The Arizona Cardinals turned in one of their more dominant performances of the season with a 30-point shellacking of the Green Bay Packers in Week 16. The Cardinals don’t expect it to be as easy in the rematch when they host the Packers on Saturday night in the NFC Divisional Round.
Arizona registered nine sacks and bolted to a 17-point halftime lead in the 38-8 rout of the visiting Packers last month, a win that secured the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. Like Green Bay, the Cardinals have their own memory to erase after absorbing a 36-6 drubbing by Seattle in the regular-season finale.
The Packers followed up their beating in the desert by losing at home to Minnesota in Week 17, costing them the NFC Division title. No. 5 seed Green Bay rebounded with an impressive 35-18 win at Washington last weekend in the opening round of the playoffs.
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Here are three keys to the game for both the Packers and the Cardinals.
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1. Don’t slow down on offense
The Packers gave up nine sacks when they played the Cardinals in Week 16. The best way to combat that pressure will be to play at a faster pace. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers must wear down Arizona’s pass rushers by running a lot of plays and moving the chains. More importantly, he can’t slow down after the snap. If he’s hanging onto the ball too long, the pocket is bound to collapse around him. Rodgers needs to make smart decisions and get the ball out of his hand as quickly as possible.
2. Give Randall Cobb 10 touches
The Packers were able to build some rare offensive momentum against the Redskins in the Wild Card Round. They did this by putting the ball in Randall Cobb’s hands as much as possible. Rodgers targeted him eight times, but only three of those attempts resulted in completions (one of which was a 12-yard touchdown). To increase his touches, Cobb lined up as a running back and took five handoffs. The versatile receiver averaged just under five yards per carry, proving that he’s a playmaker that just needs to be fed.
3. Get more out of Perry, Neal
Nick Perry was a first-round draft pick in 2012; Mike Neal was a second-rounder in 2010. Neither outside linebacker has recorded more than five sacks in an entire season, so their 4 1/2-sack eruption against the Redskins last weekend came as a complete surprise. These two under-the-radar pass rushers can lift the Packers to another victory if they bring down Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer. Adjustments to pass protection won’t come easy since Arizona must also account for Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers.
1. Bring the pressure
The Cardinals love to blitz in any situation and that surely will be at the top of the game plan after recording eight of their nine sacks against Rodgers, who also lost a pair of fumbles that were returned for touchdowns. Arizona will be looking to linebackers Markus Golden and Deone Bucannon to provide the heat, but Calais Campbell sets the tone for the defense. The massive tackle had 2 1/2 sacks in the first half in the last meeting.
2. Spread the Packers out
Carson Palmer is not shy about taking deep shots down the field and he has multiple weapons in wideouts Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and speedster John Brown. Bruising rookie David Johnson has been outstanding since taking over as the starting running back. Not only is Johnson solid in blitz protection, but he gave the Packers fits in limited duty last month with three receptions for 88 yards to go with a 14-yard touchdown run.
3. Give Justin Bethel safety help
Rodgers followed the pattern of nearly every other quarterback and barely looked in the direction of cornerback Patrick Peterson, who took Randall Cobb out of last month’s game. Opposite cornerback Bethel came up with one of the pivotal plays in that contest by intercepting Rodgers in the end zone while the score was still close. Bethel, who was elevated to starter in a reshuffled secondary following an injury to Tyrann Mathieu, was targeted often and struggled in Week 17 versus Seattle.