GREEN BAY – The Packers are headed to Arizona on Saturday night for a Divisional Round playoff game against a Cardinals team that bludgeoned them a few weeks ago.
Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and others have repeatedly stated that Green Bay is the underdog. "The pressure is all going to be on them," the quarterback said at his locker. "We’re going in as the underdogs; we’re going to be loose and ready to go."
Well, Las Vegas agrees, making the hosts a touchdown favorite to advance to the NFC Championship Game.
But take heart, cheeseheads, the cause is not lost. Here are five ways the Packers can beat the Cardinals:
1. Embrace that underdog mentality
The last time the Packers didn’t win their division and made the postseason as a Wild Card team, five years ago, they captured the Super Bowl. That’s a small sample size, of course, but by extrapolating completely subjective and anecdotal evaluations, one could – and will – argue that Green Bay plays better when it has something to prove. Indeed in 2011, after storming through the regular season, setting offensive records and going 15-1, the heavily favored Packers fell completely flat in the playoffs, losing 37-20 to the Giants.
But then consider how in Week 2 of this season, against a Seattle team they hadn’t beaten since 2009 and hearing about how bad their run defense was, the Packers played with a noticeably emotional fury and held Marshawn Lynch to 41 yards in a 27-17 win. Green Bay has been tremendously successful for a long time, and that’s a testament to Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy and the rest of the organization, but for every fan that has called detrimental the team’s perceived arrogance or stubbornness to change, you could fill Lambeau. Naturally, McCarthy this week said, "We’re no underdog going to Arizona."
And the quarterback with the infamous and eternal "chip on his shoulder" (quote attributed to 14 million media outlets, not Rodgers, himself) – who was under-recruited out of high school, told he wouldn’t be a pro in college, made to wait a couple extra hours on draft day, questioned, slighted, shortchanged (also called short) and otherwise doubted in decreasing frequency over his decade in the NFL – hasn’t said much about any such motivational weight this year, except for regularly lamenting the loss of Jordy Nelson. It might be a good time to throw a new grievance log on that grudge-fueled fire. Let’s hope Stephen Colbert did just that by calling out Rodgers regarding girlfriend Olivia Munn.
2. Stick with the run game
We covered this last week, but the offense has been at its best when Eddie Lacy and James Starks have gotten the ball early and often. In regular-season wins over Minnesota and Dallas, the duo combined for more than 30 carries in each game and gained 114 and 195 yards, respectively. In the Wild Card victory at Washington, the running backs rushed 24 times for 116 yards – and wide receiver Randall Cobb added five for 24 more.
Arizona had the league’s fifth-ranked defense during the regular season and is excellent against both the run and pass. But the Packers’ offensive line as constructed run blocks better than it pass protects, and its members (specifically Josh Sitton) have publicly requested for more of the former. Lacy is battling a painful rib injury and Starks has struggled with fumbles down the stretch (come to think, so has Lacy), but both players broke off 20-plus-yard runs and smashed in for short scores last week and would benefit from the confidence of knowing they’re the offensive focal points.
Mike McCarthy said Wednesday that Saturday’s contest "is going to come down to fundamentals" (whatever that means; don’t most football games?) and his steadfast rule is that a back who fumbles comes out of the game. But in the playoffs, a more pliable, practical coaching style is needed. Trust the running game, especially with this team, whose typically explosive aerial attack has been grounded for much of the season.
3. Don’t gift the Cardinals 14 points
This one obviously goes without saying, but we’re not leaving anything to chance. Three weeks ago when the Packers were pounded, 38-8, in Arizona, a ramshackle offensive line with backups playing at both tackle positions allowed 12 quarterback hits and nine sacks. Eight of those sacks were on Rodgers, who fumbled three times, of which two were returned for Cardinals defensive touchdowns.
The good news is that left tackle David Bakhtiari, who missed the last three games with an ankle injury, practiced this week and should play, as will right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who went down with his own ankle problem during the Arizona massacre. Three of the five starting linemen were on Green Bay’s injury report this week, but all are expected to be present for duty – the all-important duty of keeping Rodgers alive, or at least upright enough to find new target Jared Abbrederis.
Committing to the running game and keeping the score close should help prevent the Cardinals’ talented front seven from totally teeing off as unbridled pass rushers. Also, savvy fullback John Kuhn ought to be utilized as a protector in the backfield; it was just a couple years ago that his critical block against the Bears clinched the Packers a playoff spot.
4. Keep the pass rush coming
Last week, Green Bay piled up 13 quarterback hits and six sacks, and the pressure came from everywhere. All-Pros Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers (five hits, 1.5 sacks between them) did their usual thing, but they also got plenty of help from a couple of oft-injured former high draft picks that have overcome lots of adversity to finally play up to their potential.
Nick Perry and Mike Neal combined for six hits and 4.5 sacks against Washington, part of a pressuring defense that includes Mike Daniels (four sacks this year) and Datone Jones (three) and, on the season, tied for seventh in the league in sacks. Against the Cardinals, second-year linebacker Jayrone Elliott (three) is expected back from a quadriceps injury, which will add more depth to the pass-rusher rotation.
Arizona’s Carson Palmer is one of the best quarterbacks in the league – when he has time. Accurate but immobile, Palmer had the NFL’s third-best passer rating (104.6) but was also only sacked an average of 1.5 times a game. If the defense can get after him more than that and make him uncomfortable, Green Bay’s got a chance.
5. Win on special teams
Kicker Mason Crosby is having one of the best years of his career, making 24 of 28 field goals (85.7 percent) in the regular season, including four from beyond 50 yards. Punter Tim Masthay has recovered from his early-season struggles and booted the ball well the last six weeks. Returners Jeff Janis (29.0-yard average on kickoffs) and Micah Hyde (5.8 on punts) make good decisions and are solid – occasionally outstanding.
After last year’s epic collapse against the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game cost special teams coach Shawn Slocum his job (and tight end Brandon Bostick's, too), Green Bay entrusted that role to Ron Zook. Under Zook, the unit has moved up from 22nd in the league to 17th in Football Outsiders’ special teams DVOA rankings. As a gunner, Janis has become an elite special teams player, while Elliott, Chris Banjo and Demetri Goodson are also key contributors in coverage.
Against the Cardinals, ranked No. 29 in Football Outsiders’ rankings, the Packers might have an advantage, assuming all their units are operating at peak efficiency. If they can keep the game close, the small things will make the biggest difference – a clutch Crosby kick or saving tackle, a booming Masthay punt or proper hold (see: playoff collapse, Vikings), a big Janis return or a secure Hyde fair catch, a turnover-producing hit in coverage or just keeping dangerous returner Patrick Peterson in check.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.