There was the two-game slide to end the regular season, injuries up and down the offensive line, the surprisingly inaccurate and under duress play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, running back Eddie Lacy’s major regression due to injuries and some questionable conditioning, cornerback Sam Shields’ concussion, and much more that would give anyone reason to doubt the Green Bay Packers before they face the Arizona Cardinals in Saturday’s NFC Divisional Round playoff.
However, due to recent reports from Green Bay’s practice sessions this week, as well as last week’s victorious performance over the Washington Redskins, there are at three very good reasons to believe the Packers and Rodgers can best the seven-point favorite Cardinals.
Here’s three reasons the city of Green Bay may be celebrating in the streets late Saturday night.
Much Improved, Healthier Offensive line
There’s no hiding the fact that Green Bay’s quite banged up, especially in front of Rodgers. However, the offense received huge boost Friday when left tackle David Bakhtiari was listed as probable against the Cardinals.
Returning from an ankle injury he suffered in Week 15, the 24-year-old Bakhtiari should provide stability to a Green Bay line that allowed eight sacks without him against Arizona’s No. 20-ranked pass rush in Week 16’s 38-8 loss. The Packers kept Bakhtiari out of Friday’s practice, but he should return to the rotation with guards T.J. Lang (calf) and Josh Sitton (back) also probable. Bakhtiari started 14 games this season before going down.
According to ESPN, Green Bay tried to shift Sitton, center JC Tretter, and second-string left tackle Don Barclay to Bakhtiari’s spot on the line, but none could play as well and his added protection should give Rodgers enough time to pick apart Arizona’s talent-rich and successful secondary.
Two Words: Aaron Rodgers
Few players have more hunger to win than Rodgers. Even NBA legend Magic Johnson pointed out that he owns the same competitive and leadership skills as Larry Bird. That type of drive will be on full display as Rodgers should be at his best against the same team that gave him fits in a regular-season game.
Expect Rodgers to jump on more opportunities to scramble The veteran has looked a bit more hesitant to run in recent weeks, but this game means too much. Rodgers will give a maximum effort with a trip to the NFC title game on the line.
The Cardinals and quarterback Carson Palmer have posted the kind of offensive numbers that Green Bay’s traditionally put up during Rodgers’ era, and while Arizona’s at home and much healthier, postseason experience, or lack thereof, may play a major role.
Palmer’s been unbelievable this season, posting a career-high 35 touchdown passes and 104.6 passer rating, but he’s yet to prove he can win in the postseason. Palmer was robbed of the opportunity after he tore up his ACL after throwing and completing just one pass for the Bengals back in 2005, and in 2009 he went 18-for-36 for 146 yards and one touchdown to one interception in a 24-14 loss to the Jets.
Palmer’s now making his first playoff start since then, against a much more seasoned Rodgers, who has made the postseason the last seven years and gone 7-5 overall with a 100.3 passer rating.
Better Pass Rush
As well and as top ranked as Arizona’s defense has been all season, a steady pass rush is its one weakness, and it could be exploited against a seemingly healthier Packers offensive and a quarterback of Rodgers’ skills.
The Cardinals were tied for seventh in points allowed (19.6), eighth against the pass (230 ypg), sixth against the run (91.3 ypg), and fifth overall in total defense (321.7 ypg). However, with linebacker Dwight Freeney leading the squad with 8.0 sacks, Arizona only generated 36.0 total sacks and finished No. 20 in the league.
Over on the other sideline, the Packers have sported one of the best pass rushes in the league, racking up 43 sacks and opposing passers have a rating of 80.1 compared to Arizona’s 80.9.
Many will point to Arizona’s offensive line allowing only 27 sacks all year, good for a tie for fourth in the NFL, but Washington’s line surrendered the same amount all season only to give up 6.0 sacks for a loss of 59 yards to Green Bay. Palmer will have a target on his chest this week, and Green Bay’s proven it can get to him and any other quarterback.