Arizona Shakes Up Playoff Race

The Cardinals' romp over Minnesota on Sunday night means a lot in terms of the NFC playoff race. That's especially true for the Packers, who might see a watered-down version of the Cardinals in Week 17.

The Arizona Cardinals made a strong statement on Sunday night by throttling the Minnesota Vikings, and that could impact the NFC on four significant fronts.

— The Cardinals' 30-17 victory could be especially good news for the Green Bay Packers, who visit Arizona in the regular-season finale.

The Cardinals entered Sunday with a rather precarious two-game lead over San Francisco in the NFC West. Had San Francisco beaten Seattle, as expected, and Minnesota beaten Arizona, as expected, the margin would have been cut to one game, with the 49ers hosting the Cardinals next week. A Niners win in that game would have put both teams at 7-6, with San Francisco holding the tiebreaker with a season sweep. That could have put Arizona in must-win mode in the finale against Green Bay.

Instead, the Cardinals won, the 49ers lost and the NFC West race is practically over. So, instead of playing for its season, Arizona almost certainly will have nothing to play for when the Packers come to town on Jan. 3.

— The Cardinals' manhandling of Minnesota in prime time might have dealt a serious blow to New Orleans' chances of a perfect regular season. Combined with the Saints' comeback victory in Washington, New Orleans has a two-game lead over the Vikings in the race for home-field advantage. Pressure only will increase for coach Sean Payton to rest some of his regulars should the Saints secure the top spot in the NFC.

Brett Favre looked every day of 40 years old. He was rattled by the Cardinals' pass rush, confused by their coverage schemes and lacked accuracy. Critics who had wondered if Favre would fade down the stretch were shooed away by those who believed his swoon last season was due primarily to his injured throwing shoulder.

But it's worth noting he threw six touchdowns vs. five interceptions in December 2007 — the last time he was considered an MVP candidate. His passer rating declined every month of the 2006 season and he threw no touchdowns against nine interceptions in December 2005.

— The most important lesson Sunday involved the Cardinals themselves. Everyone knows how potent their offense is. But defensive coordinator Bill Davis has a rapidly improving unit that stifled All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson and then mixed up coverages and pressure packages all night. If Arizona can keep up the defensive intensity, it will join the Vikings and Saints among the top NFC contenders.

Not listed in that group was any team from the NFC East. Just as Dallas was beginning to assert itself, the Cowboys blew a 10-0 lead on the road and let the Giants back into the playoff picture. The Cowboys lead the division, but face a daunting schedule down the stretch and Philadelphia's trip to Giants Stadium next Sunday night is shaping up as a critical battle.

Cowboys coach Wade Phillips deflected several postgame questions regarding Dallas' notorious December struggles in recent seasons.

"The Cardinals went all the way last year winning only one game in December and the Giants went all the way the year before winning two games in December," said Phillips. "I'm just saying we're playing games. We're playing tough teams. We played a tough team on the road and they ended up beating us whatever date this is. We've got another game next week and we're going to try to win that ball game."

The victories by Philadelphia and the Giants up the ante for the Packers tonight. Philadelphia and Dallas are both 8-4, with one leading the NFC East and the other the wild card. The Giants, who had started 5-0 before faltering to 6-5, are right back in the wild card chase.

Thus, the Packers — who have only one home game remaining after tonight — must beat Baltimore tonight to stay ahead of the Giants and to keep pace with the Eagles/Cowboys. If the Packers and Giants would end the season tied for the last wild card spot and tied in the conference record tiebreaker — Green Bay is 6-3 vs. the NFC; New York is 5-3 — the next tiebreaker is common opponents.

The Packers' loss to Tampa Bay would be critical in this. The Giants are 3-1 against common foes (two wins vs. Dallas, win vs. Tampa Bay, loss vs. Arizona, Week 17 at Minnesota). The Packers are 1-3 (win vs. Dallas, two losses to Minnesota, loss vs. Tampa Bay, Week 17 at Arizona.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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