It’s a QB-driven league; Cardinals have proof

As the Cardinals fell victim to another predictable loss on Sunday, we couldn’t keep our eyes and minds from wandering and wondering: What if Peyton Manning had chosen Arizona instead of Denver? What if the Cardinals had a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback instead of an oft-injured starter and a career backup?

We know the defense hasn’t been impressive the past two weeks, especially in the first half of Sunday’s 31-17 loss to the Packers at Lambeau Field. We know two running backs are also on the shelf and we know that the offensive line has more than its share of issues, even if rookie left tackle Nate Potter did show some promise in Green Bay.

But we also know this: A good quarterback can mask a lot of offensive deficiencies. Take Sunday’s opponent, for example. The Packers don’t run the ball well — at least they didn’t before Sunday’s game. Before facing the Cardinals, the Packers were 26th in the league in rushing offense (90.1 yard per game) and yards per carry (3.7).

They also don’t protect QB Aaron Rodgers particularly well — again, at least not before Sunday. Entering the game, Green Bay had allowed 28 sacks, the second-highest total in the league to your protection-challenged Cardinals.

And yet Rodgers had the NFL’s second-highest quarterback rating (107.9), the most TD passes (21), just four interceptions and the league’s second-highest completion percentage (69) as he warmed up for a big day against Arizona. When the Cards briefly teased us with a comeback in the third quarter, Rodgers delivered a 72-yard TD pass to Tom Crabtree to quell the riot.

Oh yeah, and the Packers left Sunday’s game at 6-3 while the offensively inept Cards dropped their fifth straight game to fall to 4-5.

“We’ve had drives and we just haven’t been able to capitalize,” quarterback John Skelton said, echoing a tired refrain. “That’s kind of been the story all year.”

Which brings us back to Manning, the one guy in the NFL who entered play Sunday with a higher QB rating (109) than Rodgers.

There has been a lot of chatter concerning his offseason choice, a lot of educated or source-driven guesses as to why he snubbed the 49ers and Cardinals. Maybe the Cards just couldn’t wait any longer for his decision. Maybe their offensive line scared him a bit. Whatever. We don’t care to sift through those ashes. The excitement over the Manning possibility has long since been extinguished.

But watching Manning throw for three touchdowns and post a passer rating of 105.8 in a win in Cincinnati and watching Rodgers carve up the Cardinals defense with big plays when he needed them reminded us of what we used to have, for an all-too-brief time, in Arizona.

It reminded us of that epic playoff game in which Kurt Warner threw more touchdowns than incompletions in a crazy 51-45 overtime victory over these same Packers. It sure is nice to know that when your defense has an off day, or a two-week slump, you’ve got a guy behind center who can make it all OK with the wave of his arm.

What do the Cardinals have? A guy who has completed 96 of 172 passes (55.8 percent) for a 65.8 QB rating, the lowest among all qualifying quarterbacks in the NFL.

Skelton’s play and the Cards’ losing streak have led to predictable calls for Ryan Lindley to get his shot. That may happen if Arizona drops its next game at Atlanta after the bye, but not now.

“I don’t know if the way that John played today would warrant that,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We feel like we’re going to go forward looking for the guys that can help us win. If that comes up in that situation, then we will certainly consider it.”

Make no mistake though: If and when Lindley plays, it will be an admission that the Cards are a desperate team — and that’s exactly what they have become. That “whoosh” you heard Sunday was the sound of the Packers racing past the Cards for wild-card positioning should they not catch the scorching-hot Bears in the NFL’s best division, the NFC North.

Barring catastrophic injuries, the Bears and Packers are going to make the playoffs. The 49ers will win the West, the Falcons will win the South and the savvy Giants will probably still win the East. That leaves one spot up for grabs, with the Lions and Seahawks both looking like stronger contenders than the fast-fading Cardinals.

It’s a quarterback-driven league. While the Cardinals can bemoan injuries and dropped passes that impacted Sunday’s outcome, the Packers reached for no such excuses. Rodgers’ receivers also dropped a bunch of passes. Rodgers’ team came in just as banged up as the Cardinals.

It didn’t matter. The guy behind center made it all better with third-down precision, four touchdown passes and another victory.

It really was that simple.

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