NFC Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET, University of Phoenix Stadium
Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals
Aaron Rodgers leaned back on a couch outside a conference room at the Ritz-Carlton last Saturday night in Phoenix and discussed the possibility of having to face the Cardinals two weeks in a row on Arizona's home turf. "The biggest thing I've told the guys is, Let's be aware of the nonverbal and verbal communication we use," the Packers' fifth-year quarterback said. "When you scout somebody for the playoffs, you're going to look at more games than you would in the regular season, so you're going to have a good feel for what the other team's tendencies are. That's where the subtle advantages come in. When I'm watching film, I'm looking at the secondary players and the linebackers and what kind of hand signals they're getting. When I'm on the field I'm listening to what they're saying when I break the huddle."
Rodgers could glean little from the Packers' 33--7 pounding of the Cardinals on Sunday: Arizona went into shutdown mode after learning before kickoff that the Vikings had locked up the NFC's No. 2 seed and the remaining first-round bye. The Cards rested defensive starters Bertrand Berry and Antrel Rolle and pulled standouts Adrian Wilson, Darnell Dockett and Karlos Dansby after one series; quarterback Kurt Warner played only the first quarter. Coach Ken Whisenhunt also made conservative use of his playbook. "We tried not to do a lot of the things that we thought would be good [the next week]," he said afterward. "Hopefully that will work out for us."
Almost nothing worked out for the Cardinals on Sunday. The Pro Bowl--bound Rodgers is a handful even when opponents are bringing pressure; with the Cardinals sitting back and playing it safe, he was nearly unstoppable. Working the first three quarters, he completed 21 of 26 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions or sacks, finishing the season fourth in the league in yards (4,434), touchdowns (30) and passer rating (103.2).
Still, Arizona defensive coordinator Bill Davis might already have some valuable insights on how to slow the Packers' offense. He and Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy were the respective coordinators for the 49ers in 2005, and they often consulted each other when vexed about how to attack an opponent or cover up a deficiency. "You do draw on some of those things, in terms of his philosophies about pressure and other tendencies," Davis says. "I kind of know what he's anxious about. But you can overthink those things. At the end of the day it's about getting your guys lined up to play disciplined football."
Arizona's defenders cautioned against overreacting to their performance, and Whisenhunt seemed at the same time annoyed and excited that his team would be questioned based on a game that meant little to it. The skeptics will give the coach another chance to circle the wagons, as the Cardinals did so effectively during last season's Super Bowl run. That team lost four of its final six and was labeled unfit for the playoffs, while this year's team did not lose back-to-back games and had held eight of its previous 11 opponents before Sunday to 21 points or less.
Nevertheless, there is cause for concern in Arizona. The Packers enter the playoffs with more confidence than any team but the Chargers, who've won 11 in a row. Since bottoming out at 4--4 after losses to the Vikings and the winless Buccaneers, Green Bay has won seven of eight—the only defeat coming when the Steelers pulled off a 19-yard TD pass on the final play—and has outscored opponents 246--125. "The loss at Tampa was a reality check for us," says Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins. "After that, everyone became as one, and that's how we've been playing."
McCarthy was so eager to maintain his team's rhythm that he played his regulars deep into the third quarter. He came away unscathed, save for cornerback Charles Woodson, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who aggravated a shoulder injury (but should be ready). Arizona was not as fortunate. Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie sustained a bruised left knee, wide receiver Anquan Boldin injured his left ankle and knee, and defensive end Calais Campbell hurt his left thumb. Their status would be reevaluated during the week; if even one is unable to play, it could be a tremendous advantage for Green Bay, which has made itself comfortable under the Cardinals' dome. In the third week of the preseason the Pack's offensive starters scored 31 points en route to a 38--10 halftime lead, and on Sunday, Green Bay punted just once in its first six possessions and was up 33--0 after three quarters. It has been 11 years since the Packers won a postseason road game, but there was no air of trepidation about having to play in Arizona for the third time this year.
"As a first-team offense we have put together five quarters of pretty darn good ball in this building," Rodgers said. "We have a lot of confidence on this field. We just have to keep it going."
THE PICK: Packers 27, Cardinals 24
The Cards caution against overreacting, but there is cause for concern.
An NFL scout identifies the key to each team's Super Bowl prospects
"Arizona gets in trouble when it gets into track meets and puts too much pressure on Kurt Warner. The Cardinals have enough explosive players on defense to force turnovers, and they'll be in every game late if they win the turnover battle. I like the Cardinals a lot."
"Discipline, discipline, discipline. They've killed themselves with penalties and big-sack games. If they keep Aaron Rodgers clean and keep the penalties to four or five, they can definitely win the Super Bowl. All the other positive indicators are there, and now they've got another pass-rush threat in Clay Matthews."
MARK J. REBILAS/US PRESSWIRE
AIR MARSHAL Rodgers demolished the Cardinals' D on Sunday to complete his best year yet.