Cardinals-Packers matchup could be playoff preview

The Arizona Cardinals won’t know until kickoff just how much

their regular-season finale with the Green Bay Packers might

mean.

Most likely, it’s just a tuneup for a much more meaningful

rematch with the Packers on the same field in the first round of

the playoffs. Then again, there’s a chance a first-round bye could

be at stake for the NFC West champions.

“You have to prepare and do everything like this one means a

first-round bye,” Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said. “Then,

if at any point in time, that changes, it’s a weird situation. You

don’t know how you’re going to handle it until you get in

there.”

For the Packers (10-5), winners of six of their last seven, the

game means nothing more than whether they get the No. 5 or 6 seed

as a wild card. But they are insisting they won’t ease up on the

pedal as they approach the postseason.

“We’re not going to be sitting players or anything like that,”

coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re going to walk into this game on

Sunday with the approach to win the game.”

For Arizona (10-5) to sneak into the No. 2 seed and a

first-round bye, the Minnesota Vikings would have to lose at home

to the New York Giants. That’s an early game, so the Cardinals will

know whether that’s still a possibility before Sunday’s

kickoff.

But the scenario also would require the Cowboys to beat

Philadelphia in Dallas, a game that starts at the same time as

Cardinals-Packers.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

“We were looking at the scenarios for the NFC and I think there is

eight possible scenarios for us, six of which we play the Packers,

one which we get the bye, and one which we play the Cowboys.”

Green Bay’s dominating cornerback Charles Woodson said neither

team should be concerned about holding back any secret tactics that

might be used in the playoffs.

“We are who we are. At this point in the season, they are who

they are,” Woodson said. “There’s no `showing them too much.’

They can go look at the film, they can see everything that we’ve

done over the course of the season and vice versa.”

Whisenhunt said that while there might be a few things in his

game plan he wouldn’t use if the game didn’t mean anything, “we

haven’t prepared that way.” Still, there is a possibility he might

remove some key players early.

“We are preparing like a normal week,” Whisenhunt said. “We

are going in with our guys intending to play. Then I think you

assess it at that time. I think it’s kind of like (New England

coach) Bill Belichick said, `If they play, they play. If they don’t

play, then they won’t play.”’

The Packers want to keep everything humming as well as it has

been in recent games.

“It’s important to continue this momentum we’ve been building

up these last seven weeks,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.

“We’re 6-1 and we’re playing pretty good football. We want to keep

this going and hit our stride entering the postseason.”

Since a Nov. 8 loss at Tampa Bay left them 4-4, the Packers have

just one loss, a 37-36 heartbeaker at Pittsburgh on Dec. 20. Last

Sunday, Green Bay routed Seattle 48-10, a team the Cardinals have

beaten twice.

Arizona is 9-3 after a 1-2 start and has won three in a row at

home after starting the season 1-3 there. Overall, the Cardinals

have won three of four and are coming off a 31-10 home romp over

lowly St. Louis.

The Packers’ defense enters the game ranked second to the New

York Jets in yards allowed per game and first against the run,

giving up just 85.7 yards per contest. In their storied history,

the Packers have never finished the season No. 1 against the

run.

“To be honest, we talk about it a lot,” defensive lineman B.J.

Raji said. “… It is motivation for this week because it’s

prideful thing. We want to finish the season as the No. 1 rush

defense in the league, and this team can run the ball pretty

good.”

Although they remain a pass-oriented offense, the Cardinals’ run

game has improved markedly. With the 1-2 punch of Tim Hightower and

explosive rookie Beanie Wells, Arizona has gained more than 100

yards in six of its last eight games after doing it only once in

the first seven.

“That“s just a huge benefit for a quarterback,” Warner said.

“… Anytime you can get a defense to hesitate, to wait even a

split second, it gives you an advantage in the passing game. That’s

what the running game does. Anytime they have the thought in their

mind you might run the ball, everything is a little bit slower and

it makes it easier to throw.”

The Cardinals’ defense, which had three players selected to the

Pro Bowl, will face a Packers offense that can move on the ground –

Ryan Grant has rushed for 1,202 yards – as well as through the air.

Rodgers has thrown for 4,199 yards.

“This is one of the top offenses in the NFL,” said Arizona

defensive coordinator Bill Davis, a good friend of McCarthy’s.

“Aaron Rodgers is playing at a high, high level right now. Mike

and those guys are doing a great job. That’s why they’re as hot as

they are right now.”

All that talk about a first-round bye will mean nothing if

Arizona can’t beat this multitalented team.

“The only thing we can control is how we go out there and

play,” said Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, chosen to his

fourth Pro Bowl this week. “If we don’t play well, whatever

happens on the other side doesn’t matter.”