Well, that was interesting. The 2015-2016 wild-card round marked the first time in postseason history that all four road teams won, but the divisional round could bring order to the proceedings as the no.1 and no. 2 seeds enter the octagon. Certainly in the NFC, there's no question that the top two seeds are also the two best teams, and the challengers coming in will have to do more than they did on wild-card weekend to keep their improbable runs alive.
No. 5 Green Bay at No. 2 Arizona
Fresh off their surprise win over the Redskins in the wild-card frame, the inspired Packers simply hope for any kind of different result than the one they saw when they traveled to meet the Cards on Dec. 27. It was the apex of Bruce Arians' creative passing attack for Arizona, and the absolute nadir for a Green Bay passing game that has struggled to find its footing all season. Since the game happened so recently, it's hard not to say that the past is prologue in this case. The Cards absolutely demolished Green Bay, 38-8, Aaron Rodgers was sacked eight times, and two of his fumbles were returned for touchdowns. Rodgers managed just 151 passing yards, both of Green Bay's offensive tackles were hurt, and defensive coordinator James Bettcher took full advantage.
On the other side of the ball, Carson Palmer was his most efficient self, completing 18 of 27 passes for 265 yards and a touchdown. There wasn't much need to throw the ball around, so this game became far more about the defense. Dwight Freeney absolutely terrorized the outside edges of Green Bay's pass protection with three sacks, and Calais Campbell mowed down the inside blockers with 2.5 quarterback takedowns of his own. That Arizona was able to do this without super-DB Tyrann Mathieu on the field (Mathieu had suffered a torn ACL in the prior game) speaks even more loudly and fluently to the extent of the domination.
"This was a playoff-style game and we played terrible," Rodgers said, "but we have won a lot of games here. When you play long enough you are going to be on the wrong side at times, but I am confident that we have guys and myself that, when it matters for all the marbles, guys will show up."
Step one for the Packers will be to ensure that Rodgers doesn't lose all his marbles to Arizona's pass rush. Step two will be to continue to find ways to scheme Rodgers' receivers open—as has been said for a good long time, head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements have failed fairly miserably in that regard. McCarthy has taken the playcalling back from Clements, he's said rather pointedly that his players simply need to play better, but he hasn't yet installed the kinds of crossing routes and easy first reads that would help Rodgers and his receivers when they need it the most. Challenging Washington's limited secondary is one thing, but if the Packers think they can run a bunch of iso routes and get away with it against Arizona's defense, they'll have a quick loss on Saturday, and a lonely flight home to wonder what might have been.
The Cardinals have the more talented and robust offense to be sure, and that starts with Arians' play-calling. Arians loves to engineer the deep ball into his offense by any means necessary, but he also wants a strong run game, and he's fairly fanatical about creating easy openings for Palmer as Palmer needs them. The result is an offense that is nearly impossible to stop when everything is firing correctly, especially with the ascent of rookie running back David Johnson as a power/speed player with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Larry Fitzgerald excels outside and in the slot, John Brown is a fast nightmare for deep safeties, and Michael Floyd—who torched the Packers for six catches and 111 yards—presents his own set of challenges. It's a rough go for any defense.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s not just everybody run a go [route],” Palmer told me in November. "There’s always player control and something underneath the route for every coverage possible. So it’s not just hey, 'let’s just take a big, long seven-step drop and everybody run a go.' There’s always ways to check the ball down and get the ball out of your hands quick, and make a defense turn and recover to the ball.”
It's a prescription for success the Packers used to have, and it's Arizona's first language now. That will make this challenge just as tough this week as it was in December for the Pack.
No. 6 Seattle at No. 1 Carolina
Like the Packers-Cardinals game, this is a regular-season rematch, though with a far less decisive result. The last time these two teams met, it was Oct. 18, and Carolina took the game 27-23 at Seattle's CenturyLink Field with a 26-yard Cam Newton to Greg Olsen touchdown pass with 32 seconds left in the game. That touchdown was the result of an unusual miscommunication in Seattle's secondary—as I wrote then, half the defense was playing Cover-2, and the other half was in Cover-3, and the loss took Seattle down to 2-4 on the season. Carolina moved to 5-0 on the season, and it was the Panthers' first bit of clawing for respect in a season that would ultimately see them go 15-1 and grab the title of the Best Damned Team in Football.
Fast-forward to now, and neither of these offenses look as they did then, because Cam Newton and Russell Wilson have each gone completely off the hook in a very good way after slow starts to the season. From Week 9 through the end of the regular season, Newton and Wilson have been the two hottest quarterbacks in the league. In that time, Newton completed 179 of 280 passes (63.9%) for 2,314 yards (8.26 yards per attempt), 24 touchdowns, two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 115.4. Wilson has been even better—in fact, it's hard to argue that any quarterback's been better over the last half of the 2015 season, the frozen wild-card debacle in Minnesota aside. Wilson has completed 249 of 289 passes (67.5%) for 2,151 yards (8.64 YPA), 24 touchdowns and two picks. When you factor in the running threats presented by both players, Newton and Wilson have set themselves apart as pure quarterbacks and overall offensive weapons.
These teams are operating differently than they were in October, but in truth, they're built in a very similar fashion. Both the Seahawks and Panthers aspire to create big plays in the passing game, but they're based in a run-heavy offense with the extra specter of the option attack. Both defenses play heavy zone, with a stifling pass rush, preternaturally aware linebackers, and secondaries that present first-tier problems for opposing quarterbacks. Both teams may be operating without their primary rushers—Marshawn Lynch begged out of the Minnesota game with an abdominal issue, and hasn't been in a game since November 15. Carolina's Jonathan Stewart has been out since Week 14 with a foot injury, and Newton, rookie Cameron Artis-Payne and fullback Mike Tolbert have taken turns leading the team in rushing per game since. The Seahawks have gotten by with Christine Michael, Bryce Brown and Fred Jackson, but both teams will hope their guys can return in time for what should be a real slobbberknocker.
On defense ,the Seahawks have a slight advantage along the defensive line and in the secondary, though Panthers tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Josh Norman will come into this game as the most effective at their positions. You could call the linebacker matchup a push; both the Panthers (Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis) and Seahawks (Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright) have among the best 4-3 tandems in the NFL. The Seahawks have the edge at receiver, the Panthers have it at tight end, and both offensive lines have proven to be vulnerable at times. It's a matchup between an 11-6 team in Seattle and a 15-1 squad in Carolina, but you can scrap the game story from October. These teams have even been similar in the ways they've changed, and how their quarterbacks now lead the way.