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NFC Divisional Round Preview and Prediction: Green Bay Packers vs. Arizona Cardinals

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When the Packers last made a trip to the desert, they might as well have been set upon by snakes and scorpions for all the fun they had. Arizona throttled Green Bay, 38-8 in Week 16, leaving the visitors confused about their future and wondering whether the 2015 season would be one of ultimate disappointment.

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Expect things to be different Saturday when Green Bay returns to the Phoenix area. Not that a victory for the Pack is guaranteed; not by any stretch. But it’s highly unlikely the Cardinals will get a quick jump and roll to another easy win.

The Packers’ victory in Washington provided much-needed momentum after a pair of disappointing losses to Arizona and Minnesota that ended the regular season. While Green Bay enters the game on a high, it must face an Arizona team that has been able to rest and prepare for two weeks, the bounty from earning a first-round bye.

NFC Divisional Round: Green Bay at Arizona

Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. ET (Saturday)

TV: NBC

Spread: Arizona -7

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Three Things to Watch

1. Back in the Saddle
The Packers weren’t overwhelming on offense in last week’s 35-18 triumph over Washington, but Green Bay certainly looked better than it had in a while. After a scoreless first quarter, the Pack cranked it up from there, finishing drives with touchdowns and getting balanced production from the passing and running attacks. Aaron Rodgers was 21-of-36 for 210 yards, two touchdowns and no picks, while Eddie Lacy and James Starks combined to rush for 116 yards and average 4.8 yards per carry. While the consistent production was important, so was the emergence — for one game anyway — of wide receiver Davante Adams, who had a couple of big catches, including a touchdown. The Packer attack wasn’t rollicking as it had been in years past, but it certainly had more life.

2. Cranking It Back Up

When we last saw the Cardinals, Seattle was slapping them around in the regular season finale, 36-6. Perhaps Arizona was coasting, since it had already clinched a first-round bye and couldn’t get the top spot in the playoff hierarchy. But after being so productive for so long, the Cards looked a little flat. Sometimes, a bye isn’t the best remedy for a poor performance, but at this time of year, it’s hard to argue with a team getting some time off to heal and rest. Now, it’s up to QB Carson Palmer and coach Bruce Arians to get things rolling again. A major player will be rookie running back David Johnson, who has emerged as a force following injuries to those ahead of him on the depth chart. Johnson rushed for 187 yards against Philadelphia in mid-December and has provided good balance to the potent Cardinal passing attack. “He’s played well. Hopefully, he continues to,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “The kid is humble. The kid works his butt off and he’s smart, so he’s got a bright future ahead. Hopefully, he can protect the ball like he’s been doing and we should be alright.”

3. Line Up

When the Cards and Packers played earlier, the Arizona pass rush was way too much for the beleaguered Green Bay line to handle. Cardinal defenders sacked Rodgers eight times and finished the game with a total of nine. The good news for Green Bay is that Rodgers was dumped only once last week, and the injuries that led to the trouble earlier in Glendale look to be gone, or at least minimized. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga is ready to go, and left tackle David Bakhtiari practiced Wednesday and appears as if he will be out there. Their presence will allow Green Bay to keep Rodgers cleaner and the game closer.

Final Analysis

The Cardinals used steady excellence to earn this home game and the bye last week, and they enter the game confident and rested. Those are two big factors against a Green Bay team that recovered its mojo, for one week at least, against Washington. There is no doubt Arizona has the weapons necessary to pile up some points against Green Bay, provided the Cardinals can get rolling again quickly.

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The Packers, meanwhile, are pleased to have rebounded from two straight losses with a good performance against Washington. The question for Green Bay is whether it fattened up against a weaker opponent from a lousy division, or if it has turned the season around and is ready to make an improbable run to Super Bowl 50 from the wild-card spot. That would be a nice story, but the Packers have too many question marks to overcome a strong Arizona team that is playing at home.

Prediction: Cardinals 31, Packers 24

— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.