The Arizona Cardinals will face a familiar opponent on Saturday night as the Green Bay Packers return after a 38-8 beatdown in Week 16 of the regular season.
This time, however, much more is on the line as the winner advances to the NFC Championship game and gets one step closer to an elusive Super Bowl berth.
Given how that Week 16 matchup went down in dominating fashion for Arizona, it's hard to imagine a scenario that makes this go around a competitive game. One would think that, at least, but just ask the Seattle Seahawks how that logic worked in a rematch against the Minnesota Vikings a week ago.
Seattle defeated Minnesota 38-7 in Week 13 but was all but eliminated from the playoffs last week before Blair Walsh missed a chip shot field goal to upset the reigning NFC champions.
Back to tonight's matchup in the desert as the Cardinals have a had a week off to rest and prepare for the Packers. Although, that may not be much of an advantage as Green Bay appeared to get it's "swag" back during a Wild Card win last week against the Washington Redskins.
It was the best Green Bay had looked in weeks and QB Aaron Rodgers clearly found something in that contest.
If there's been a weak spot for the Cardinals on defense this year it's been in the secondary. Yes, CB Patrick Peterson has regained his status as a shut down corner and the team has a tremendous group of safeties, but Arizona allowed over 230 yards per game through the air in the regular season.
Rodgers and company will need to find ways to consistently move the ball through the air in hopes of opening some running lanes for Eddie Lacy and James Starks. The Cardinals run defense has been stout all season, giving up only 91 yards per game on the ground.
Arizona forced Green Bay into being one-dimensional during that Week 16 blowout and Rodgers productivity suffered dramatically. Rodgers completed only 15 of 28 passes for 151 yards and was responsible for three turnovers.
Offensively, the weight of the Cardinals' success will clearly fall on the shoulders of QB Carson Palmer. Some out there still question Palmer's ability to play in pressure situations like this but we'll have a better idea of whether Palmer has overcome those past shortcomings like he has with so many other aspects of his game over the last two seasons.
In the 38-8 win against the Packers mere weeks ago, Palmer was good but not great as his full services weren't needed due to a lights out performance by the team's defense. Palmer completed 18 of 27 passes for 265 yards to go along with two touchdowns and an interception.
With another similar defensive performance unlikely, Palmer will need to do more tonight in order to secure the victory.
Another area that Arizona will need more production from is the running game. Rookie RB David Johnson has been nothing short of amazing towards the end of the season and the week off should certainly help his efforts against Green Bay. We've seen over the years, however, that young running backs generally hit a wall and the Cardinals are hopeful that Johnson hasn't reached that wall quite yet.
Key Matchup: QB Aaron Rogers vs. Arizona's Secondary
Yes, the obviously choice here, but if the Packers have a chance to turn the tables in this game, it must be led by Rodgers. Like we mentioned before, Rodgers clearly found something last week in Washington and he'll need to build on that to pull the upset this week. We expect Green Bay to look exploit some potential mismatches with WR Randall Cobb in the slot, moving him around to get away from Peterson. The Cardinals' depth at cornerback behind peterson isn't great and those are matchups that Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy will need to take advantage of.
Packers Player to Watch: RB James Starks
While Lacy steals most of the headlines out of the Packers' backfield, we see Starks as the key to his game. Starks is a more electric runner and has the ability to make big plays both on the ground and through the air. Starks had 12 carries for 53 yards in the Wild Card win against the Redskins while adding two catches for 12 yards. Look for Starks to add a spark to the Green Bay offense if they're able to have any sustained success against the Arizona defense.
The Packers' revival last week was a great story and makes this look to be a more competitive game this go around, but those hopes are a bit inflated. Washington was a weak playoff team coming from a dismal NFC East division and while Rodgers rallied the troops to a blowout win, things will be much tougher tonight.
Arizona has far too many weapons on offense and as long as the defense does its part, the Cardinals should get one step closer to the Super Bowl with a relatively easy win.
Prediction: Arizona 34 Green Bay 21