospects aren’t particularly bright, either, because their underachieving offense hasn’t found an identity since Jordy Nelson’s season-ending knee injury in August.

Defense faces stiff test in Cardinals gives the Packers only the sixth-best odds of winning the Super Bowl, and even that’s probably optimistic based solely on how they’ve played the majority of the season.

Clearly, there’s good reason to think the Packers won’t be spending Super Bowl week in San Francisco.

But a look back at the ’08 Cardinals suggests that anyone inclined to dismiss the Packers’ chances — or of some others outside the top four or five — at least might want to reconsider.

At 9-7, the ’08 Cardinals were on nobody’s radar to get to the Super Bowl. They had the eighth-best odds of winning the Super Bowl among 12 playoff teams that season. They had a dangerous offense (No. 2 in passing yards, No. 3 in points) but gave up the fourth most points in the league. And most of their record and stats were built against their weak NFC West rivals (6-0 record, 180-101 scoring differential).

The 47-7 loss at New England was Arizona’s fourth in five games, and the Patriots’ quarterback that day was Matt Cassel, not Tom Brady. This was hardly a team that looked poised for a playoff run.

It warrants pointing out that the game in New England was played in a snowstorm, which had to work against a team coming from the desert Southwest. Regardless, the Cardinals’ uncompetitive performance drove home a lesson that helped them get to the Super Bowl.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff decided they had to run the ball to have any chance of winning the title. So in playoff wins over Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia, the Cardinals bumped their average rushing attempts from 21 in the regular season to 33 in the postseason.

“You don’t know what kind of weather you’re going to get at this time of year,” said Jeff Rutledge, the Cardinals’ quarterbacks coach in ’08, this week. “Our thought process was we’ve got to start running the football. We knew we’d be on the road every week. You look back, obviously (quarterback) Kurt (Warner) had a good run, but we were able to run the football.”

The Packers, at minimum, have better pieces for a good run game than those Cardinals, whose top two backs were the declining, 30-year-old Edgerrin James and rookie Tim Hightower. The Packers’ best back, Eddie Lacy, remains overweight and inconsistent, but he was one of the NFL’s better backs in 2013 and ’14, and has hit at least 100 yards in three of the last five games. James and Hightower combined for three in all of ’08.

The potential for a run game is what separates this year’s Packers from, say, their Brett Favre-led 2002 team that was knocked out of the playoffs at home in the wild-card round by Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons. Those Packers finished 12-4, but by season’s ends were a shell of themselves. Halfback Ahman Green had a recurring knee injury and was running on fumes, and both tackles to start the season, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, were on injured reserve.

Starks vital to Lacy's resurgence

Lacy is banged up this week (ribs), but there’s no indication it’s anything nearly as serious as Green’s debilitating knee issues late in ’02. And the Packers’ offensive line basically remains intact from last season, with the only possible change the negligible difference between centers Corey Linsley and JC Tretter, depending on which starts when both are at full health.

Also like those Warner-led Cardinals, the Packers have a top quarterback in Aaron Rodgers who’s capable of getting as hot as anyone in the league.

Unlike those Cardinals, though, the Packers don’t have a game-changing receiver like Larry Fitzgerald, who in ’08 was 25 and just hitting his prime. He and Warner made almost all the big plays that carried Arizona to the Super Bowl.

That missing quick-strike threat could end up being the Packers’ undoing. It has been limiting their offense for more than two months now, and this team simply might not be able to find a way around it.

Also, to be clear, this isn’t to argue that every team in the playoffs is a true threat to go to the Super Bowl. Not all are, and it might turn out the Packers just don't have it.

But in assessing a team's chances, it’s not all in the record, or even whoever is hottest at the end of the regular season. The '08 Arizona Cardinals are testament to that.

“(Carolina) is the team you have to beat,” Rutledge said. “So going in you’re thinking Carolina and the Cardinals. But Seattle’s playing well, Green Bay is right there. I tell you, I wouldn’t put any money on any of it. Knowing the NFL from playing and coaching, shoot, anything can happen. … If I was a betting guy I’d go with who runs the football best in the playoffs.” and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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