The Green Bay Packers (5-3) and Arizona Cardinals (4-4) are two teams headed in opposite directions as the second half of the 2012 season opens up Sunday at Lambeau Field.
A little over a month ago, the Cardinals were 4-0 and in possession of greater than 80 percent odds of making the postseason. A four-game losing streak, in which Arizona scored just 36 points (9.0/game), has sent that sterling start up in flames.
The Packers occupy the other end of spectrum.
Since limping to a 1-2 start, Green Bay has won four of five games—including each of the last three. Over their current three-game winning streak, the Packers are outscoring opponents by over nine points a game.
According to Football Outsiders, the Packers now hold an 82.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. Arizona's chances have plummeted to just 2.4 percent. How the tides can turn during an NFL season.
Here's some other things you could watch Sunday:
Awareness of Washington
There's no question that Daryl Washington has been the game's best blitzer at the inside linebacker position this season. His eight sacks are third in the NFL (behind only J.J. Watt and Clay Matthews) and lead all inside linebackers.
Thursday, we profiled how Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton uses Washington in a variety of blitzing roles. Center Jeff Saturday, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and each pass-protecting running backs need to know exactly where Washington is at all times Sunday.
To blitz, or not to blitz?
Defensive coordinators rarely like to completely break tendency, but Horton may be tempted Sunday. While Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday that Horton blitzes on 38 percent (or more) of all downs, the blueprint for containing Rodgers and the passing offense has been generating pressure with four and dropping seven into coverage.
In the two games where defenses brought extra pressure (Houston, St. Louis), Rodgers had his best games (680 yards, nine touchdowns). Horton will have to pick his spots against a surgeon of the blitz.
Pressure from every angle
The pass-protection numbers for the Cardinals offensive line are almost hard to believe. According to Pro Football Focus, Arizona has allowed a staggering 149 quarterback disruptions (sacks, quarterback hits and hurries) over 357 passing plays this season. Indianapolis, the next worst offensive line, has 94. The Packers have just 69. The problems come at every position, but the two tackles are mostly to blame.
Right tackle Bobby Massie (13 sacks, two quarterback hits and 34 hurries) and left tackle D'Anthony Batiste (12 sacks, five quarterback hits and 34 hurries) combine to total 100 of the 149 disruptions. There hasn't been a worse pass-blocking tackle duo in the NFL since PFF began tracking games in 2008, and you could only assume that the ineptitude could actually trail back several more years.
Will either of these teams be able to run the football Sunday? Recent history would certainly seem to indicate no.
The Packers' 26th-ranked run game (90.1 yards/game) has been the subject of much discussion since Cedric Benson (Lisfranc injury) was placed on the designated to return IR list. In three starts since Benson's injury, second-year back Alex Green has carried 64 times for just 154 yards (2.41 yards/carry). The problems running the football are multi-faceted and difficult to pin on just one player.
However, Arizona's production against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday puts anything Green or the Packers have struggled with to shame. On nine rushing attempts, the Cardinals gained just seven yards—or the least amount during a regular-season contest in over a quarter century. Without Beanie Wells (designated to return IR list) and Ryan Williams (season-ending IR) the Cardinals have simply given up on the run in some games. Arizona currently ranks 31st in the NFL per game (79.0).
Both teams will have much-needed byes following Sunday, so expect an energetic contest. However, McCarthy was very adamant this week that the Packers need to be 6-3 heading into the bye. He went as far as to call it "non-negotiable." The players should understand that message, especially after a sloppy, uninspired win in Week 8. And while the Cardinals' fourth-best scoring defense (17.9) should keep them in the game, there simply isn't enough offense to win a game on the road. The Packers get to McCarthy's goal of 6-3, and the bye week gives Green Bay a chance to get healthy for a difficult final stretch.
Packers 24, Cardinals 9 (Season record: 3-5)
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at email@example.com.