Welcome to the first playoff edition of Opposition Research, where I’ll be taking stock of the Packers instant-replay wild card opponent, the Arizona Cardinals. Considering that the two teams just played, there isn’t much to add or change from last week’s more standard take on the Cardinals. With the national media descending on the match, there’s no shortage of articles, angles, and predictions. Let me walk you through just a few as we get set for the Packers return to the postseason.
Ken Whisenhunt’s grand “plan” for the Packers… didn’t work out quite how he anticipated. Yes, many of his starters will be fresher and more rested than their Green Bay counterparts. Yes, a humiliating 33-7 loss could motivate the team to come out angry and eager to punish someone. But with injuries to key players and a very lopsided score, there have been rumblings that the Packers won the week because they were able to get under Whisenhunt’s skin. Whisenhunt has denied this, of course, but it makes for good pre-game hype. I like what DJ Gallo said about the Cardinals’ level of effort (or lack thereof) last Sunday:
It was a desperate attempt to recapture the late-season stink of 2008 that propelled them to the Super Bowl. Or something.
Meanwhile, Kevin Hunt, the sports director of 12 News in Phoenix, is in the “Whisenhunt is a genius” camp:
I think [Whisenhunt]’s helped build a false sense of confidence in the Packers locker room. Listening to Aaron Rodgers after the game you sense that he feels invincible this week. That he’ll be able to move up and down the field against the Cardinals in the playoffs with the same ease he did in the preseason and meaningless regular season finale.
Other than that, the Cards think there’s little to be gleaned from the game.
When looking at the Packers on film… the Cardinals and their fans see two big threats: Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson. If you have the time, I highly recommend that you listen (all podcasts) to the hour-long show that the ARI announcers/analysts have done for the Packers. In shorter segments (w/HC Whisenhunt) and in other formats, they come across more pro-Cardinals, but given time to get into the nitty gritty of the game, you can tell that they see what the Packers bring to the table: a cannon-armed QB leading a team that blows the doors off the league in turnover differential (+24).
In Aaron Rodgers, they know he can “make all the throws.” They know that he’s been protected more the last half of the season. Whisenhunt thinks Rodgers is a “student of the game,” and is very impressed with the speed at which he gets the ball out of his hand. Even Kurt Warner sidled up to Rodgers in pre-game to ask “if I could have just a little bit of that arm, because I don’t know what that feels like to be able to throw it like he can.” But, even with all of his success, fans think that Rodgers can be rattled with pressure and 1st-down blitzes.
When it comes to Woodson, the bandwagon continues to grow. With his winning 3 of the 4 NFC Defensive Player of the Month awards this year (only the 3rd player to accomplish this ), the national media has descended on our defensive playmaker, and he hasn’t disappointed. ESPN highlighted his drive and ambition:
I got that because that’s what I want to do — I want to live forever. I want to make a difference. I want people to be thinking about my name until the sun blows up.
Yahoo!’s Charles Robinson follows the rebirth of his career in Green Bay:
Coming here [to Green Bay], the way people have embraced me, the way they respect the way I play the game, community-wise, for me there’s a loyalty there. I wouldn’t want to leave these people. That’s coming from my heart. I would not want to leave them.
Whether he’s being talked about as the NFC North’s player of the year or the guy that makes Dom Capers’ defense go, the Cardinals realize that #21 will be a force on the field. (What is interesting, though, is that the official blog compares him to ARI CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. I’m not sure they’re in the same league.)
They’re not talking a whole lot about Clay Matthews, though…at least not yet. The Cardinals have to be concerned, though, and I’m sure they are. LT Jeremy Bridges allowed Matthews to get 3 hits on Warner (1/3 of Warner’s snaps) and another handful on backup QB Matt Leinart. If the Cards bring in a TE or RB to chip Matthews, they’ll be limited in their ability to run the 3- or 4- receiver sets that have been their bread and butter all season long.
A few things to chew on: One thing from last week’s game really sticks with me. Rodgers came out, really, one play away from passing Lynn Dickey in the Packers franchise history books. His reaction?
I can’t say I wasn’t aware of that. I knew I was short by the time I came out. But, I will definitely take a repeat of this season and the way we played for the rest of my career. That would be great.
Contrast that with Larry Fitzgerald, who stayed in long after CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and WR Anquan Boldin left with injuries, in order get his 100th reception and catch a league-leading 13th TD. He achieved the latter goal, following a Matt Flynn interception, but it feels cheap to me. The Colts left their starters in just long enough for Peyton Manning to get Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark to 100 receptions each (in doing so, Manning got to 4500 yards even). I know it’s part of the game, but it’s not one I relish. I’m with A-Rod, except that I’m not satisfied with this year’s performance for the rest of his career. As a spoiled Packers fan, I’m going to expect more.
Yes, the Cardinals appear cocky and overconfident going into this game, despite even the starters having played poorly in both match-ups with the Packers. Here’s the thing – they can get away with it. Of Arizona’s starters, only two key players don’t have extensive playoff experience, including experience on the road, and they can be excused because they’re rookies (RB Beanie Wells and KR/RB LaRod Stephens-Howling). Yes, the Packers went to the NFC title game in 2007, but the following players were not a key part of those two home games: QB Aaron Rodgers, WR Jordy Nelson, TE Jermichael Finley, RG Josh Sitton, DE B.J. Raji, OLB Clay Matthews, OLB Brad Jones…and our tertiary secondary — CB Josh Bell, CB Brandon Underwood, CB Trevor Ford. Most of the roster has never played a road playoff game. When you have that kind of advantage going into a playoff atmosphere, you can afford to be cocky.
The playoff celebrations may have started early in W16, as players and fans alike watched Carolina pile up points on the Giants. W17 became a snoozefest as soon as the Vikings finished manhandling that same team in the 1p game and denied Arizona any shot at a bye week. Like the prior two weeks, the Packers will know where they’ll go with a win before the ball is kicked off. If Dallas snuffs Philly for a third time, it’s off to New Orleans. An upset by Philly, however, will send the Packers back to the Metrodome for Favreageddon III. (Say what you want about the match-up, even Nick Barnett acknowledged there would be “a little extra cherry on the top of that game.”)
This is not Week 17’s Arizona Cardinals: The worst thing that could happen is if the Packers look at the last two games against the Cardinals (in PW3 and W17) and think this week will be remotely similar. I don’t think that will happen, of course, because game film and common sense dictate otherwise, but it’s still a concern, say, if Rodgers thinks he’s going to be have time to knit more sweaters and gets back to pre-Tampa bad habits.
We as fans must be careful, too, to not become overconfident. With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to a few players that got the Arizona Cardinals to the playoffs in back-to-back years. Some of these players we’ve seen for a brief while, some we haven’t seen at all, but each of them is likely to ratchet up their intensity come Sunday afternoon.
We know that QB Kurt Warner is good. His career passer rating is 93.7, he’s thrown for 100 TDs for two teams, and he’s seen just about every blitz cooked up in history. What’s going to get him into Canton, however, is his performance when it counts. Warner owns the three highest single-game passing yardage totals in Super Bowl history, and his overall performance is second only to Green Bay’s Bart Starr. I can give you all the stats you want, like how he’s got a 78.2 rating on 3d down, or how he’s thrown 14 INTs and fumbled the ball 11 times. But here’s the bottom line – when it’s “win or go home,” Warner tends to kick into another gear.
I don’t think anyone could confuse the Cardinals’ running game with that of Dallas or Baltimore, but rookie RB Chris ‘Beanie’ Wells has incredible potential to make noise in the postseason. Mostly an inside runner, he’s hard to bring down, and will fight for additional yards. If the Packers aren’t gap-sound on Sunday, Wells could break off 15-yard chunks up and down the field. Combined with RB Tim Hightower, who can do more damage in the passing game, Wells adds another dimension to the Cardinals offense and will force the Packers to respect the run.
Put simply, RDE Darnell Dockett is an absolute bruiser with a mean streak. He followed his 9-sack performance in 2007 with a disappointing 4-sack 2008 season, only to explode in Super Bowl XLIII with 3 sacks of Ben Roethlisberger. In 2009, his 7-sack, 1-INT, 1-FF performance earned him another trip to the Pro Bowl. Expect #90 (and #93 LDE Calais Campbell, who also has 7 sacks on the year and will be playing with a club cast on his broken thumb) to hunt out and exploit weaknesses in the Packers offensive line.
However, Aaron pointed out that Dockett might not be the biggest threat to Aaron Rodgers and the offensive line coming into this playoff game. And I agree, because the Packers have faced tough pass rushers before, in MIN’s Jared Allen and Ray Edwards, DAL’s DeMarcus Ware, BAL’s Trevor Pryce, SF’s Justin Smith, PIT’s LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison (to name a few). But the Packers have never faced a safety like SS Adrian Wilson. This is our first opportunity to play against an elite, blitz- and hit-happy safety. We escaped Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, but if we want to make it to the divisional round, we have to get past Cardinals #24.
Paired with FS Antrel Rolle, these two present one of the best safety tandems in the league. Let’s also not forget that Arizona’s defensive coordinator Bill Davis uses Wilson like Capers uses Woodson – as his all-around go-to playmaker. (A note on Davis – he studied under Capers from 1992-1998 with Pittsburgh and Carolina. This guy knows defensive schemes.) But, back to Wilson. Last year’s highlights show Wilson to be fearless when rushing or in coverage. This year’s clips are fewer, but his stats are impressive: 75 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 INTs, 1 forced fumble, and 13 passes defended. Add the fact that he joined the 20-sack 20-INT club in his 9th year in the league, and you have to respect this cagey vet. Expect #24 to mimic Woodson and line up over Finley all over the field.
While this account by Eric Baranczyk (sub req’d) is a must-read, it completely omits any discussion of Wilson. Wilson left early in Sunday’s game, but he must be the #1 priority for the Packers going into this wild card game. You’ll always be able to find Dockett lined up on the DL, but Wilson? Wilson? (Cue the Cast Away references now.)
It’s easy to believe injuries will play a role in Sunday’s game, and they very well might. After all, if S Antrel Rolle (bruised thigh), CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (knee), or DE Calais Campbell (thumb) are unable to play at a high level, the Cardinals have few playmakers in reserve. That said, as soon as the hand-wringing began on Sunday night, I called bunk – I still believe that all three of these will play key roles in Sunday’s game. Now, Anquan Boldin? With two new injuries (high ankle sprain + sprained MCL), he’ll be doubtful to go. If he’s limited or out, the Cardinals know that WRs Early Doucet and Steve Breaston will have to carry the load.
Who Will Win & Who Will Go Home?
As I mentioned at the top, many of the scouting reports are unchanged from last week. The Cardinals are still going to be gunning for Jarrett Bush, and there’s no denying that Beanie Wells makes that team better than the one that won the NFC a year ago. So, what should we expect?
Brandon at APC has done a phenomenal job this week of breaking down the game into four component parts: GB’s pass offense v. ARI’s pass defense; GB’s run offense v. ARI’s run defense; ARI’s pass offense v. GB’s pass defense; and ARI’s run offense v. GB’s run defense. I can’t tell you how much I like his work.
As for the “expert picks,” the Yahoo! experts say the Packers D isn’t good enough to hang with Kurt Warner and the Cardinals. Meanwhile, in ominous fashion, Green Bay is the unanimous pick by the ESPN experts…all 10 of ‘em. Even the Jets got 4 votes.
That said, in its Wild Card Weekend Preview video with Tedy Bruschi, ESPN talks at length about how Arizona is a resilient team and can bounce back from anything, including injuries to Anquan Boldin. About the Packers? And I’m not leaving anything out here, “Obviously, the Packers, a formidable wild-card road team.” I know it was only a 5-minute segment to get at all 4 wild-card match-ups, but I feel gypped. Thanks, Tedy.
ESPN’s scouting report gives the Packers the edge in all phases but offensive line, special teams, and coaching, and predicts the Packers to win by 9. My last WhatIfSports simulation had the Packers winning 38-20 with Rodgers going 18/28 for 231 and 3 TDs. I don’t believe it, though, because Clay doesn’t even register a tackle.
What do I really think? I think the Packers can win. I think the Packers should win. But I also see some very easy ways the Packers can lose (remember, Kurt Warner is very very very good in the postseason), and it starts with that damned ‘confidence’ crap. Maybe they can walk the fine line between confident and cocky, but I can easily see Rodgers coming out winging it…at which point I’ll begin bashing my head against the wall.
What do you think?