The stage is set for prime time, as the Packers and Cardinals will square off in an NFC Divisional playoff game on Saturday night at University of Phoenix Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 7:15 p.m. CT.
Green Bay and Arizona have not met in the playoffs in six years, but they just met on the same field three weeks ago. Before the rematch, writers Darren Urban of azcardinals.com and Mike Spofford of packers.com quizzed one another about how the matchup is taking shape:
Urban: The Packers have had a strange year, from the 6-0 start to the bumpy rest of the season. Aaron Rodgers, at times, hasn't looked like Aaron Rodgers. Then they get to the playoffs and everything looked fine. Were the Packers lying in the weeds? Is it a question of the offensive line getting healthier? What exactly are the Packers right now compared to the rest of the year?
Take a look back in time at memorable photos from previous Packers-Cardinals matchups. Photos by AP, Jim Biever, Vernon Biever,and Harmann Studios.
Spofford:** That's the million-dollar question. The offensive sputters actually began back in October during the 6-0 start, and injuries at wide receiver and on the offensive line have been difficult to navigate all along. The Packers are healthier up front than they were in the Week 16 trip to the desert, but there's still no guarantee LT David Bakhtiari comes back this week, and the big guys who are playing are banged up. Now, there's another injury at receiver with Davante Adams, so more adjustments may be needed. Washington came into the wild-card game with the 28th-ranked defense, the Packers felt good about the matchups, and they took control after a rough first quarter.
Starting with three punts and a safety won't cut it on Saturday night, but they feel they finally have some offensive momentum, well aware that Arizona's fifth-ranked defense is a different animal than the one they just faced. Does that Cardinals unit look any different without safety Tyrann Mathieu? How have they adjusted?
Urban: It definitely is different, even if it doesn't look different. You're not going to lose an All-Pro player, a guy who is always around the ball and seems to make big plays all the time, and not have it impact you. But the Cardinals are fortunate because the still have another All-Pro in the secondary with Patrick Peterson, and they had depth back there too. D.J. Swearinger has provided more pick-me-up than anyone expected at safety, both emotionally and with his play, after signing midway through the season (James Starks can attest to that). The best part for the Cards was that they had a successful game without the Honey Badger when they played the Packers, and that showed them life after Mathieu can work. Plus, like many units, while they swear by Mathieu, they wanted to show he wasn't everything. Now, the news this week that starting linebacker Alex Okafor got hurt during the bye weekend and is done for the season doesn't help, but this defense still can be pretty good. They only need to be good too, assuming the offense performs as it can.
Which leads me to the Packers' defense, and how they feel going up against a Cardinals' offense with many weapons. Sam Shields is still a question mark, I would think, and I wonder what is the key for Green Bay's defense to slow up what has been a very good unit in the desert?
Spofford: Shields has missed the last four games, and yes, he is still a question mark. Rookie corner Quinten Rollins also left the wild-card game with an injury and his status isn't known. Undrafted rookie LaDarius Gunter stepped in against the Redskins and played well, so the Packers like their depth in the secondary, but a veteran QB like Carson Palmer almost certainly will go after a young sub like Gunter if he's forced into action and see how he holds up. Arizona's skill players have more speed than any offense the Packers have faced all year, but Green Bay has seen it now and expects to be better prepared. The key for the Packers will be getting pressure on Palmer and hopefully creating some turnovers. The Washington game was the fourth time this year Green Bay's pass rush has generated at least six sacks in a game, and while the defense got just one turnover against the Redskins, it had opportunities for more. Dom Capers said on Monday the Packers need to make those chances count. Mike Daniels' INT of Palmer's screen pass in Week 16 was potentially a game-changer with the score 10-0, though Justin Bethel made sure it wasn't.
But the Packers are done with talking about 38-8, just as the Cardinals certainly aren't discussing 36-6 in Week 17. What impact, positive or negative, will that result have as the Cardinals begin the playoffs?
Urban: You are right, the Cardinals aren't talking about the last Seahawks' loss. They are barely talking about the Packers' win as a matter of fact – linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, asked about the Packers' game previous, said that was the Packers of 2015 and not 2016. It's an interesting take given that we aren't even a month removed, but it makes sense from both sides. Frankly, the Seahawks' loss, while disappointing, was never going to stick to this bunch. They never quite said it, but they never truly thought the Panthers would lose to the Bucs that day and they approached – consciously or not – that last game as if it was meaningless. It showed on the field. Honestly, it feels like that game was two months ago already, especially after watching Seattle luckily advance in Minnesota last week. If there was any impact from that last game, it was in one week's time, the Cards went from everyone's Super Bowl favorites (after the Packers win) to "uh-oh" favorites. They noticed.
One more from me: What exactly are expectations in Green Bay right now? That franchise has set a high bar. Was the win in Washington enough to energize the fan base's optimism?
Spofford: No question. It wasn't just the win, but how they won – outscoring the Redskins 35-7 after falling behind 11-0 – that has the fans believing this team can make a run. The entire fan base was horribly heartbroken over the way last season ended, and it created a Super Bowl-or-bust mentality from the start of training camp. When the team's struggles hit at midseason, there was frustration, to be sure, but now there's almost a renewed energy in having seen the Packers overcome so much adversity to play one of their best games last week. The players bought into the idea that the playoffs provide a fresh start, and I think the fans have bought into that now, too.
How about the Cardinals' fans? Is there almost more hunger after all the QB injuries derailed a promising 2014? Did they expect their team to be in this position as considerable favorites in the NFC?
Urban: I think expectations, assuming Carson Palmer stayed healthy, were high. And they have been rewarded. It's not wholly unexpected (although the prediction for the Cards in the Sports Illustrated NFL preview issue had them at 5-11 this season for some reason) but I don't think anyone was thinking 13-3. The offense is finally doing what Bruce Arians expected it to do when he arrived, and that's made all the difference. Fans feel, after starting 9-1 last season, that the team was robbed when Palmer blew out his knee in 2014, and they believe that even more seeing what has happened this season. It'll be interesting – when the Cards made the Super Bowl in 2008, they were the underdog in every game. That's not the case anymore.