1.) A Win Always Means Something
Winning is always better than losing, and on Sunday, Packers coach Mike McCarthy kept the pedal to the floor. Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the starters played nearly three quarters, rolling up the Cardinals' second-stringers on their way to a victory that's far from meaningless. Green Bay is the youngest team in the league for the third year in a row and they were riding high coming into this game after winning six of their past seven. While a win over a Cardinals team with nothing to gain shouldn't bolster its confidence, it will anyway. Beating anyone does that. Even the teams you're supposed to beat and even the individual matchups against backups.
McCarthy is feeding the beast. He's keeping momentum alive by playing to win against anyone that lines up across from them. That's a great mind-set to have and a great message to send to your team — even if they do play the Cardinals again this Sunday. The victory over the Cardinals gives them 11 on the season — a five-game improvement over last year. It allowed them to achieve individual and team records that mean something to the players. Most importantly, it gives Green Bay an edge going into the playoffs. Now, that can change as quick as a Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald touchdown, but until then, it's a great tone-setter for the week.
2.) Woodson is in Playoff Mode
Larry Fitzgerald is arguably the best receiver in football. Charles Woodson is, without argument, the best cornerback in the game and the NFL's best defensive player this season. So, despite the circumstances, the score or who was throwing the ball, when these two match up, something big is bound to happen. On Sunday, it was Woodson in the role of playmaker, anticipating an in route by Fitzgerald and snagging it out of the air with both hands. Fitzgerald appeared to stop short on the route, but Woodson took it like it was intended for him, looping around behind Arizona's superstar pass catcher and running it up the sideline for a 45-yard touchdown.
It was Woodson's league-leading ninth interception of the season and league-leading third return for a score. Ironically, he's tied on both counts with former Packer and current Saint Darren Sharper. Woodson's theft gives him the Packers' record with eight defensive touchdowns. His seven interception returns for touchdown (one was a fumble return) ties him with Hall of Famer Herb Adderley, who played nine seasons with the Packers. Woodson is in just his fourth year with Green Bay. The NFL will announce the defensive player of the year on Jan. 13. That player will be looking for a repeat performance against Fitzgerald in a few short days.
3.) Mount Rush-No-More has Many Faces
There was little consolation when Green Bay held Minnesota's Adrian Peterson to just 55 rushing yards while Brett Favre carved it up in a 30-23 in a loss at the Metrodome on Oct. 5. But defensive coordinator and 3-4 swami Dom Capers reminded everyone that his pressure scheme was predicated on stopping the run first and foremost.
It took a while, but we believe. We believe. After looking incapable of stopping anyone in their first three games, the Packers climbed from No. 26 to the No. 1 defense in the NFL against the run. Since Week 4, Green Bay allowed just 72.9 rushing yards per game and 3.47 yards per carry. It's no coincidence that rookie outside linebacker Clay Matthews made his first start in that game. But this record is about a lot of players growing comfortable in the system, from unsung nose tackle Ryan Pickett to ends Johnny Jolly and Cullen Jenkins, inside linebackers Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk, safety Atari Bigby — who's been on a tear the last three weeks — and even Woodson, who does everything great, including taking down running backs.
Green Bay gave up just 1,333 rushing yards for the season, an average of 83.3. That puts it ahead of the vaunted Vikings' run defense, which allowed 1,394, and Pittsburgh, which allowed 1,438. The Packers also allowed just five rushing scores, the fewest allowed since they went to a 16-game season and one more than the franchise record set in 1932, 1933 and 1962, all 14-game seasons.
4.) Matthews is Pretty Much Unblockable
Speaking of CM3, he didn't have a single tackle against the Cardinals, nor did he have a sack. But he was as much a factor in the outcome as any player on defense. He laid three hits on Cardinals quarterbacks with a variety of rush moves from his right outside linebacker position and was a disruptive force for three hours.
That relentless pressure eventually was rewarded with a holding call on Cardinals left guard Reggie Wells in the end zone that resulted in a safety. On that play, Matthews came on an inside stunt and had his right arm hooked by Wells on his way to quarterback Matt Leinart. Bigby picked off the pass intended for Steve Breaston but Green Bay would take the two points. Arizona can say it lost a meaningless game with its starters on the sideline, but Matthews was dominating against Wells and starting left tackle Jeremy Bridges, the same players who will be trying to block him this Sunday.
Though he finished third in the NFL defensive rookie of the year balloting behind Houston linebacker and former USC teammate Brian Cushing (134 tackles, five sacks, four interceptions, two forced fumbles), and Buffalo cornerback Jarius Byrd (tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions), Matthews has been invaluable to the No. 2-ranked Packers defense, trailing only Woodson in his importance to the team's success. In 12 starts, Matthews, selected as a Pro Bowl alternate, amassed a team-leading and Packers rookie-record 10 sacks, three fumble recoveries — which ties him for second in the league —and 58 tackles.
5.) It Won't Be This Easy Come Sunday
Arizona spun last week's game to be as meaningless as a preseason matchup, maybe more so. The Cardinals chose to rest their players, and with nothing on the line, focus on the playoffs. But they'll find out soon enough if that strategy works — along with the rest of the teams that gave away a win in the final week. Rest assured, Jarrett Bush and Brandon Underwood are going to get a lot of attention from Kurt Warner, who wasn't in the game long enough to victimize them the way that Aaron Rodgers did Michael Adams, who took over when Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie hurt his knee.
But again, it wasn't like Arizona pulled all 22 starters off the field. There were plenty of the same players out there for much of the game this past week that will be out there this week — including Fitzgerald. Of course, it's the ones that weren't that will have the biggest say in deciding the outcome. Still, Green Bay rushed four defenders for most of the game, blitzing only a few times, and its offense was equally bland. While the schemes will be more exotic in the game ahead, there's something to be said about physically dominating with your base scheme. That won't change in a week. Hopefully, the outcome won't, either.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.