Warner Valedictorian in Cardinals OT Win Over Packers
It’s that time again, folks. The time where we dissect the Cardinals latest performance, and issue grades based on...well, my opinion.
The Cardinals played the Green Bay Packers much like they’ve played other teams this season. They built a solid lead, then imploded in the secondary and allowed the opposition back into a game they had no business getting back into.
But as with everything else playoff-related, it’s magnified tenfold. Maybe one hundred-fold. The Packers are a very good football team, and were on a hot streak that had many choosing them as a legit Super Bowl contender. This isn’t the same as say, allowing the Houston Texans back in a game after a 17-point lead, or (gasp) the Detroit Lions. The Packers are a very talent rich bunch with a stud young QB, and an inferno-hot team of late.
Thus, the difference between those regular season collapses/near disappointments. This time, it made for one of the most exciting games I've seen in...well, forever. And in the end, led by their field general Kurt Warner, the Cardinals passed with flying colors.
Cardinals Offense - Passing: A+
The best possible quarterback rating, the "perfect" rating, is 158.3 points. Kurt Warner’s quarterback rating last night was an astounding 153.8 points. Warner, missing his second-most powerful weapon when WR Anquan Boldin was scratched an hour and a half before kickoff, made the best of/brought out the best in WR’s Steve Breaston and Early Doucet.
Warner connected on 29 of his 33 passes. Five of those were for touchdowns. He didn’t throw a single pick. Warner cracked the top five in all-time playoff touchdown passes thrown in NFL history, resting at forth place (for now) with 31. His pinpoint accuracy was truly an impressive thing to watch.
Breaston and Doucet epitomized the phrase "step up" in Boldin’s absence, making some fine catches and turning them and others into big plays. Larry Fitzgerald was his typically fabulous self. He and Doucet each grabbed two TD passes, and Breaston had one.
Doucet, a third round pick who has patiently rode pine while learning from two of the NFL’s best in Fitzgerald and Boldin, had far and away the most memorable night of his fairly short career. One of his TD receptions was a beautiful tackle-breaking romp, Al'-La Boldin, to pay dirt.
Fitzgerald made an incredible diving, one-handed catch on a ball that Warner lobbed while under pressure to the very back of the end zone. Breaston caught Warner's fifth and final TD after Green Bay tied the game at 45, on a leaping grab that, too, was beautiful to watch.
Breaston led the receivers with seven catches for 125 yards in Boldin's absence. Fitz hauled in six, for 82 yards, and Doucet added another six grabs for 77 yards.
The O-Line was solid, keeping Warner’s uniform basically clean, and allowing him to shred the vaunted Packers D to the tune of 379 yards. Jeremy Bridges played his best game since the Vikings game and Levi Brown’s name wasn’t called for ill-timed, drive-killing penalties. Good things will happen if the line plays this way in New Orleans, and beyond.
Cardinals Offense - Rushing: A-
The Packers came into the game as the No. 2 run defense in the NFL. But apparently no one told the Cards' RB tandem Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower.
Wells took the majority of the handoffs, and shined. He averaged over 6.5 yards average on his 14 carries. He peeled off his career-long with a 42-yard burst up the far sideline. He didn’t score, but his presence was felt as he picked up yardage in chunks. It forced safety help, leaving the middle open consistently for Warner to find open receivers. Beanie also set the tone by picking up 14 yards on a 3rd and 8 following Aaron Rodger's first pass, which was picked by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the opening minute.
Hightower looked strong too. He didn’t pile up yards (7/19), but between his runs and catches from the backfield, he broke enough to keep the GB defense honest. He may be over-shadowed by the phenom-in-the-making Wells, but his presence reminds me of the immortal words of one James David “Buddy" Ryan, in referring to Hall of Fame WR Cris Carter, “All he does is score touchdowns." Hightower has 20 touchdowns in his first two seasons (incl. playoffs), including one in the first quarter to open this see-saw score-fest.
The Big Red had an extremely nice and valuable 156 yards on the day.
Cardinals Defense - Rushing: A-
The Cardinals did a fine job overall in containing Packers RB Ryan Grant. Grant has been somewhat of a stud of late, and while he managed 65 yards, none were game breakers. His longest dash was for 20 yards, and he was kept out of the end zone all day.
As a team, Green Bay only managed 91 yards on the ground. Rodgers picked up 13, including a one-yard touchdown plunge to open the Packers scoring early in the 2nd quarter. Other than that, the run D was terrific.
Safety Antrel Rolle was all over the field. Interior linemen Gabe Watson and Alan Branch stuffed the middle quite well, and Darnell Dockett, while not the beast he was in the Super Bowl, contained the edge and generally created havoc. LB Gerald Hayes had a good game as well in the run D.
Cardinals Defense - Passing: D+
The Cardinals played a terrific, sound, team defense in the first quarter. No selfish plays. Staying in their lanes and sticking to their responsibilities. Overall the best defensive quarter, passing-wise, than they’ve played all year.
This play produced the two early turnovers that resulted in 14 points. First, DRC picked off Rodgers first playoff pass attempt. The next series, a LB Karlos Dansby strip-forced a fumble on a short pass to Donald Driver. Its was awesome to watch for those of us that absolutely love a good, solid, aggressive defense at work.
But then it seemed to me that guys were"trying to make plays" thereafter. They were "trying" to get turnovers, instead of letting them happen with the play. I was getting more and more upset (as anyone on the Cardinals/Packers live chat here on Blog Blitz can attest) as I watched defender after defender try to cut off a pass, only to let it get past them, and into the hands of a Packers receiver with all kinds of real estate before them.
Now, give credit where credit is due, and it’s certainly due here. Aaron Rodgers, as fans of the Pac-10 can tell you, is the real deal. His surprising first round pick when Brett Favre wasn’t even threatening to retire yet is paying off. Big time.
The former Cal Golden Bear is mobile, accurate, and has a strong arm. He picks up hot reads very well, and hit them almost at will in the 2nd half. Part of this was due to the...not sloppy, but suddenly undisciplined play of the Cards' secondary. But a big part too was Aaron Rodgers, TE Jermichael Finley (6 rec/159 yds), WR’s Greg Jennings (7/130/1 TD), James Jones 3/30/1) and Driver (4/43). This is a great offense with quality at every position.
The Cardinals D did manage to harass Rodgers more than anyone else this season. Green Bay’s OL has been downright studly during their 7-1 second half. Yet the Cardinals took him down for five sacks on the day, including two by OLB Bertrand Berry, possibly the most underrated Cards defender this year. LOLB Chike Okeafor had a sack, as well as Calais DE Campbell.
But none were bigger than that of CB Michael Adams. Adams was picked on all day, and was basically having a really crappy game. That is, until he streaked in from the left side and hit Rodgers as he was loading up to throw. The ball came out, was kicked into the air by a falling Rodgers, and into the awaiting mitts of Dansby. He took it 17 yards for the game winner in overtime.
Special Teams and Coaching - C
Coach Whisenhunt had the guys ready to play from the get-go. The team came out ready, focused, and prepared. The first quarter, in which the Cards built a 17-0 lead on the backs of those two early turnovers, gave credence of Whiz’s way of preparing, as opposed to Packers coach Mike McCarty.
Questions were raised all week (including here) as to the smarts of styles in how the season-ending 33-7 loss played out. It’s quite clear that Whisenhunt’s "rest guys/don't show your cards" style beat the living dog snot out of McCarty’s "momentum" style in the finale.
But McCarty drew up a fantastic, perfectly timed ST play that really changed the game in the third quarter. It set the tone for the amazing comeback and fantastic finish. And the Cardinals' Special Teams unit had no clue.
The Cardinals got the ball and increased their 14 point halftime lead to 21 on a nice pass/catch/run from Warner to a wide open Fitzgerald, putting the faithful in a full-on frenzy. Things were looking good in Cardinal-land. The fans were still in high spirits following a Packers TD that narrowed the gap to 31-17 midway through the third quarter. But then Packers kicker Mason Crosby dropped a perfectly pooched onside kick that was caught on a fly by a wide open CB Brandon Underwood. Three minutes later, the 21 point lead was down to a mere seven.
In a complete Deja vu-all-over-again moment, Cards kicker Neil Rackers gave the faithful the unpleasant memory of the Cards/Bears game several years back.
The Cards had a chance to win it with about a dozen ticks on the clock in regulation. Warner and company moved the ball into chip-shot FG position after Green Bay tied it with 1:53 left, but Rackers came out and let the air out of the building by pulling the "gimme" 26-yard FG to the left, forcing OT.
Ok, so the Cards pass defense allowed the Packers back into an otherwise blowout game by what I felt was undisciplined, selfish play. It wasn’t the kind of selfish play that creates problem within the locker room. It was the kind where guys are amped up, and lose the focus that actually produced the early turnovers.
And again, the Packers aren’t the Lions or the Texans. This is a great team with all kinds of offensive weapons. But the Cardinals are a better team, and showed the resolve to play hard and take the victory even after allowing a full-fledged comeback from a 21-point lead.
This was an exhausting game to watch, and you can only imagine how this roller coaster affair left 53 guys (plus coaching staffs) on both sidelines completely spent. In the end, the fans were justifiably delirious.
Justifiably, I say, since they had just witnessed NFL records for points (96), first downs (62), touchdowns (13). Other assorted nuggets fall by the wayside in what many are already claiming to be the best Wild card Playoff game in history.
---SCOTT Z BRADY Feel Free to Follow Me on TWITTER @cardsblogblitz for updates and potential Saints based trash talk. And GBR!!!