PACKERS AT CARDINALS JAN. 16, 8:15 P.M. ET
THE CASE FOR
TALENT, PHYSICALITY, aggression, daring play-calling—they're all qualities you look for in a Super Bowl contender, and no one can match Arizona's mix of the above. Carson Palmer is the best pure passer in the postseason. He has cut his mistakes as he has aged, and he executes coach Bruce Arians's deep-passing game as if he were born into it. Even in the absence of a dynamic tight end (one of the Cardinals' few weaknesses, along with some leakiness on the right side of the O-line), Palmer has an array of lethal weapons, and he cycles through them all depending on matchup and scheme. Speedy John Brown will take the top off any defense and pop a big play; suction-cup slot receiver Larry Fitzgerald still poses a problem for defenses at age 32; and 6'3" Michael Floyd is a red zone problem for secondaries. Running back David Johnson, a third-round rookie, emerged in the second half of the season as a high-impact three-down player, and he'll give Arizona the option of grinding out wins on the ground. Defensively, coordinator James Bettcher will certainly miss Swiss Army knife Tyrann Mathieu (right ACL) as a playmaker, but the Cardinals still have monster defensive end Calais Campbell, hard-hitting DB/LB Deone Bucannon and shutdown corner Patrick Peterson to backbone an aggressive scheme. Bettcher loves to blitz, which could become a problem against Aaron Rodgers, who usually picks pressure apart. But between the daring duo of Arians and Bettcher, if the Cardinals go down, they will do so swinging. That's hard to imagine for such a battle-tested team.
SUPER BOWL MVP ...
Carson Palmer. In the end he'd likely be facing off against Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger or the Broncos' top-ranked pass defense. Outplaying any of them would be trophy-worthy.
SORRY, CHEESEHEADS, it's just not happening this season. Surely you feel bolstered by a 35--18 victory over the (9--7) Redskins; surely you have visions of Aaron Rodgers continuing his (one-week) rise from the dead, slaying Carson Palmer and, probably, Cam Newton on the way to Santa Clara. But don't let a victory over the champs of the NFC Least (the Skins didn't beat a team that finished with a winning record, and they were operating with a patchwork secondary) give you false hope. These Packers are simply not talented enough, especially on offense, to emerge from a stacked NFC, even if Rodgers continues to carry this team on his back. Huddling down-to-down, Rodgers lacks the type of game-breakers who can win contests with chunk plays—that fact was on full display in an embarrassing 38--8 loss in Arizona three weeks ago. As we saw in Washington, Rodgers will have to steal some plays, using an up-tempo offense to keep defenses from getting into their game-planned schemes. (That would also help keep a leaky O-line from getting penetrated.) Defensively, the Packers will need top cornerback Sam Shields to return, and in form, following a Week 14 concussion; and collectively they'll need to tackle much better than their norm. Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers need to take over for long stretches and get into the head of any QB they face, pretty much all of whom are elite. The Super Bowl? It's not impossible—but it's far from probable. You are what your record says you are, and here that's a slightly above-average team that went 4--6 after its bye.
SUPER BOWL MVP ...
Aaron Rodgers. If a team with this lack of talent on O goes the distance, it will be because A-Rod went on a legendary run.
GREG A. BEDARD RANKS 'EM:
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SIMON BRUTY FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RODGERS)
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