Packers bring momentum, confidence back to Arizona
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) – The Green Bay Packers are back in Arizona on a wave of momentum and confidence. This time, they’ll face the “real” Cardinals.
The NFC matchup Sunday is the last, and perhaps most intriguing, of the four wild-card games.
A young, marvelously talented quarterback, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, is in his first playoff start. Meanwhile, Arizona’s Kurt Warner, at 38 a master of the postseason, plays his 12th.
The Packers (11-5) have won seven of their last eight, the lone loss a last-second heartbreaker to Pittsburgh. NFC West champion Arizona (10-6) is a better team than the one that made its stunning Super Bowl run a year ago, Warner said.
“I don’t think there’s any question, outside of maybe some of the injuries that we have right now,” Warner said. “The way we’ve played this year, the consistency, the belief, the confidence, when we’ve played up to our potential, I think there’s no question we’re a better football team.”
The teams have played twice this season, yet in many ways have never really played each other at all.
Green Bay dominated the games, both in Arizona, once in the preseason, then 33-7 a week ago in a largely meaningless regular-season finale.
Coach Mike McCarthy’s Packers irritated Ken Whisenhunt by implementing a game plan in the preseason game, a feeling exacerbated when Green Bay played its starters through three quarters last weekend while the Cardinals rested many of theirs and kept their game plan under wraps.
“We just felt that it was in our best interest as a team to keep playing,” McCarthy said.
For the first time, Arizona will implement a full game plan against the Packers, one it’s had two weeks to prepare, and play all of its best players – at least the ones who can play.
“I think we know who we are as a football team,” Whisenhunt said. “If the right team shows up on Sunday, we’re pretty good.”
The gung-ho Packers escaped last week’s game largely without injury, other than aggravating cornerback Charles Woodson’s sore shoulder, something the star defender says is no big deal. The cautious Whisenhunt, on the other hand, had three significant players go down – wide receiver Anquan Boldin, defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Boldin, with a left high ankle sprain and sprained left knee, is the least likely to play after missing practice all week. If Campbell plays, it’ll be with a cast to protect his broken left thumb. Rodgers-Cromartie, crucial in defending Rodgers’ passing game, was at nearly full strength by week’s end after bruising his left kneecap.
Another starter, safety Antrel Rolle, sat out last weekend’s game with a bruised right thigh. He finally was able to get in a little practice time late this week.
The Packers bring impressive statistics on both sides of the ball.
They broke the franchise record for scoring, Rodgers passed Bret Favre for the second-most yards passing in Packers history, and Ryan Grant finished third in the NFC with 1,125 yards rushing.
Rodgers says there’s do danger of his team being overconfident despite breezing through the Cardinals a week ago.
“What Mike usually talks about is real confidence, and real confidence is built through stacking success,” he said, “and I think we’ve done a nice job of that the last eight weeks of stacking successes on both sides of the ball.”
The Cardinals hope to slow this juggernaut the way they did in their 30-17 victory over Minnesota on Dec. 6, by confusing the quarterback with an unpredictable array of defensive sets and stunts.
“If you guys tune in on Sunday,” nose tackle Bryan Robinson told reporters, “we’ll show you some of those tricks.”
Up front, the quickness, power and emotion of defensive tackle Darnell Dockett will be a problem for Green Bay.
“My focus is totally different during playoff time,” Dockett said. “I have been here before in this situation. Whatever happened last week happened.”
The Packers defense, remodeled to a 3-4 set under first-year coordinator Dom Capers, ranks first in the NFL against the run after finishing 26th last season. Overall, the defense is second in the league.
Woodson, at 33 having perhaps the best season of his great career, loves Capers’ approach.
“I’m unbelievably happy,” he said. “I keep telling people that I’ve been a fan of the defense for a while, just watching other teams, the likes of Baltimore and Pittsburgh. It always seemed like they were having fun, moving around, giving quarterbacks different looks, and not just being a stagnant defense the way I felt we kind of were my first year here.”
Although he moves around a lot, Woodson often will be defending Arizona’s All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
“Every week, I’m going to get everybody’s best shot, so that’s nothing new for me,” Fitzgerald said. “Ever since it was Pop Warner, I’ve always matched up against the best player on the other team. It’s just another week.”
The Cardinals’ run game has improved markedly through the last half of the season, with the emergence of rookie Beanie Wells, but Arizona’s biggest threat is always Warner, who’s 8-3 as a playoff starter and has led teams to three Super Bowls. He’s vulnerable when under severe pressure but as adept as anyone at taking advantage of the blitz, too.
“That’s the first thing you notice on film,” McCarthy said. “He’s done it for so long and has such a positive reputation for getting the ball out of his hands. More importantly than getting it out of his hands, he’s so accurate.”
As is Rodgers.
“He’s very calm back there. He’s seeing the field very well. He’s very decisive and accurate,” Arizona defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “Great NFL quarterbacks are accurate above all things, and he’s throwing the ball very accurately.”
Some Green Bay players thought last week’s rout was far from meaningless.
“They’ve got a lot to think about,” defensive end Johnny Jolly said after the game.
The Cardinals haven’t lost consecutive games all season.
“That’s cool. They should be confident,” Dockett said of the Packers. “Whatever they put on the field, if that’s the best they have, then they should feel confident. But us, we are just preparing well and being able to get ready to get in a dog fight on Sunday. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”