5 Keys to the Packers/Cardinals Playoff Game (this time, it matters)

As we near this week’s first round playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and the Arizona Cardinals, many are speculating as to whether the Packers have a mental advantage.  This purported mental advantage stems from the fact that the Packers beat the Cardinals decisively in the pre-season, a game in which they were up 38-10 at halftime, as well as last week in the regular season finale, 33-7.  Both games were played in Arizona.

Both games also come with an important caveat:  the Cardinals, at least more so than the Packers, treated both contests as exhibition games.  The pre-season game was, of course, just that, and in the regular season finale, the Cardinals pulled many of their starters prior to the beginning of the second quarter.  In other words, it’s difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from these games when the starters aren’t playing and the coaches aren’t scheming—well, at least not scheming to the extent they will come Sunday.

Nonetheless, the discussion over a mental advantage lingers on, and players on both teams have been queried as to the effect those previous games will have this Sunday.  Both teams could potentially use the discussion as motivation.  The Cardinals, for instance, could take umbrage with those who believe the score won’t vary much this Sunday; they could be motivated to debunk the idea that the Packers are that much better than they.  Conversely, the Packers could take umbrage with the “Well, they weren’t playing their starters” card; they could be motivated to prove that those scores do reflect the disparity between the two teams.  But honestly, I don’t think any of this will matter much:  neither of these teams should need additional motivation.  As Daryn Colledge said, “Obviously, the playoffs should be motivation enough.”

With that in mind, allow me to turn to what I perceive to be the five keys to the Packers/Cardinals game this Sunday, the more pressing and intriguing match-ups whose importance will be readily noticeable during the game and will, I believe, determine who makes it to the divisional round of the playoffs next week.

1:  The Cardinals’ receivers versus Jarrett Bush. When Al Harris was lost for the season to an ACL tear in Week 11, the trickledown effect forced Bush to become the Packers’ nickel cornerback.  And since the Packers employ a heavy amount of nickel formations, Bush has been on the field quite regularly the last 6 games.  Perpetually maligned by many in Packerland, Bush hasn’t done much to silence his critics since taking over the job:  he was a popular scapegoat after the loss to the Steelers, a game in which the Packers gave up 503 passing yards, and he has become the go-to read for opposing quarterbacks.  The Cardinals field one of the best receiving corps in the league, headlined by Pro Bowlers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.  Third receiver Steve Breaston is no slouch either:  he had 1,006 yards last year and has 712 this year.  I’m worried (and I’m sure the coaches are as well) about how Bush will fare against this stout group of receivers.  There are, however, two reasons to think Bush won’t be exploited too severely this Sunday:  (1) Bush’s major fault is covering routes longer than 15 yards, and outside of Fitzgerald, who should be locked up with Charles Woodson, the Cardinals receivers run a lot of shorter, underneath routes, and (2) Boldin appears questionable for this Sunday’s game.  I’m sure I’ll find myself screaming Bush’s name coupled with some expletives this Sunday, but I’m hoping (read praying) that those times are few and far between.

Finley is a tough match-up for opposing defenses

2:  Jermichael Finley versus the Cardinals’ secondary. As much as the Cardinals are drooling at the prospect of throwing at Bush, the Packers are drooling, perhaps even more so, at the prospect of lining Finley up against the Cardinals’ secondary.  Simply put, Finley is a mismatch for opposing teams.  His size and speed is perhaps second to none at the tight end position, and his hands are arguably the best on the team, and that’s quite the praise considering the depth and talent the Packers possess at the wide receiver position.  In both games against the Cardinals, Finley has a combined 8 catches, 62 yards, and 3 touchdowns.  I assume that the Cardinals will try to lock up Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson on Finley, but doing so would preclude them from moving Wilson around the field ala how the Packers use Woodson.  As for Sunday’s game, I’m expecting more of the same from Finley, who continually appears to be an All-Pro in the making.

Bridges might need extra help trying to contain the Claymaker

3.  The Claymaker versus Jeremy Bridges. Clay Matthews has been on an absolute tear since becoming a starter in Week 4.  Sure, he hasn’t registered a sack in his last two games, but he has been making a name for himself and making his presence felt in other ways than just sacks, most notably in the form of inducing offensive holding penalties.  He drew one such penalty against the Cardinals last Sunday that resulted in a safety.  Matthews has caused problems for many left tackles this season, and throughout last week’s game, it was highly apparent that trend was continuing.  Bridges, the Cardinals’ left tackle, struggled mightily trying to contain Matthews—so much so that I’d be surprised if the Cardinals don’t continually bring over a tight end or running back to help chip Matthews off the line this Sunday.  I’m sure the Cardinals are hoping that Bridges can hold his own against Matthews this time around, but Bridges has struggled in pass blocking quite a bit this season.  I doubt he finds his stride against Matthews, who should be amped more than usual (which is a scary thought) for his first playoff game.

4.  Ben Graham versus the Packers’ special teams. The Packers’ special teams has been scrutinized frequently this season, and compared to the offense and defense, it is surely the team’s weak link.  However, aside from Mason Crosby’s kicking woes, the special teams have shown slight improvement as of late, especially in terms of punt and kick coverage.  Helping matters is the potential return of Derrick Martin, who has been the Packers best coverage man the last half of the season.  Graham, the Cardinals’ punter, is one of the best in the league, particularly when it comes to pinning teams inside the twenty:  Graham pinned the Packers inside the twenty 3 times last week, and he’s done it a career high 42 times this season.  In a playoff game, where field position becomes all the more important, Graham could be a difference maker for the Cardinals.  The Packers are a team that has struggled in the red zone this season; Graham’s ability to make the field that much longer for the Packers only exacerbates those red zone woes.  Oh, and the Cardinals sport the best red zone offense in the league.

Sunday will be Rodgers' first playoff game as a starter

5.  Rodgers versus playoff pressure. Sunday’s game against the Cardinals will be Aaron Rodgers’ first playoff game as a starter.  Atlanta Falcon quarterback Matt Ryan faced almost identical circumstances last year:  he was playing in his first playoff game, he was playing the Cardinals in Arizona, and he was playing on a team with a better record, a team that was expected to win.  And Ryan, unfortunately for the Falcons, folded under the pressure, throwing 2 interceptions and fumbling once.  As many coaches and players will attest, the playoffs are a different beast; as such, there is reason to be nervous about how Rodgers will handle the pressure that comes with playing in the playoffs.  That said, I just can’t fathom Rodgers becoming unglued and rattled in this game.  I’m not suggesting that he is unflappable, but at the same time, the pressure and circumstances that he’s faced already in his young career are extraordinary, starting with the way he was drafted to the way the entire Favre-saga unfolded over the past two or so years.  Moreover, while he hasn’t played in a playoff game, he surely has played in playoff-type atmospheres, including both games against the Vikings and the game against the Steelers.  Come Sunday, I expect nothing less from Rodgers:  a calm demeanor, and a steady, accurate arm.

There are, of course, other intriguing match-ups to watch this Sunday, including All-Pros Fitzgerald and Woodson going head-to-head as well as Kurt Warner’s ability to handle the Packers’ aggressive blitzing defense.  Similar to the other five match-ups listed above, these two will greatly affect the outcome of Sunday’s game.

As a whole, I think the Packers have the edge this Sunday and should be victorious.  Offensively and defensively, the Packers are the better team.  My only main concerns are the Cardinals exploiting Bush and Graham continually putting the Packers in unfavorable field position.  If the Packers can avoid giving up the big play and score touchdowns rather than settle for field goals in the red zone, they should find themselves playing next week in the divisional round.  That said, the Cardinals are an experienced squad that was able to turn it on last year at this time, and if that team shows up Sunday, the Packers could be one and done.  It’s an interesting match-up containing two high octane offenses, and it should cap off an entertaining weekend of playoff re-matches from the regular season.

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