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Explosive Offense Keyed Arizona's Previous Playoff Run


Big plays on offense haven't necessarily been Arizona's calling card in 2009, but it certainly was when the Cardinals made their playoff run to the Super Bowl a year ago, and the Packers know they best beware letting Arizona's offense return to its explosive postseason ways come Sunday.

Last year in winning three playoff games and coming within a couple minutes of also winning the Super Bowl, the Cardinals produced 16 offensive plays of 20 yards or more - an average of four per contest - with 15 of those 16 coming through the air.

Perhaps more important is that five of those explosive gains went for touchdowns, and three of them were from better than 60 yards, as Arizona fashioned the kind of quick-strike offense that can change playoff momentum in a heartbeat.

"This receiving corps, they are as good as there are in the league," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "You don't have to watch much tape. Last night I looked at all three of their playoff games heading up to the Super Bowl last year, and those receivers, especially (Larry) Fitzgerald, were making big, big plays in each one of those games. That's why they were able to win three and go to the Super Bowl."

The most dynamic of those receivers, of course, is Fitzgerald, who had nine of those 20-plus receptions in the playoffs last year, including four for TDs from 42, 29, 62 and 64 yards. Fitzgerald set NFL postseason records with 30 catches for 546 yards and seven scores a year ago.

But he wasn't the only big-play threat. Both Anquan Boldin, who didn't practice all week and is questionable for Sunday with an ankle injury sustained in last week's regular-season finale against the Packers, and Steve Breaston had two big plays each in the playoffs last year, with one of Boldin's a 71-yard TD.

Add in the fact that the Cardinals produced 12 other gains of between 15 and 19 yards in the playoffs last year - 10 through the air and six by Fitzgerald - and it's clear how they're most dangerous.

Whether or not that's a blueprint for how the Packers can put together a playoff run this year is open to debate, because one of the hallmarks of the Packers' offense this year has been controlling time of possession, and not as strong a reliance on big plays.

But there's no doubt on the other side that the Packers have to limit Arizona's explosiveness to advance. Even though the Cardinals statistically haven't produced as many big plays on offense this year as a year ago, Capers pointed to their quick-strike capability in a key prime-time win over Minnesota this year as a reflection of last year's playoff run.

Against the Vikings, within a span of six minutes in the second quarter, the Cardinals had touchdown drives of two plays (58 yards) and five plays (77 yards), capped by TD passes of 39 yards to Boldin and 34 to Fitzgerald, to take control of the game.

So the Packers know what they're up against. It's just a matter of how they go about countering it.

"I'm confident that Dom has put together a great plan, and I think it's going to complement our play out there," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "I think we're going to match up the routes pretty well."

Certainly the goal will be to match up better against three- and four-receiver sets than the Packers did three weeks ago in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers racked up 503 yards passing. The Cardinals without question have analyzed and re-analyzed that film to see how Pittsburgh gashed the Packers - the Steelers gained 364 yards on 12 of their completions - but the extent to which Arizona can copy that schematically could depend on Boldin's health.

Even if Boldin can't go, however, Warner is savvy enough to take advantage of any matchup he feels he can exploit. Nickel and dime backs Jarrett Bush and Josh Bell were picked on at times by the Steelers, and might be again, though the Packers hope the experience gained from the Pittsburgh loss will help avoid a repeat performance.

"We know Arizona is going to throw a lot at us as far as sets and the amount of receivers they're going to have on the field, and guys are picking it up," said veteran cornerback Charles Woodson, who said earlier this week he expects to be matched up with Fitzgerald a good amount of the time. "The best part is that guys have been thrown into the fire a little bit throughout the season, they've been in some tough situations, and I think those guys will definitely rise to the occasion."

Another plus for the Packers is they have an additional option for the dime spot in rookie Brandon Underwood, who was out with a hip injury for the Pittsburgh game.

But no matter who is in Warner's sights, it's inevitable they will give up some plays. It's how they bounce back from them that will tell the tale, according to Williams, who knows something about that process. He was flagged for three long pass-interference penalties before making a key interception in the end zone against Baltimore on a Monday night in Week 13.

{sportsad300}"It's easy to get down on yourself in this league," Williams said. "It's a tough league. If a quarterback sees that he's got something working on a certain individual, he's going to keep going there, and you have to be mentally tough at that. If a guy is going to keep coming at you, you have to step up to the task and make it happen."

What the Packers probably need to make happen on Sunday are some interceptions. The team led the league with 30 of them, 26 by members of the secondary. That's something Warner, who threw a middle-of-the-pack 14 picks this season, couldn't help but notice in watching film of the Packers over the past two weeks.

"They're very athletic, they cover a lot of ground, they're very aggressive, and when they get opportunities to make plays on the ball, they make them," Warner said. "There's some times we'll go into games in this league and we'll say, 'Well, if we can just get this guy isolated on the safety, throw it up, because that's a distinct advantage for us.' This is one of those teams you can't say that, because they play the ball like receivers, and it's impressive to watch."

The Packers failed to get an interception in only three of their 16 games this season, and it's likely no coincidence they lost all three of those contests (twice vs. Minnesota, at Pittsburgh). But following the Pittsburgh game, the defense got back to its thieving ways, picking off seven passes over the last two weeks.

"That's something that we take pride in, in the back end," Williams said. "We feel you always want to get takeaways and the coach always has a goal to get takeaways, whether it's two or three. But we try to get as much as we can. We strive for five or six. We just take pride in it."

Much like the Cardinals do with their explosive plays.

"You may have two, three, four good series and then, bam, in two plays they score a touchdown," Capers said. "You can't ever relax against these guys."

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