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Divisional Round preview: Packers-Cardinals

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The backstory


"There aren't too many times you have an opportunity to go back and have a re-do," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said this week. "We're looking forward to having a re-do."

McCarthy was referencing the worst loss of Aaron Rodgers' career, a 38-8 drubbing in which the star quarterback was sacked eight times in Week 16.

It was the perfect storm, as Arizona's defense is the blitz-heaviest in the league and Green Bay's offensive line was missing several key starters.

Make no mistake, though, it was a comprehensive pummeling. Green Bay's longest run of the first half was a 7-yard scamper by punter Tim Masthay. The Cardinals were up so big, so early that Carson Palmer pointed out "we didn't run much of what we had planned."

Neither team is putting much stock in that lopsided result. Cardinals coach Bruce Arians downplayed the domination as a mere matter of fumbles bouncing his team's way for touchdowns.

"It will be a different team this time around," Arians conceded Monday. "They obviously got a little confidence after the way they played (in the wild-card victory over the Redskins), and they got some healthy offensive linemen back which will make a big difference in the game."

Under pressure


If the Packers are going to have a shot in the rematch, the offensive line must hold its own in pass protection while opening holes for a hit-or-miss ground attack.

In addition to the eight sacks on Rodgers, the Cardinals also dropped backup Scott Tolzien once and lost two more sacks to penalties the last time these teams met. A whopping 26 percent of Arizona's 2015 sacks came in that one game.

The offensive line will be materially different this time around, with right tackle Bryan Bulaga back in the lineup and either David Bakhtiari or converted center JC Tretter solidifying left tackle.

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If Bakhtiari (ankle) is unable to go for a fourth consecutive week, McCarthy feels "a lot better" about Rodgers' blindside after Tretter held his own versus the Redskins in his first start outside.

"JC did a good job," offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett added. "We had the one sack on the safety, certainly the communication could have been better in that situation. But overall, they did a really good job and moving forward we feel we'll continue to do that."

It remains a concern, however, that no team allowed more sacks (33) from Week 9 through the end of the season.

Rodgers' best friend is a strong running game, best exemplified by the second half of last week's victory. Wresting control of the game, Eddie Lacy and James Starks hammered away at Washington's front seven for 124 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the final 30 minutes.

That will be easier said than done against a Calais Campbell-led defensive front.

Ranking sixth against the run, Arizona's defense has allowed just two 100-yard rushers all season. Keep an eye on behemoth end-tackle hybrid Campbell, who demolished Green Bay's offensive front for 2.5 sacks, a pair of holding penalties, three QB hits and three tackles for loss in the previous meeting.

Matchup to watch


Even with Pro Bowl defensive back Tyrann Mathieu out of the lineup with an ACL tear, Patrick Peterson, Jerraud Powers and Justin Bethel smothered Rodgers' wide receivers in Week 16.

Peterson was the NFL's premier lockdown cornerback this season, allowing a league-best 45.6 passer rating in coverage. He's simply too physically gifted for James Jones, who lacks the speed to separate from lesser cornerbacks.

If Peterson succeeds in erasing the Packers' leading receiver, Rodgers will try to pick on special teams ace Bethel, thrust into the starting lineup once Mathieu went down.

Bethel was targeted a league-high 22 times in Weeks 16 and 17. Rodgers threw at him a season-high 14 times, which resulted in seven catches for 75 yards and an interception. For the season, Bethel has allowed a tidy 49.2 completion rate and 70.0 passer rating, per Pro Football Focus.

Rodgers' nine consecutive games without three touchdown passes and 11 consecutive games with a passer rating of at least 100.0 are the longest droughts of his career. Can he exploit that matchup?

Outside receiver Davante Adams, coming off his best game of the season, is considered unlikely to play through an MCL sprain.

That puts even more onus on slot receiver and gadget player Randall Cobb, who hasn't topped 100 yards in 15 games.

Arizona's playmaking secondary has a decisive advantage in this matchup.

Mind-blowing stats


Carson Palmer's 19-3 record (.864) is the NFL's best over the past two seasons. ... Among players with at least five postseason games, Larry Fitzgerald's 105.1 receiving yards per game average is the best in NFL history. ... Rookie David Johnson leads all NFL players in yards from scrimmage (131.6) since taking over for Chris Johnson as the starting tailback in Week 13. ... Arizona's defense has allowed 5.3 yards per play with Tyrann Mathieu in the lineup and 5.2 yards per play without him. ... The Cardinals are 10-0 when rushing for 115+ yards, 11-0 when Palmer has a 100-plus passer rating and 12-0 when scoring at least 23 points. ... At 4-0 all-time, the Cardinals are the only current NFL franchise yet to taste postseason defeat at home. ... Arizona has not lost back-to-back home games in the Bruce Arians era. ... Kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed five extra points this season, the most of any kicker left in the playoffs.

Since 2012, Rodgers has thrown 12 touchdown passes on "free plays" that were flagged for defensive offsides or encroachment. No other quarterback has thrown more than three over that span. ... The 2015 Packers posted their lowest points per game, yards per game, yards per play and third-down percentage of the Rodgers era. ... James Jones has averaged 5.3 catches and 78.2 yards while wearing a "hoodie" this season versus 2.3 catches and 45.6 without. ... The Packers are 11-2 this season when they collect at least two sacks.

Prediction


One of the Divisional Round's biggest mysteries is whether last week's renaissance is merely a one-game mirage for a Packers offense that was backsliding from October through December. Knocking off an underwhelming Redskins outfit that hadn't beaten a quality opponent all season doesn't necessarily mean Green Bay is up to the task of handling a deep, talented and battle-tested Arizona squad with victories over the Bengals, Seahawks, Vikings and Packers themselves in the second half of the season.

This version of the Cardinals won 13 games for the first time in a franchise history that dates back to the NFL's inception in 1920. They are scoring 11.2 more points per game and gaining 88.5 more yards per game than last year's playoff team. They have a dynamic aerial attack, a streaking ground attack, a stingy run defense, a blitzing pass rush and a ballhawking secondary. This is the most impressive Cardinals team any of us has ever seen. They simply don't have the obvious weaknesses for a flawed team like the Packers to exploit.

Arizona Cardinals 31, Green Bay Packers 20

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