The Arizona Cardinals are the NFC West division champs and are having their best season in franchise history – but with two weeks left in the regular season, they’ll have to overcome a key injury in order to secure their first-ever postseason bye.
The 12-2 Cardinals need a win over the visiting 10-4 Packers on Sunday to lock up the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. Can they get the job done? Here are three questions and a prediction.
1. Can the Cards adjust to life post-Badger?
Since it’s been discussed at length since Monday’s news broke, we won’t spend much time here rehashing what the loss of safety Tyrann Mathieu means for the Cards, except to add that the Honey Badger had played more snaps on defense for Arizona this year (over 98 percent) than any other Cards defender. Mathieu will be greatly missed, especially against the Packers, whose top receiver, Randall Cobb, often lines up in the slot position.
That’s why fellow safety Rashad Johnson’s potential return Sunday could be imperative to the Cards’ success. The seventh-year pro is a team leader and has recorded five interceptions on the season, but he missed last weekend’s game with an ankle injury. Cards coach Bruce Arians has hinted Johnson will play Sunday, and there’s no doubt his return would help contain Rodgers and the Packers’ passing game.
2. Can DJ keep on truckin’?
Cardinals rookie running back David Johnson earned FedEx Ground Player of the Week honors for doing something no Cardinal had done since 1968: rush for over 160 yards and three touchdowns against the Eagles. Since taking over the lead RB role from injured veteran Chris Johnson, the third-round pick has rushed for 378 yards (5.4 yards a carry) and three TDs, and he has caught 11 passes for 93 yards and a score.
Sunday presents another enticing matchup for David Johnson, as the Packers rank in the bottom-third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game and per carry. If DJ continues to tear it up on the ground, look for Carson Palmer and the Cards’ passing attack to do just about whatever it wants against the Pack.
3. How much green will we see in the stands?
It’s a fact of life in the Valley: Residents move here from all around the country and bring their sports loyalties with them. We see it at every Cardinals home game, including two weeks ago when thousands of purple-clad Vikings fans infiltrated University of Phoenix Stadium. The visiting fans have gotten so loud that the Cards have actually had to occasionally resort to a silent count in order to run their offense.
On Sunday, expect more away jerseys than usual, as Packers fans – well, they’re everywhere – and Cards tickets are being sold at a premium right now. Will the Green Bay faithful make life difficult for the home team Sunday, or will the Red Sea drown out the Packer supporters?
If not for a Hail Mary pass against the Lions three weeks ago, the Cardinals would have already wrapped up a first-round bye. Instead, they’ll have to get the job done themselves, minus the Honey Badger, on Sunday.
Nonetheless, the Cardinals are at home, and their offense is humming along right now. Expect them to miss Mathieu but do enough on offense and make enough defensive stops to improve upon their franchise-record 12 wins and earn that bye. After the win, Arians would be wise to encase Palmer and the rest of the starters in bubble wrap for the next three weeks.
Cardinals 34, Packers 24