The exhibitions are over. The excuses are over.
On Sunday at 1:40pm PST, the Arizona Cardinals host the Green Bay Packers, and this one is for real. The winner travels to New Orleans or Minnesota and takes on a "favourite" who is struggling, with a good chance to advance to the NFC Championship Game. The loser has what was once a promising season end in a whimper.
So now that we know both teams are trying, how do they match up?
Packers' Passing Offense vs. Cardinals' Passing Defense: Advantage, Green Bay
Aaron Rodgers is the only quarterback in this year's Pro Bowl playing this weekend, and there are many reasons why. He is among the league's best in passer rating, gets better in the red zone, is the elite on third downs, and is the NFL's best rushing quarterback. He is second in total yards, total scores, and touchdown-turnover ratio, including rushes and fumbles.
Because of all of this, and one of the league's deepest, most talented receiving corps, Green Bay is seventh in passing.
The Cardinals are 23rd in pass defense, and the only thing keeping this from being a big advantage is that the Cardinals are sixth in sacks and the Packers have given up more than any other team.
However, even this one favorable matchup is mitigated by the fact that Green Bay has allowed just nine sacks in the last seven games.
Packers' Rushing Attack vs. Cardinals' Run Defense: Slight Advantage, Green Bay
Green Bay ranks 14th in rushing, and the Cardinals have the 17th-ranked run defense. But the Packers have faced each of the top six rush defenses that reside outside of their own fair city (town, really), and no other back besides Ryan Grant has run for even 700 yards without losing a fumble; Grant has over 1200 rushing yards on the season. That is why this offense turns the ball over less than any other—both the top running back and quarterback take care of the football.
Packers pass defense vs. Cardinals passing attack: slight advantage, Arizona
Green Bay looks to have an edge on paper, with the fifth-best pass defense against the 12th best passing attack. But the Packers have shown that the depth of the secondary can be tested since Al Harris and Will Blackmon went down, and Arizona has a deep receiving corps. On the other hand, it looks as though Anquan Boldin is not going to play, and even if he does, he will clearly not be the same receiver.
So how can Arizona have any advantage? They are tied for the sixth-fewest sacks yielded and the Packers are tied for the 11th-most generated, so they should be able to allow immobile Kurt Warner the time to throw. With his experience, that could be deadly.
Cardinals' Rushing Attack vs. Packers' Run Defense: Big Advantage, Green Bay
The Packers have the league's second-best rush defense in total yards and yards per carry, despite facing Pro Bowler Adrian Peterson twice. The Cardinals have improved with a two-back attack of Tim Hightower and Chris Wells, but still rank just 28th in the league; their running game is clearly there to keep you honest, and will struggle to do that against the Packers.
Special Teams: Huge Advantage, Arizona
The Cardinals have one of the league's best kickers (at least inside of 50 yards) and a record-tying punter in terms of getting the ball downed inside the 20. The Packers have one of the worst kickers in the league, and barely get more punts downed inside the 20 than they have touchbacks (most punters are about 2:1; Ben Graham is 14:1).
Nevertheless, it is not all that bad on special teams for the green and gold. The Packers average slightly more yards per punt return (.1) and give up slightly fewer (.4). The Cardinals have a little more significant edge on kickoffs, averaging 1.7 more yards and giving up 2.3 fewer per return.
Intangibles/Miscellaneous: Advantage, Green Bay
Green Bay has dominated the Cardinals in both the preseason and regular season, unless the second team has been facing the first. True, neither game has meant a whole lot, but at some point being dominated shakes the confidence of a team, and success certainly breeds success. Of course, the Cardinals have last year's playoff success to draw from, and the Packers do not.
The Packers are also playing with house money since appearing to be a non-playoff team at the midpoint of the season. Green Bay has won seven of eight, while the Cardinals are 3-3 going into the playoffs.
The Cardinals are the reigning NFC champions, the home team, and a division winner (albeit in the weakest one in football)—all of these things can counter lingering doubts and give them advantages, but also put all the pressure on them.
Meanwhile, they have the worst turnover ratio among playoff teams at -14, and the Packers have the best in the league at +24. Green Bay is one of the league's best third-down teams on both sides of the ball (third on offense and ninth on defense), while Arizona is only good on one side of the ball (21st on offense, sixth on defense). This explains why the Packers are second in time of possession and Arizona is 17th.
The only miscellaneous statistic the Cardinals hold the edge in is penalties—Green Bay is the most penalized team in the NFL. That is not enough to overcome all the Packers' advantages....
Prediction: Packers 31, Cardinals 24