Less than three weeks ago, with the Green Bay Packers on a three-game winning streak and having an outside shot at earning the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, they went to Arizona and got destroyed by the Cardinals 38-8.
On Saturday night, it’s the rematch. Coach Mike McCarthy declared, “We’re no underdog going to Arizona.” In reality, the Packers are an underdog. And a big one. Since the Packers started this run of sustained success in 2009, this will be just the third time they’re at least a seven-point underdog. One was at New England in 2010, when Aaron Rodgers was out and Matt Flynn was in at quarterback. The other time was last year’s season-opening game at Seattle.
How do the Packers upset the Cardinals and advance to next week’s NFC Championship Game?
FACTOR NO. 1: QUARTERBACK BATTLE
Carson Palmer outplayed Rodgers throughout the regular season, and that continued during the Week 16 matchup.
Palmer, who ranked third in the NFL with a 104.6 passer rating, threw for 235 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone and wound up with a 107.8 rating. He came through in the clutch, guiding an 80-yard touchdown drive in the final minute of the first half to make it 17-0 at halftime.
Rodgers, who ranked 15th in the NFL with a 92.7 passer rating, threw for 151 yards, had four turnovers and finished with a 66.2 passer rating. Green Bay’s 2.03 net passing yards per attempt was the second-worst figure in the entire NFL. With Mike Daniels’ interception giving the Packers a chance to take a major jolt of momentum into halftime, Rodgers threw an end-zone interception. Palmer parlayed that into his critical touchdown, a potential 14-point swing that turned the game into a runaway.
Why should anything be different this time?
“That’s the beauty of the NFL,” Rodgers said shortly after that game.
Rodgers has history on his side. He’s won seven of his 12 playoff starts, with his 100.3 passer rating and 64.8 percent completion rate ranking fourth and fifth, respectively, in NFL history. Among active quarterbacks, Rodgers’ 25 career postseason touchdown passes trail only Tom Brady’s 27. He’s shown he can win on the road, whether it’s the 2010 sweep to the Super Bowl or wins at Minnesota and Washington this season.
“The pressure's all going to be on them,” Rodgers said this week. “They're coming off a tough loss at home against Seattle. Before that, they blew us out. They're the Super Bowl favorites, and obviously the favorite team on Saturday night, so we've just got to go out, be loose, let it all hang out, because the pressure's all on that side.”
While Green Bay is rejuvenated after ripping the Redskins last week, Arizona got destroyed 36-6 in Week 17 against Seattle.
“Guys just didn’t show up with any passion,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said during a conference call. “We really didn’t have anything to play for. We were locked into the No. 2 seed. You try to rah-rah that thing in there and it’s a division game, but it’s not the same.”
Palmer said the passion is back. If this is a second chance for Green Bay, it's also a second chance for Palmer. When he went down with a season-ending knee injury last season, the Cardinals were 8-1. Without Palmer, they limped into the playoffs and were a one-and-done. Now, the Cardinals are back. They went 13-3 and stormed through most of their schedule, finishing with the second-highest point differential in the league.
Palmer has been brilliant. Not only did he rank third in passer rating but he was first in yards per attempt, second in touchdowns, third in touchdown percentage and fourth in yards. He led the NFL with 11 games with a 100-plus passer rating, six games with three-plus touchdown passes and three games with four-plus touchdown passes.
With a league-best 26-5 record in his last 31 starts, the time is now for Palmer. But will he shrink from the moment? Or will he shine? The 36-year-old is 0-2 in the playoffs. Only one quarterback in NFL history, Steve DeBerg, was older when he won his first playoff game, according to STATS.
“It’s been a great season. It’s been a blast,” Palmer said during his conference call. “We started the season with one goal and we still have that goal in front of us. We realize how rare this opportunity is, how important this opportunity is and we’re excited. We’re just excited to play. It’s been a long couple weeks. We lost our last game in a game that was just kind of weird and awkward when we were focused really on this game and we shouldn’t have been. We’re just excited to play and there’s no doubt we understand how important this is and how rare these opportunities are.”
FACTOR NO. 2: TURNOVERS
Since the start of the 2009 season, the Packers’ 17.6 turnovers per season ranks second in the NFL. This season, their 17 giveaways were the fourth-fewest in the league and the fifth-fewest in Packers history. Their eight turnover-free games tied for the best in the league.
Against the Cardinals, Green Bay uncharacteristically gave it up four times. Two of Rodgers’ fumbles were returned for touchdowns and the Cardinals turned James Starks’ fumble and Rodgers’ interception into touchdowns, as well. The Cardinals won the game by 30 by outscoring the Packers 28-0 on turnovers.
“That was a game where the ball bounced our way a couple times,” Arians said kindly.
If Arizona is the more talented team, as the standings, statistics and Pro Bowl accolades would suggest, then the Packers simply can’t afford to give away the football four times. Or maybe even one time. Rodgers, with the lowest-interception percentage in NFL history, has to be on top of his game in terms of decision-making and ball-handling. Over the last three seasons, Rodgers’ 25 fumbles are tied for the fifth-most in the NFL. He had only 14 fumbles in his previous three seasons.
Green Bay’s defense must deliver, as well. Against Washington, the defensive backs had chances to record five interceptions but came up empty. McCarthy took a glass-half-full perspective.
“Getting takeaways, there’s two parts to it,” he said. “No. 1, you have to be in position or get yourself in position through anticipation, instincts and ability to get your hands on the ball. I think as a whole throughout the season, our secondary has done a great job of that. Now, how many we haven’t caught, obviously, you’re always trying to improve on. So, dropped balls by a defender is a lot different than a dropped ball by an offensive player. An offensive player has anticipation and design working in his favor, where a defender is usually coming off of some type of interaction or exchange with the guy he’s covering and has to catch the ball in different body positions. So, the first part I think we’re doing a very good job. We’re getting our hands on the football.”
When the Packers marched to the Super Bowl in 2010, the defense made all the key plays. Tramon Williams saved the day with his end-zone interception at Philadelphia and had two interceptions, including a pick-six just before halftime, at Atlanta. In the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game vs. Chicago, Green Bay had two interceptions — B.J. Raji’s pick-six and Sam Shields’ clincher. In the Super Bowl, Nick Collins returned an interception for a touchdown and Jarrett Bush, of all people, added another.
If Green Bay is going to pull off the upset, it will be up to its defense to deliver a game-turning play. No, it will be up to the defense to deliver a few game-turning plays. Not only has the Packers’ offense not been good enough to carry the load, but turning over the ball is the only thing that has stopped Arizona. It had three giveaways and no takeaways in each of its three losses. The Cardinals had a three-game stretch at midseason in which it went minus-2 vs. Cleveland, minus-2 vs. Seattle and minus-1 vs. Cincinnati but won all three games, anyway. Palmer, with 11 interceptions and six fumbles, will prove some opportunities.
“It’s really important,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Those are huge plays right there. Teams that win the turnover battle are probably going to score points off that and win ballgames. We looked at the last time we played them, Mike had that interception within their red zone and unfortunately we turned the ball over immediately after. Could have gone into halftime with a 10-3, 10-7 score. You have seen what happened in that second half. That’s how fast things changed.”
FACTOR NO. 3: WINNING THE RELAY RACE
Every great quarterback needs great receivers. Just ask Rodgers, who has struggled through a miserable season by his lofty standards. Palmer, on the other hand, is surrounded by greatness.
Larry Fitzgerald, with his career-high 109 receptions this season, ranks 11th in NFL history with 1,018 receptions and 15th with 13,366 receiving yards. Fitzgerald (6-3, 218) has played in 186 career games. Among the Hall of Fame receivers at Game No. 186 of their careers, only Jerry Rice had more receptions and yards. Fitzgerald was the youngest player in NFL history to reach 800, 900 and 1,000 receptions.
“I think it has and always will start with Larry out there,” McCarthy said. “Fitzgerald sets the pace and the tempo. His ability to just do everything. I mean, he comes down there and just blocked defensive ends and linebackers, and he's an excellent route runner, extremely productive.”
Fitzgerald sets the pace but defenses can’t focus on him. John Brown caught 65 passes for 1,003 yards, a 15.4-yard average. Brown (5-11, 179), a third-round pick out of Pittsburg State last year, had touchdowns of 65 and 68 yards.
Floyd (6-2, 220) caught “only” 52 passes for 849 yards, a 16.3-yard average. There’s a reason why “only” was put in quotation marks. Floyd was slowed early in the season by a hand injury. In the first five games, he averaged 1.6 receptions for 20.8 yards with zero touchdowns. In his final 10 games, he averaged 4.4 receptions for 74.5 yards and scored six touchdowns. Including Week 16 vs. Green Bay, he topped 100 yards in five of the final eight games.
Rookie J.J. Nelson (5-10, 160), showing why he was the fastest player at the Scouting Combine, caught only 11 passes but those were turned into 299 yards — a sizzling 27.2 yards per reception.
“Top to bottom, it's got to be the fastest group in the game right now,” Palmer said. “I can't think of one off the top of my head that would beat us in a four-man relay. You know, it's explosive, we have big, physical possession-type receivers. We have guys that can take the top off and open up the middle of the field. And we have guys that can win 1-on-1. So it's a really good mix of some youth, some experience, some physicalness, some pure just blazing speed.”
Combined, Fitzgerald (nine), Brown (seven) and Floyd (six) scored 22 touchdowns. Against Green Bay, Floyd had 111 receiving yards and Fitzgerald and Brown scored touchdowns.
The Packers should be better prepared this time. Heading into the first matchup, they hadn’t faced a big-time passing attack since San Diego before the bye. Now, Green Bay has faced Arizona and Washington in the past three weeks.
“It’s the combination of a veteran quarterback who’s been around, that’s really good at reading what you’re doing, and as fine a group of receivers as I think there is in the league,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “These guys have speed, they have size. With Fitzgerald, they’ve got a lot of years in the league. You just look at their productivity, those top three receivers, I don’t know of anybody else that’s had that kind of productivity.”
If Sam Shields can play after missing the past four games with a concussion, he’d obviously be a tremendous asset. Otherwise, it will be up to the kiddie corps, led by top draft picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins and perhaps even undrafted LaDarius Gunter. Palmer spoke highly of Randall and Rollins this week, saying neither play like rookies.
“That means nothing to me,” Randall said of Palmer’s praise. “The game’s played on the field. It doesn’t matter if I was a six-year guy who’s been to three or four Pro Bowls. I have to go out there and get it done. That’s what me and Quinten try to do each and every week to cancel out all the noise — good and bad.”
Adding to the challenge of it all is facing Palmer, a 13-year pro who has seen every look imaginable countless times in his career. Capers won’t beat him with scheme. It will be up to the players to rise to the incredible challenge.
“You really have to be technique-sound,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “A great quarterback like that, you mess up on your technique, he’ll make you pay for it. You’ve got to try to find ways to move around and not let him read your book. He’s a smart player, smart quarterback. He’s the reason their team’s in the situation they’re in now.”
INSIDE THE CARDINALS
— The Packers got their first look at running back David Johnson in Round 1. Packers defensive back Micah Hyde, however, had an advance scouting report.
During his senior season at Iowa, Hyde’s Hawkeyes beat Northern Iowa 27-16. Johnson rushed 16 times for 77 yards and caught six passes for 77 more yards.
“Same thing you see today," Hyde said. "Really good back, hard to bring down, really good receiver, good return man. Really, it’s the same things he’s doing now. We knew going into the game that he was their best player.”
Johnson, a third-round pick in this year’s draft, looks like a budding star. When the Cardinals placed star veteran Chris Johnson on short-term injured reserve (leg/knee), David Johnson started the final five games. All he did was lead the NFL with 658 yards from scrimmage (442 rushing, 216 receiving). He’s one of four players in NFL history with 500 rushing yards, 400 receiving yards, 500 kickoff-return yards and 13 touchdowns in a season, joining Timmy Brown (1962), Hall of Famer Gayle Sayers (1965) and Maurice Jones-Drew (2006).
“Despite being a rookie and however far down on the depth chart earlier in the season, he’s become on of their playmakers,” Matthews said. “He’s a guy who we’ll have our eye on.”
Though Johnson had a 14-yard touchdown run, the Packers held him to 39 rushing yards on nine attempts in the first game. Johnson, however, was dynamic in the passing game with 88 yards on three receptions. He’s also an excellent pass protector, making him a coveted three-down back.
“That’s the type of guy we’re always looking for,” Arians said. “We fell in love with David because he was such a good receiver but he’s only in a 225-(pound) package, which makes him a much different runner. ...
“You’ve got to search and search and search (for a three-down back). Our scouting department does a fantastic job and they had him targeted early. They’re rare and they’re hard to find.”
— In the 2014 draft, the Packers selected safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the 21st overall selection. Six picks later, the Cardinals grabbed safety Deone Bucannon.
Both teams are thrilled with their investment. Clinton-Dix led the team with 115 tackles. He recorded a whopping 40 more solo tackles than anyone else on the team. Plus, he added three sacks and two interceptions. Bucannon has been even better, at least statistically. The Cardinals use him at inside linebacker, even though he weighs only 211 pounds. He led the team with 127 tackles, including a team-high 17 for losses, while adding three forced fumbles, three sacks and one interception.
Remarkably, even with an undersized inside linebacker, the Cardinals allowed a sixth-ranked 91.3 rushing yards per game. They allowed two 100-yard rushers all season.
“He’s fast and he’s physical,” Packers guard T.J. Lang said. “He puts his nose in there. He comes downhill and he hits guys. You turn on the film and he’s not afraid to take on guards, he’s not afraid to take on fullbacks. Good asset for them to have. He’s a guy who’s not afraid to stop the run and he’s also got speed to cover. It’s different, it’s unique. It’s one of the first times I’ve ever seen a guy playing in the box like that every snap but he gets the job done. It’s a good tool for them to have.”
— Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell was a one-man wrecking ball during the first half of the first matchup. During the opening 30 minutes, Campbell had 2.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and three tackles for losses, plus he drew two holding penalties. The two-time Pro Bowler had six consecutive seasons of 50 tackles and six sacks, a streak snapped this year when he had only five sacks. He tied Bucannon for the team lead with 17 tackles for losses.
“He’s got all the tools,” Lang said. “You look at his size, he’s 6-foot-8, 300 pounds. He’s a tall guy, he’s got great arm length, he’s fast, he’s strong, he’s powerful and he can play multiple positions. You see him lining up as a nose tackle, you see him line up as a defensive end. He’s a very versatile guy. He does a lot in that defense — a lot of movement. He’s got a lot of moves. It’s tough to prepare for a guy like that. You have to be aware of where he is on the field.”
If it’s hard to prepare, at least they get to see him for the second time in three weeks.
“Any time you’ve played a guy, you start to become familiar with what they like to do,” Lang said. “I think that as a positive you can take out of that game is this is a team we’ve played. We know how they play, we know their moves, we know what they like to do. But that’s not going to win us a game. They know what we like to do, too. They know how we block. Obviously, it goes both ways. I think it does take a little bit of stress off of you once you’ve played a guy and you realize what you’re going against. You know what to expect the next time around.”
— When the Cardinals lost do-it-all defensive back Tyrann Mathieu to a season-ending knee injury, Pro Bowl special-teamer Justin Bethel moved into the starting lineup on defense. Because Bethel is a backup and because the alternative is throwing at All-Pro Patrick Peterson, Bethel has been targeted early and often. Rodgers threw 14 passes at him in Week 16. One of those wound up being a killer end-zone interception just before halftime.
“Hey, when you play opposite Patrick Peterson, the ball’s coming over there. It doesn’t matter who you are,” Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher told reporters this week. “You saw the same thing last year. People threw the ball over there when Cro (Antonio Cromartie) was over there. They’re going to do that and at the level Pat’s playing the position right now, that’s just reality.”
According to Pro Football Focus’ best estimate at coverage responsibilities, Peterson has allowed one reception for every 19.5 snaps and a 61.8 passer rating, figures that ranked first and fifth, respectively. Avoiding Peterson is common sense but attacking Bethel hasn’t exactly paid dividends. He’s the second-most targeted corner in the league but ranks 13th with a passer rating allowed of 70.0.
“That’s the nature of this position,” Bethel told reporters in Arizona. “Everybody gets beat, eventually. Everybody gives up a touchdown. Everybody gives up a deep ball. The thing is how you react to it and how you come back on the next play.”
— First, a brief reminder of the recent history: Arizona beat the Packers 38-8 in Week 16. The Packers had a chance to pull within 10-7 just before halftime, thanks to Daniels’ interception, but Rodgers threw an end-zone interception and Palmer drove the Cardinals in rapid-fire fashion to a touchdown to make it 17-0 at halftime.
How do the Cardinals avoid being overconfident?
“That’s very easy,” Arians said. “That was a game where the ball bounced our way a couple times. For most of the game, it could have gone either way.”
Added Palmer: “I think we learned a lesson. We were pretty confident, maybe overconfident, early in the year and lost a game that we really had at home to St. Louis. I think that was really kind of an eye opener for a lot of us and something that made everybody realize, ‘All right, it’s time to get back to the drawing board and just go back to work’ because maybe we were thinking more of ourselves than what we really are. That was a good lesson learned back then. I really don’t think that was the case against Seattle. Like I said, we’re just excited to play again. It’s been a long time since we’ve been on the field.”
— Green Bay leads the series 45-24-4, which dates back to the Cardinals’ time in Chicago. That includes the split of a pair of playoff games, with Green Bay beating the St. Louis Cardinals 41-15 in the 1982 Super Bowl tournament and the Arizona Cardinals beating the Packers 51-45 in overtime in a 2009 Wild Card game. That remains the highest-scoring playoff game in NFL history, with Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner throwing more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four).
"If you remember, we’d just been out there the week before," Capers said of a 33-7 win in the regular-season finale. "We kind of got lulled to sleep a little bit because they didn’t have 200 yards on us in that game. It was kind of the perfect set-up, you know, where we’d gone out and we played really well on defense and then it’s a good example of what can happen. You’re on the road in the playoffs and the quarterback gets hot and, once they get hot, you’ve got to try to do something to break it. We didn’t get it done that day."
Showing how times change, just five members of the Cardinals (Fitzgerald, Campbell, center Lyle Sendlein, long snapper Mike Leach and safety Rashad Johnson) and eight members of the Packers (Rodgers, Matthews, guards Lang and Josh Sitton, fullback John Kuhn, receiver James Jones, defensive tackle B.J. Raji and kicker Mason Crosby) remain from that game.
— Tying those last two items together: In the Week 16 game, Arizona became the only team in NFL history with at least nine sacks and two fumble-return touchdowns in a game (since team sacks started being recorded in 1963). Also, Rodgers has had four fumbles returned for touchdowns in his career. Three were at Arizona — the game-ending fumble in the playoff game and the two in December.
— The Cardinals are 4-0 all-time at home in the playoffs, the best in NFL history. Including last week, the Packers have won 11 postseason road games, most in NFL history.
“We’re going to try and do the same thing — be efficient on offense,” Rodgers said. “You go into a hostile environment, we’ve played these kinds of games before, we’ve won these kind of games before, and we’ll rely on that experience and rely on that passion that we played with last week to hopefully carry over.”
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
— It’s the age-old question: rest or rust? Do the Cardinals, with a week to rest bruised and battered bodies, have the advantage? Or do the Packers, with momentum garnered from last week’s win at Washington, have the edge?
The teams with the Wild Card-weekend byes haven’t swept the four divisional games since 2004. Over the past 10 postseasons, the teams coming off the bye — and obviously playing at home because they have the best records in the conference — are 24-16 in the divisional round. That .600 winning percentage isn’t much better than the league-wide .573, though teams coming off the Wild Card bye have gone 3-1 in each of the past four playoffs.
“I think they both have advantages,” McCarthy said. “Obviously, the advantage of being on the bye is you have the opportunity to get healthy. To me, health is probably the most important component any time you line up and play. The other side of it is you’re fresh off of playing, too. Every coach and every player, you want to keep playing because it keeps you in synch, it keeps your rhythm going. I feel very good about coming off the performance we had Sunday and then being able to turn right around and just keep going.”
— Crosby has made 18 consecutive postseason field-goal attempts. His last miss was a 50-yarder in the divisional playoff romp at Atlanta in 2010.
“You just try to stay in the moment,” Crosby said. “The time spent on the practice field is invaluable. I’m not saying if you miss a kick in a game that you didn’t work hard or do something in practice. but you kind of know. You get a feel. There’s been weeks where my practice week I’m like, ‘All right, I’m going to have to put in some good work in pregame just to make sure that I’m ready to go.’ And don’t think about the moment, don’t think about what the kick means, because a first-quarter kick means just as much as that last kick.”
— To turn the tables on Saturday night, the Packers will need vast improvement over the nine sacks and four turnovers from Week 16. However, the Packers must also buck their season-long situational issues. Green Bay ranked 28th with a third-down conversion rate of 33.3 percent, and actually was worse at 27.3 percent vs. Washington.
With a third-ranked 47.0 percent success rate on third down, Arizona had the NFL’s lowest three-and-out rate of 14.52 percent. Green Bay’s three-and-out rate was a 19th-ranked 22.9 percent. When the Packers get just one first down, their scoring rate soars to 43.2 percent — a sign of the effectiveness of their no-huddle attack.
“It gets the defenses more vanilla and it tires out the big guys out front a little bit and they get off the ball a little slower,” Packers lineman J.C. Tretter said. “They get caught not being able to sub. Usually, defensive linemen love getting three, four solid rushes in, get out, get someone fresh in, give them three, four solid rushes, get out. When you keep them on the field, obviously they’re not used to going eight, nine, 10 plays in a row with a hard rush every time. Eventually, their (bull rush has) got a little less power, their speed rush is a little slower and everything kind of slows down for you, and that plays to your advantage a little bit.”
— Against Washington, Eddie Lacy rushed for 63 yards and one touchdown and Starks rushed for 53 yards and one touchdown. It marked the first playoff game since Jim Taylor and Elijah Pitts in Super Bowl I in which two Packers backs rushed for 45-plus yards and a touchdown, according to Elias.
— The Cardinals’ passing attack isn’t a dink-and-dunk deal. When Palmer drops back, he’s looking to strike downfield. According to league data, Palmer not only led the NFL in yards per attempt but the length of his average pass traveled a league-long 10.72 yards. That’s obviously not accomplished with a quick, three-step drop. To combat that, the Packers will need a strong pass rush. Green Bay’s pass rush, which got to Kirk Cousins for six sacks last week, caught the attention of Palmer.
“They have, I was counting on film, I think seven guys who can rush the passer,” Palmer said. “Really, really physical group. There’s not a small, quick, fast guy there. They’re all big. They all run well. They’re all really strong at the point of attack. They can set the edge. They all have different pass moves to win in one-on-one games in the outside. They do a good job with games inside — twists, stunts and all the different things you get, especially when Clay is involved. It’s just a very, very solid group with no weaknesses. A defense that’s got a lot of experience and played in big games and won big games. Really, the kind of defense you just have to go out and play your best football to beat.”
— On the other side of the coin is Arizona’s pass rush. That was one of the obvious story lines of the first game, with the Cardinals collecting nine sacks. Five of those came against the Packers’ backup offensive tackles.
Three of those sacks were from veteran Dwight Freeney, whose speed was too much for fill-in left tackle Don Barclay to handle. Freeney, a 13-year vet and a member of the NFL’s all-2000s team, ranks fifth among active players with 119.5 career sacks. He’s been a key addition, with a team-high eight sacks and three forced fumbles in 11 games since being signed in mid-October.
“I think everyone knows his spin move,” said David Bakhtiari, who figures to be back at left tackle on Saturday. “It's pretty much what he's known for in the league. It'll be exciting. It'll be fun to play him.”
— Bakhtiari isn’t the only key starter who missed the Week 16 game. So, too, did cornerback Sam Shields. He appears set to play after missing the past four games with a concussion. He’d be a huge addition as the team’s fastest and most experienced cornerback. He’s a big-game performer, as well, with a franchise-record five career playoff interceptions.
Shields or no Shields, Palmer spoke highly of the Packers’ secondary, in general, and rookie cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, in particular.
“Really good group, really good group,” Palmer said. “I know two rookies that you wouldn't know they were rookies unless you looked at the stat sheet and saw years of experience next to their name. You know, thinking back to just a couple different games, just seeing guys that make plays that you don't expect them to make. There's a couple plays against Oakland that I saw (Randall) make, you could just tell he's not playing like a rookie, he's seeing the game, seeing guys around him and understanding who's supposed to go where, and if they're not, he's covering other guys' butts.
“And then (Morgan) Burnett's been there forever and been such a great player, and (Ha Ha) Clinton-Dix is a young guy, but again, he doesn’t look like he’s a young guy. He looks like an experienced safety that can cover the ground, he can stop the run. He made a couple nice plays in the red zone last week in Washington. ... You don’t see guys blowing coverages that are rookies because they learn it from Day 1 and they’ll probably be running it their whole career if they stay there because it’s just so consistent there. It may be young at some places but it doesn’t show.”
— Before he was an All-Pro cornerback, Peterson was an All-Pro punt returner. During his rookie season of 2011, Peterson returned an NFL-record four punts for touchdowns. He’s been a pretty mediocre returner since then, with his longest return being a 38-yarder this year. Nonetheless, he’ll be a major challenge for a punt coverage unit that was tops in the league with a return average of 4.2 yards.
“The punt returner, he can take it,” Zook said. “He’s feast or famine. He can go. Earlier in the year, he took more chances. I would expect him to get like that. He didn’t take as many chances this last part of the season but I think if you go back and look at him the first part of the season, he’s a guy that has a rocket in his tail and can go.”
THE LAST WORD GOES TO ...
WR James Jones, on the Week 16 outcome: "Amnesia. Amnesia. That’s it. You drop a ball, forget about it. You fumble the ball, forget about it. You throw an interception, forget about it. The game’s over, it happened. On to the next. We got another opportunity."
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.