Thursday January 7th, 2010

Breaking down the NFC wild-card battle, Packers at Cardinals, Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, Fox

1. Arguably, no team circles the wagons better than the Cardinals, save for the Patriots. When outsiders called them unworthy of a playoff berth after they concluded the 2008 regular season with four losses in six games, the Cardinals used it as motivation for the only Super Bowl run in franchise history. Guess what: They're feeling disrespected again.

Arizona was spanked 33-7 by Green Bay last Sunday in a meaningless regular-season finale. The Cardinals learned before the opening kickoff they had no shot at the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, so coach Ken Whisenhunt made good on his plan to sit some starters and pull others early in the first quarter. The Packers, who played their starters through three quarters, made the Cardinals look awful. Green Bay punted only once in its first six possessions and led 33-0 after three quarters.

Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett set the tone for this week's rematch when he predicted outsiders again would pooh-pooh Arizona's postseason chances -- particularly with Green Bay having also beaten the Cardinals in Arizona in the preseason; the Packers' first-team offense has scored 55 points in five quarters in the two meetings. Dockett promised the team would use all doubts as fuel. But can the Cardinals go to the "no respect" card once too often?

"I hope not," Whisenhunt said this week. "Obviously we're going to be faced with that a little bit just because of the way that we lost and Green Bay's success against us. ... Our team responds to that type of thing and, hopefully, it will be that way this week. Certainly we'll talk about it. As a matter of fact, I have some suspicions that some of our players have already had discussions about that."

This will be the first time in three meetings this season that the Cardinals will have game-planned for the Packers offense. They didn't do it in the preseason, and Green Bay's first-team offense lit them up for 31 points en route to a 38-10 halftime lead. They had a game plan last Sunday, but tucked it away after losing out on the No. 2 seed and first-round bye.

Privately, the Cardinals contend Sunday will be different. Defensive standouts Dockett, Adrian Wilson, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Karlos Dansby will play more than one series, fellow starter Antrel Rolle and nickel rusher Bertrand Berry will also suit up, and quarterback Kurt Warner will play more than one quarter.

2. The Packers might be the hottest team in the league, save for the Chargers. Green Bay has won seven of eight since opening the season 4-4. Its only loss on the back end of the schedule was at Pittsburgh, where the Steelers needed a 19-yard touchdown pass on the final play to win. During their hot streak, the Packers have outscored opponents by nearly a 2:1 margin and have recorded six more interceptions and 11 more sacks.

The defensive turnaround has been particularly impressive. The Packers surrendered 30 points or more in four of their first eight games, but have done it only once since -- even with veteran stalwarts Al Harris and Aaron Kampman sustaining season-ending injuries. The improvement can be traced in part to greater accountability by the players and more trust from coordinator Dom Capers.

Capers spent the offseason and training camp installing a new 3-4 scheme that had some veterans excited because it featured elaborate blitzes and more pressure. But when the season kicked off Capers' playcalling was strangely conservative. Cornerback Charles Woodson, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, eventually went to the veteran signal-caller and asked him to go deeper into the playbook. Soon after, the defense took off.

The unit had 13 sacks the first eight games and 24 the last eight. Its interceptions increased from 12 in Games 1-8 to 18 in Games 9-16.

Meanwhile the offense has come together thanks to some stability and consistency on the line. The Packers struggled with injuries and poor play early in the year, which contributed to QB Aaron Rodgers looking like a human tackling bag at times. But the line has jelled over the past month-plus, and the return of big tight end Jermichael Finley from a left knee injury allows them to run the four-receiver sets that make the offense so lethal.

3. Is this the last go-round for Cardinals QB Kurt Warner? Warner has given no indication of late that this is his final season, but he did raise that spectre in November after sitting out a game because of a concussion. Warner is one of the finest and most grounded people you'll meet, and he knows there's more to life than football. He has had a career worthy of the Hall of Fame, so really there's nothing left for him to play for but the love of the game. But if he and his family feel in any way that the risk of injury is no longer worth the reward of a win on Sunday or the pursuit of a fourth (or more) trip to the Super Bowl, it would not be shocking to see the 12-year veteran shut it down.

The Cardinals ranked third in the league in scoring largely because of their sensational passing game. Warner finished 10th in passer rating and touchdown passes and 12th in yards, while wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin each surpassed 1,000 yards receiving. Fitzgerald also tied for the league lead with 13 touchdown catches. How best to slow them? A defensive coordinator who faced the Cardinals this season offered the following scouting report:

"You have to know going in that they're going to get their yards -- not so much in the running game, but in the passing game. They scheme the hell out of you. The one thing you can't do is let Kurt step up in the pocket. You've got to get him to move around. He's very similar to Peyton (Manning) in that you've got to disrupt his timing inside. He likes to throw through the 'B' gaps (between the guards and tackles), so you have to clog those gaps and limit his ability to see through those lanes. Beanie Wells is a good running back, but he's not great. When we played them, we didn't give a damn about the run -- go ahead and run. It all comes back to the passing game. ...

"Kurt is a 10 personnel guy (one back, no tight ends); that's his baby. When things don't go well, he turns to that package. He goes to four receivers and tries to beat you that way. If they don't have Boldin (who sustained injuries to his left knee and ankle Sunday), it'll be big because he's a tough guy and does a lot of the underneath stuff. But Boldin never hurt us, from the standpoint that he's not a vertical threat to us; you can match up against him. If he's in motion, you know he's the primary receiver and will get the ball. But Fitz is the one. You've got to take him out of the game. He's the vertical guy, and you have to make sure you're on top of him as much as you can be. If they run eight explosive plays and he catches two of them, that's pretty good odds. That's 14 points. So you have to control him.

"But the key is Kurt. You gotta get him to move around. He likes to spread you out and see where the pressure is coming from, that way he can audible and change plays. You have to give him different looks. You can't play Tampa 2 against him; he'll kill you. You can't play zone; he'll pick you apart. You've got to grind them down and match up. Put your best guy on Fitz and match up.

"The thing that hurts Arizona is their OL is not that good, they're not talented. Russ Grimm has got them working pretty good together, but they're very basic in terms of their protections. Can you beat 'em? Yeah. But the ball's coming out because Kurt is smart and has seen everything. You've got to pressure him and do line stunts to keep him from throwing through those windows. Bottom line: Stop Fitz, make Kurt scramble and make them kick field goals in the red zone and you'll win. They're going to move the ball, but make them kick field goals."

To beat the surging Packers, an opponent will have to be at full strength. Arizona's Boldin and Campbell sustained injuries last week and could be hampered, therefore I'm going with Green Bay in a close one. Packers 27, Cardinals 24.

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