The red-hot Cardinals play host to the Packers in a game full of NFC playoff implications
A win for the Arizona Cardinals (12-2) this afternoon would clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. Ironically, Green Bay is the only team that can mathematically swap places with Arizona, giving this matchup added significance. A victory over the Packers also would give Bruce Arians' Cardinals the narrowest of chances at a No.1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The undefeated Carolina Panthers would have to drop their last two games, while the Cardinals would have to win this week and beat the Seahawks next week for that to happen. A highly unlikely scenario, but one that should provide the Cardinals with added incentive to take care of business at home against the Packers.
The Green Packers (10-4) have much more at stake heading into Week 16. In addition to an outside chance of stealing the No. 2 seed from Arizona, the Packers still have a division title hanging in the balance. A win over Arizona and a loss or tie by Minnesota Sunday night would clinch the NFC North for the Packers, but a loss and a Vikings victory would set up a Week 17 showdown against the Vikings for all the marbles in the NFC North. Mike McCarthy's Packers have had to scrape and claw their way to victory on a weekly basis, so nothing is guaranteed, especially against a red-hot Cardinals team on the road.
Green Bay at Arizona
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Arizona - 4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. David Johnson
Johnson had already shown flashes as a complementary back, but since taking over as the feature back in Week 13, the rookie has quickly emerged as a potential star in the making. The third-round pick out of Northern Iowa is a do-it-all running back that can play all three downs, a rare thing for a rookie in the NFL. Johnson not only excels as a runner, he is an exceptional pass catcher out of the backfield as well. From goal-line situations to explosive big-play potential, Johnson is the complete package, which is scary when you consider that the Cardinals already had the top-ranked offense in the NFL prior to Johnson’s emergence.
In three starts, Johnson has accumulated 472 total yards from scrimmage while adding four touchdowns. He absolutely destroyed the Eagles last week, and this afternoon’s matchup against the Packers’ 22nd-ranked run defense appears to be promising as well. Johnson is definitely a player to watch, and he should have a significant impact in this matchup.
2. Can the Packers’ Offense Keep Pace?
It is no secret that the Packers have struggled to find their way on offense this season. The loss of Jordy Nelson has proven to be far more significant than anyone could have ever imagined. An inconsistent rushing attack, led by Eddie Lacy and James Starks, has not provided much relief for Aaron Rodgers and a less-than-spectacular Packers’ passing game this season either. Rodgers will require much more from his offense this week against a stout Cardinals team on the road. It will be a tall order for the Green Bay offense to keep pace with Arizona’s high-octane offense. A solid Cardinal defense that ranks seventh in the NFL will not make that task any easier.
The good news is that the Cardinals' pass defense can be forgiving at times, and Rodgers has a knack for sniffing out weaknesses. It also bodes well for the Green Bay offense that Arizona will be without do-it-all safety Tyrann Mathieu this week. That being said, putting up points has been a struggle for the Packer offense at times all season, and this unit will need to have its best game of the season to have any chance of outscoring the Cardinals.
3. Green Bay’s Defense vs. Arizona’s Offense
The 16th-ranked Packer defense is not widely considered amongst the NFL’s elite. However, Green Bay’s “bend don’t break” style of has afforded them a top-five ranking in the most important defensive category, points allowed. The Packers are giving up just 18.9 points per game on the season. They have held their opponents under 20 points in nine of 14 games. A solid pass rush has accounted for 38 sacks, and a ball-hawking secondary has 14 interceptions, both of which rank top 10 in the league.
While Green Bay has done an outstanding job of keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone all season, the Packers will certainly have their hands full in that regard against Arizona. The Cardinals average close to 32 points per game on the season, rank at or near the top of the NFL in practically every offensive category, and they have not committed a single turnover in their last four contests. It is fair to say that the Cardinals’ offense is currently hitting on all cylinders. Last week’s 40-17 drumming of the Eagles on the road provides further proof.
Carson Palmer and a solid cast of big-play wide receivers have combined to form one of the more dominant passing attacks in the NFL, averaging an NFL best 8.7 yards per pass play. A fresh-legged David Johnson provides the perfect home-run complement out of the backfield. The Cardinals also boast one of the better defenses in the league. Arizona may just be the most complete team in the NFL right now, and Bruce Arians’ squad seems to be hitting its stride at the perfect time.
The Packers have not had their typical season, especially on offense where we are accustomed to seeing dominant performances on a weekly basis. Regardless, you have to give the Packers credit where credit is due. It is not always pretty, but in spite of its shortcomings, Green Bay finds ways to win.
In order for Green Bay to beat Arizona, Aaron Rodgers will need to play his best game of the season, the Packers’ inconsistent rushing attack will need to be at the top of its game, and Green Bay’s defense will have to find a way to keep the NFL’s best offense out of the end zone. That is a lot to ask, and Week 16 may just provide a challenge that is too tough for the scrappy Packers to overcome on the road.
Prediction: Cardinals 27, Packers 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.