Both the Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals control their own destiny in the race for home-field advantage in the NFC postseason bracket. The Cardinals (7-0) remain the only unbeaten team left in the NFL, the maturation of quarterback Kyler Murray fostering one of the league's most potent offensive attacks. Victories over fellow Super Bowl contenders in the Titans, Browns, and Rams made an early statement, Arizona racking up a league-leading plus-111 scoring margin through seven games.
Green Bay, however, poses a different challenge, capable of going punch-for-punch on offense through the play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. After a rocky opening game against New Orleans, the Packers (6-1) have won six straight, their former NFL MVP throwing 15 touchdowns during that stretch while turning the ball over only once.
Expect offensive fireworks in a game that has must-win implications for both teams. A loss by the Packers would put them three games behind the Cardinals, handing them the home-field tiebreaker with nine games left to play. Considering the Rams, Browns and Ravens are still left on the Packers' schedule, that gap would appear too large to make up.
Meanwhile, a loss by the Cardinals knocks them out of the top seed, leaving them just a half-game up on the Rams in their own division. It means the warm-weather team could face the prospect of potentially heading up to Lambeau Field for the NFC Championship Game, one of the coldest and most difficult places to play for road teams once January hits. It's not a place a young team with limited playoff experience would like to be.
So, can Green Bay put itself back in the NFC driver's seat, Rodgers wiping away the last dirty remnants of an ugly offseason standoff? The Cardinals would be a great team to finish that rehab against; he hasn't won against them since 2012 and is 0-2 all-time against Arizona in the playoffs. Who will put more points on the board in one of the biggest games of the year to date?
Thursday Night Football: Green Bay (6-1) at Arizona (7-0)
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 28 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network/Amazon Prime
Spread: Cardinals -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Rodgers vs. Murray
That's the battle everyone is paying to see. The latest BetMGM odds have Murray the odds-on favorite to win NFL MVP this season, eking past Dak Prescott of the Cowboys at +350 while Rodgers sits sixth at +1000.
Both men are largely responsible for making their team a top-tier Super Bowl contender. Murray's greatly improved his accuracy this year, leading the NFL with a 73.5 percent completion rate while slotting inside the top five in virtually every other category: QB rating (second), touchdown passes (T-fourth), and passing yards (fifth).
Murray's maturation has come in getting more people involved in the offense. There's a lot of mouths to feed, from top wideout DeAndre Hopkins to deep threat Christian Kirk and veteran A.J. Green. All three have been kept happy with more than 400 receiving yards, and now tight end Zach Ertz has been thrown into the mix, picked up from the Eagles in a trade. Ertz's debut last week included a career-high 47-yard touchdown catch, fitting right in with the high-flying offense.
As for Rodgers, he slots behind Murray this year in just about metric imaginable, from wins to yards per pass attempt, with one very important exception: taking care of the football. Rodgers has just three picks this year, two of them in that first-week wipeout against the Saints, and he hasn't lost a fumble yet.
Compare that to Murray, who's made a handful more mistakes (five INTs). He also gave up a safety last week against the lowly Houston Texans, got sacked a season-high four times, and endured a number of hard hits to the point he made multiple visits to the medical tent during the game.
Could that provide an opening for the Packers' defense to put more pressure on Murray? Their defense is tied for seventh in the NFL with 18 sacks, collecting 11 of them in the past three games alone. Murray's been difficult to take down, demoralizing defenders with his ability to escape tackles with his legs and throw downfield. Getting him just once, strip-sacking the football might be the difference-maker in a game each team could score on every possession.
Of course, escaping defenders is an art Rodgers has perfected himself over a decade-plus. Just last week, this across-his-body throw to Davante Adams against Washington is the type of MVP-level performance he's known for.
The problem for Rodgers and the Packers' defense, though may not be their on-field performance…
2. COVID-19 rears its ugly head for the Packers. How do they respond?
That's because defensive coordinator Joe Barry and wide receiver Davante Adams were placed on the league's Reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday. Adams was vaccinated, which means he can't be moved there without testing positive, and that puts his status for Thursday in serious doubt. He would need to be symptom-free with two negative tests 24 hours apart in order to be reactivated.
Both are huge losses for the Packers considering the offensive strength of Arizona. But here's a quirky stat for you: Green Bay is actually 6-0 through the last two seasons when Adams doesn't play.
"We're not a better team without him, that's for sure," Rodgers said when asked how the team handles an Adams absence. "We just found a way in each of those games."
Allen Lazard went on the COVID list on Tuesday, so he's likely out as well. Reliable veteran Randall Cobb will likely be called upon to step up. Cobb has been more targeted offensively the past month, catching 10 of his 14 passes the past four games — two of them for touchdowns. Tight end Robert Tonyan also is warming up after a quiet start, catching a season-high four passes for 63 yards and a touchdown last week against Washington.
Rodgers is the master of getting bit players to step into outsized roles when needed. On paper, this roster is outclassed by Arizona, but don't let a piece of paper fool you.
3. Which team runs the football more effectively?
One year after boasting a top-10 rushing offense for the first time since 2013, the Packers have remained committed to lead back Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. A 57-yard rushing performance against Washington last week was an aberration, halting four straight games of 100-plus on the ground.
If there's a weakness both teams have, it's rushing defense. The Cardinals rank 18th overall against the run and allow 4.97 yards per carry (second-worst in the league behind the Chargers). If the Packers are willing to commit just enough, keeping the defense off-balance with Rodgers, Jones has the ability to exploit that. His explosive four-touchdown game against the Lions earlier this year was the first on "Monday Night Football" since Marshall Faulk in 2000.
Arizona's run game, meanwhile, doesn't get focused on enough with the dynamic play of Chase Edmonds and former Pittsburgh Steeler James Conner. And guess who ranks 30th in yards per carry allowed? Green Bay's defense. If Murray is hurting, that dual RB combo will need to carry the load and keep the chains moving on Thursday night.
Difference-Maker Stat: The Cardinals are the only team left in the NFL this season to convert every fourth down they've attempted on offense. They're 5-for-5 through seven games; no other NFL team is better than 77 percent. Arizona's defense also is holding teams to a league-best 25 percent when they try to convert on fourth down.
Arizona was given a hefty six-point spread, respect after covering a 20.5-point mark against Houston the week before. I think that's too large against a veteran Packers team hungry to prove themselves. They know what's at stake in earning home-field advantage, enjoying that week off last year under the NFL's new expanded playoff system. It's also important to note that J.J. Watt has already been ruled out because of a shoulder injury (and it's been reported he could need season-ending surgery) and DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring) also is on the injury report. Watt's loss is significant while a less-than-100 percent Hopkins would balance the scales with an Adam-less Packers team.
Rodgers knows the MVP chatter around Murray and has a chance to knock the young quarterback down a peg. While I'd expect both to have outstanding performances, the 16-year vet has a proven history of pulling these games out in crunch time.
Prediction: Packers 38, Cardinals 35
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.