Behold the glory of Reincarnation Weekend!
With three of this weekend’s four wild-card games being repeats of week 17’s action, games played only one week ago rise again in the spotlight of the NFL playoffs.
The stakes are higher and the matchups more intriguing.
The vanilla play-calling of teams hiding their potential will be swept aside as they showcase their full arsenal of players and array of strategic gadgetry.
However, the dubbing of wild-card weekend as Reincarnation Weekend is not only because of rematches.
What is reincarnation if not a storied past leading up to a new present?
NFL organizations have an ever-unfolding biography, 32 complicated pasts, and the 2010 playoffs is their new beginning.
This four-part series on Reincarnation Weekend will look at the matchups and storylines surrounding each of the games to air this weekend.
The Back Story
Arizona is the modern model for organizational reincarnation.
In 1998, the Arizona Cardinals, still part of the NFC East, squeaked into the playoffs earning a wild-card spot with their 9-7 record. It was their first playoff appearance in 11 years.
Ten years later the Cardinals would earn only their second playoff appearance since their move to Arizona in 1988. Of course the Cardinals would turn their 2008 playoff spot into a Super Bowl appearance.
Fans will not have to wait a decade for another shot at winning it all. Arizona has made the playoffs for back-to-back seasons for only the third time in franchise history and the first time since ’74-’75.
Buried in the cellar of NFL teams for years, the hapless Cardinals have proven they weren’t a fluke and the Cinderella team of a year ago seeks to further assert itself. Even with a Super Bowl appearance under their belt this team has something to prove.
The weakness of the NFC West still has many doubting the Cardinal’s validity as a contender. Several key players have helped this team find itself reborn as a potential force though.
Green Bay has arguably the most respectable football pedigree as winners of the first two Super Bowls in 1966 and ’67.
Still, it wouldn’t be until 1996 that the Packers would again be champions.
Their quarterback: Brett Favre.
1992-2007 has been loosely named the Brett Favre era in Green Bay.
With the end of one era is the potential birth of another.
Favre did not pass the baton to current Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but rather, clung to it in the form of a twice-announced retirement and franchise-loyalty-betraying signing with a new team.
Yet, in the shadow of a one-time local hero, Rodgers has emerged as a premiere passer.
Rodgers is not entirely new though. Drafted by the Packers in 2005 this was Rodgers’ second full season as a starter. However, entirely new to the Packers is the 3-4 defense.
With a talented offense, the defense proved the bane of the Packer’s existence last year. A problem not even Favre could have helped. However, the Packers have allowed the second fewest yards per game in the NFL this season.
A talented tandem at wide receiver in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald was the catalyst for the Cardinal’s turnaround. Any defensive game-plan revolves around limiting the production of these two.
Boldin is fighting an injury though and is currently questionable.
The matchup with Pro Bowl and former Heisman Trophy winning defensive back Charles Woodson has been highlighted as a key matchup. It is unrealistic to believe Woodson can shut down both receivers, much less one, but he simply has to limit production to win this battle.
Spending two first-round draft picks on defensive players the Packers gave their new defense a shot of youth to the arm.
Defensive tackle B.J. Raji of Boston College and outside linebacker Clay Matthews of USC have played a large role in the defensive turnaround.
Also look for the Packers to utilize a cornucopia of blitzes that capitalize on the athleticism of their linebacker corps. Arizona running back Tim Hightower may well struggle against blitzing linebackers like Matthews who tallied 10 sacks in his rookie campaign.
Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner thrives on a timing-based pass attack. If Green Bay can disrupt this timing with consistent pressure they may not have to sustain coverage of all of Arizona’s weapons.
It is unlikely the Cardinals will have much success running against the Packers.
Splitting carries between Tim Hightower and rookie Beanie Wells, the Cardinal backs find holes as defenses loosen to cover the pass attack. If Green Bay can cover multiple receiver sets with their base defense the run game can be held in check.
If Fitzgerald is held under 100 yards receiving it’s difficult to see Arizona having much of a chance unless they utilize their depth at wide receiver.
Can the Packer linebackers keep up with players like Arizona’s number three receiver Steve Breaston?
One sleeper to watch is Cardinal receiver Early Doucet.
Doucet didn’t play until week nine due to injury, but has been more productive than Jerheme Urban, who is currently listed ahead of Doucet on the depth chart, down the stretch.
Offensively, the Packers are very deep in pass-catchers as well. The pass-first offense is supported nicely by back-to-back 1,000 yard rusher Ryan Grant.
The Packers will make sure to run to keep pressure off of Rodgers who has a reputation for holding onto the ball too long. Taking 50 sacks this year the Cardinals will run blitzes around their star defensive tackle and last year’s playoff standout Darnell Dockett to rattle Rodgers.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a highly athletic cornerback in his second season with the Cardinals.
Rodgers-Cromartie can blanket any receiver with his athletic skills, but look for the veteran savvy of Green Bay’s wide receiver Donald Driver to win a few battles.
Rodgers-Cromartie is also questionable as he is grappling with an injury. Playing corner in the NFL requires every bit of fluidity in movement and a full range of motion.
Even if he plays, Rodgers-Cromartie may not look entirely himself.
The Cardinals face an up-hill battle and may need another Cinderella-type story to advance past wild-card weekend as the Packers, winning six of their last seven is arguably the ultimate dark horse team.