For the Green Bay Packers, it will be just shy of three weeks after a 38-8 drubbing at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals when they return to Glendale to face them again on Saturday night. Though time of possession and total first downs were relatively even, the Packers were out-gained 381 yards to 178 thanks to a number of explosives plays on offense, and a stifling defense that bottled up the Packers passing game all afternoon.
However, NFL history is replete with examples of one team blowing out another, just to have those same opponents face off a few weeks later in close games. Perhaps the most recent example is the Packers’ in-division rival, the Minnesota Vikings, and their 10-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Had kicker Blair Walsh made a 27 yard field goal, the Vikings would likely have won the game, and avenged a 38-7 loss on December 6, 2015.
With that in mind, what can the Packers do to close the gap and beat what many believe to be the best team in the NFL? The short answer is, be better in virtually every facet of the game. Since that is not a very interesting response, here are three absolutely vital steps the Packers must take.
1. Pressure Carson Palmer
Cardinal quarterback Carson Palmer is coming off a career season, completing 63.7 percent of his passes for 4,671 yards, 35 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, good for a rating of 104.6. Although the Packers were able to intercept him on one occasion, he had a strong game in December, throwing for 265 yards and two touchdowns.
The Packers have been stronger on defense this season than in past years, aided by a defense that put up 43 sacks from a number of contributors. They were able to sack Kirk Cousins 6 times in the wild card round, which clearly impacted Cousins (who was himself coming off a career year).
In the first game in Arizona, the Packers were able to sack Palmer just twice. The Cardinals have talented receivers and, given time, they will come open. The Packers need to get to Palmer early and often and throw the Cardinals offense out of rhythm. If they are not able to do so, then Arizona will likely again approach 30 points, a number the Packers offense has had a hard time reaching.
2. Get Free
Speaking of that fumbling, bumbling offense, media this week has made much of the Packers being “back” and quarterback Aaron Rodgers finding his “happy place.” However, the stat-line against the Redskins (21 completions on 36 attempts for 210 yards and 2 touchdowns) is not exactly overwhelming considering the Redskins gave up 258 yards passing per game this season, good for 25th in the league.
Arizona, which ranked 8th in the league against the pass, is a taller task. It is also one the Packers could not overcome three weeks ago, when Rodgers passed for just 151 yards. To overcome that obstacle, it is vital that Packer wide receivers get open. By now we have a track record to know that Rodgers is unlikely to win the game with personal heroics and fitting throws into tight or non-existent spaces, as it sometimes seems he would in years past.
Rodgers needs some help, and not just from venerable, but limited, top receiver James Jones. Randall Cobb, Jared Abberderis, and yes, – with Davante Adams likely to miss the game – Jeff Janis all need to do their part.
The truth is, the Packers are a better running team than passing team this season, and all recent victories have come on days when they were able to gain significant yardage on the ground. That includes 141 yards against the Redskins, and they will need that sort of effort again. But to beat an opponent of this quality, the passing game must produce as well.
3. Create a Pocket
Finally, the Packers absolutely must do a better job of keeping Aaron Rodgers upright than in December. This frankly goes hand-in-hand with part two, but cannot be ignored. In the last meeting, the Cardinals sacked Green Bay quarterbacks 9 times (8 for Rodgers, and one for replacement Scott Tolzien). On the whole, Rodgers was sacked 46 times in the regular season.
Green Bay did a better job in Washington, in no small part due to the fact that Bryan Bulaga was back at right tackle, and replacement JC Tretter, who appears to be a jack of all trades, held his own while standing in for left tackle David Bakhtiari. Whether Bakhtiari is able to play this week remains up in the air. Either he or Tretter, along with Bulaga, need to be much stronger on the edges than were the replacements in the first outing.
To reiterate, the Packers have a tall task ahead of them, and legitimately need to play better in virtually every facet of the game if they hope to win. But any other improvements will almost certainly be for nothing without much better efforts in the three facets of the game mentioned above. If they can do those three things, the Packers have a shot at an upset, and to play in their second straight NFC Championship game.