Pieces in place for Packers
Green Bay well-equipped for playoff run; Cardinals have injury concerns
The Packers might be the most intriguing wild card in what should be a wild NFC playoffs. Less than a month ago in a tougher-than-expected victory over the Bears, the Packers showed all the signs of being a problem for teams in the playoffs.
They have it all.
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Aaron Rodgers is emerging as a star quarterback who can now win close games. Ryan Grant has added important consistency to the running game. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers switched to a 3-4 defense that has big defensive linemen to stop the run and can drive opposing quarterbacks crazy with blitzes. Cornerback Charles Woodson heads a secondary that gets turnovers.
The Packers are peaking at the right time.
Obviously, the Packers' 33-7 blowout of Arizona in Week 17 doesn't necessarily foretell what will happen in Sunday's rematch in the desert. The Cardinals played a cautious game, knowing they were likely going to see the Packers again. Arizona QB Kurt Warner went to the bench after only six passes, and there was a clear offensive drop-off when Matt Leinart took over.
The tough part for the Cardinals is the injury situation. Even in trying to rest players, the Cardinals had the worst Week 17 of all the playoff teams as far as injuries are concerned. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin has ankle and knee concerns. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie injured a knee but hopes to be able to play. Defensive end Calais Campbell fractured a thumb. Also, safety Antrel Rolle hasn't shaken a thigh injury from two weeks ago, and guard Deuce Lutui left Wednesday's practice with a sore back.
For two years, the Cardinals have been among the healthiest teams in football, having very few missed starts. But, as you can see from their list of injury concerns, they look a little vulnerable heading into this rematch..
What could end up being fascinating about this game is the chance for the Packers to get a third shot at the Vikings if they win. Brett Favre's two victories over the Packers are the difference between Minnesota being the NFC North champion and Green Bay being a wild card.
Thanks to the emergence of Rodgers and the steady improvement of their defense, the Packers look like a team that could beat the Vikings. Standing in their way, though, are the Cardinals.
Here's a look at this weekend's other three playoff matchups:
1. Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys: Having an 11-win Eagles team as the No. 6 seed should hint that anything can happen in the NFC playoffs. Each team in the NFC has a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback. Each quarterback has the ability to bring his team from behind in the fourth quarter.
What separates the Cowboys from the rest of the pack is pressure. The Cowboys haven't won a playoff game since the mid-1990s, so coach Wade Phillips & Co. are feeling an incredible amount of urgency.
During the final three weeks of the season, though, the Cowboys had the look of a team that can win a playoff game. Tony Romo looks more relaxed and more confident knowing he doesn't have to worry about Terrell Owens complaining and throwing temper tantrums if he's not getting enough passes thrown to him. Though alleged No. 1 wideout Roy Williams continues to struggle to get open, Romo is getting a lot of production from tight end Jason Witten and wide receiver Miles Austin.
Defensively, the Cowboys have been loaded with great talent and playmakers for years. Now Dallas' defense is finally a cohesive and consistent unit.
Even though it's tough for any team to win three consecutive games against a good division rival (Dallas swept Philadelphia during the regular season), the Cowboys have a lot going for them. First, they are at home with 100,000 fans behind them. Second, they are playing their best football in years.
But the Eagles are always dangerous in the playoffs. Andy Reid has a history of being able to win his first playoff game, and the Eagles' young skill players -- WRs Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, and RB LeSean McCoy -- are playing like seasoned veterans. This should be one of the best games of the playoffs.
2. Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots: Welcome to pro football's version of the Alamo. All season, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has done a great job of mustering a dwindling number of troops and winning in his own fort.
Tom Brady and the Patriots' road problems have been well-documented.
They lost six games on the road and have been horrible in the second halves of those road games. At home, though, the Patriots are 8-0. This week they are dealing with the season-ending injury of wide receiver Wes Welker, who blew out two knee ligaments. This was one of the most significant pre-playoff injuries in years.
Welker has been everything to Brady and the offense. He caught a league-high 123 passes. With Welker, Brady is a 68 percent passer with an 8.3 yards-per-attempt average. Without Welker, Brady is a 56.3 percent thrower with a 5.9 yards-per-attempt average.
All season, Brady has been struggling to get more players than just Welker and Randy Moss involved in the passing game. Early in the season, the Patriots tried Joey Galloway, but he never got on the same page with Brady and was eventually cut. Seventh-rounder Julian Edelman showed promise in the preseason, but he's just getting back into shape after missing a good portion of the season because of injuries.
The tight ends haven't been a factor, and, whether he likes to hear it or not, Moss hasn't been consistent in some games for 60 minutes.
The Ravens have their own problems. Other than Derrick Mason, the Ravens' receiving corps has struggled with injuries and getting open all season. Quarterback Joe Flacco patiently waited for teammates to improve, stood tall in the pocket down the stretch and is in the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
Clearly, Brady would have the edge in his matchup against Flacco because he's Tom Brady. But Ben Roethisberger and the Steelers learned that Flacco won't back down and is a dangerous foe.
3. New York Jets at Cincinnati Bengals: Potentially, this could be the closest of the four playoff games, mainly because the two lowest-scoring offenses in the playoffs are matched up against each other.
The Jets average 21.8 points a game, the Bengals 19.1. Even though it's hard to put much stock in the Jets' 37-0 victory over the Bengals Week 17 in the Meadowlands, the thumping has to leave some impression on the Bengals.
The Jets' Rex Ryan tries to coach his team to play with a swagger. Even though the Bengals were playing for nothing because they had clinched the AFC North, they did nothing against the Jets. Even with rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, who completed only eight passes for 63 yards in the game, the Jets enter Paul Brown Stadium with the confidence that they have beaten the Bengals.
Unlike the rest of the playoff pairings, this is a matchup of old-school, running football teams. The Bengals have a topflight quarterback in Carson Palmer. Still, the Bengals' receiving corps is not swift enough for Palmer to thrive in shootout games.
Instead, the Bengals try to pound the football with Cedric Benson. The Jets do the same with Thomas Jones. It's interesting that these two former Chicago Bears get to meet in perhaps the most important game in their careers. Jones, despite his age, shows no sign of slowing down. Benson is finally getting his career readjusted after being cut by the Bears.
For the Bengals, this game means everything. It's been a long climb for Palmer and head coach Marvin Lewis to get this franchise back to the playoffs. In the 2005 season, Palmer was on top of the world. He and the Bengals won the AFC North, but one quarter into a playoff game against the Steelers, Palmer blew out a knee and the Bengals weren't the same for years. He bounced back from the knee injury only to suffer an elbow problem in 2008 that cost him 12 games and almost required Tommy John surgery.
By winning six games in the AFC North this season, the Bengals got back to the playoffs with their most mature team in more than a decade.
For the Jets, getting to the playoffs was a bonus. Few expected that to happen with a rookie quarterback. Ryan caught a break when the Indianapolis Colts pulled their starters in the third quarter two weeks ago and he caught the Bengals in the finale not playing for anything. The Jets should be loose and you know this game will be physical.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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