Gameday Notebook: Making Points on Road

Packer Report publisher Bill Huber empties his tape recorder and notebook in time for today's game. The offense set franchise records for road production. Plus, a statistical look at the quarterbacks, the Cardinals' red zone machine and much more in this must-read playoff feature.

It's supposed to be harder for the offense to succeed on the road.

"That's what they say," receiver Donald Driver says with a big grin.

Not so for this year's Packers, who set franchise records for points scored and yards gained in road games. Incredibly, the Packers averaged 401.1 yards per game on the road compared to 357.2 at home, and 30.3 points per game on the road compared to 27.4 at home. Their yardage figure trailed only Houston (407.4) and their points trailed only New Orleans (32.0).

"I just feel the way you prepare and the way you build your team from a communication standpoint, it helps you," coach Mike McCarthy said. "Everybody goes about it a little differently. Our guys do a good job communicating on the road. We've been in the same offensive system for four years, so that probably plays into it. We attempt to keep our away routine as close to our home routine as possible. I think that may help. We're a good football team. I'm sure that's probably the biggest part of it."

The big challenge on the road, of course, is handling the crowd noise, which impacts the ability to hear the snap count, potentially change plays and to relay the inevitable blocking adjustments that must be made at the line of scrimmage.

"He does a lot of communicating, but really, all of them do," offensive line coach James Campen, a former NFL center, said of the role of center Scott Wells and the rest of the line. "They all have particular calls that effect the assignment for themselves and they can help each other. The crowd noise, obviously, we rely on hand signals and verbal signals. It's a little challenging when it gets loud."

Wells equates his role to that of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

"You have to manage the crowd noise, the highs and lows of the game," Wells said. "You have to make sure, if there's a mistake made, guys move on and really focus on the next play."

Quarterback Kurt Warner led the Cardinals to a win at Carolina in last year's postseason en route to the Super Bowl.

"I think the key to handling a road game or a playoff game is similar to any other game: There's going to be things that happen that go against you, whether a delay of game because of the noise or you can't hear or something goes against you or you make a mistake early," Warner said. "And I think the key in these kind of games, especially on the road, is to not let those things get you or not let one mistake force you to do something that you wouldn't normally do. And I think that's the key, is that you've got to stay even-keeled and when bad things happen, you've got to push it aside, let it go and move on. And I think that's the formula in any game, and specifically when you're in a hostile environment, when you're in the playoffs when there's so much riding on it, is you have to have the ability to have a short memory and let the bad things go and continue to press forward and let your skill and let the game come to you."

Rodgers' California-cool demeanor, therefore, may explain his success on the road. His passer rating in road games is 108.4 (compared to 103.2 overall). At home, he accounted for 15 touchdowns (14 passing) and three interceptions. On the road, he accounted for 20 touchdowns (16 passing) with four interceptions. Three of those interceptions came at Tampa Bay. Since then, he's thrown seven touchdown passes and no interceptions in four road games.

He realizes this challenge will be more difficult than last week, when half of University of Phoenix stadium was filled with Packer fans.

"Yeah, I think you have to account for that," he said. "There's going to be more noise and every seat will be filled and there's going to be an electric atmosphere. That being said, I think we're going to feel the same kind of thing. It's not going to be our home game but that playoff atmosphere and energy is going to make us a half-step faster to combat the half-step that they're getting from playing at home."

Road warriors


Aaron Rodgers adjusts at the line.
Maxx Wolfson/Getty Images
The Packers finished 5-3 on the road, and their ability to keep that going obviously will determine how far they advance this postseason. If Green Bay wins today, it will play at New Orleans next Sunday. The NFC championship game would be played at Dallas or Minnesota.

Winning three road games to reach the Super Bowl seems like a daunting challenge, but recent history suggests it's hardly mission impossible. The 2005 Steelers and 2007 Giants did just that en route to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt knows all about that challenge. He was offensive coordinator for those 2005 Steelers and he was on the sideline for last year's romp at Carolina.

"That's really what it's all about, getting on a little roll and having confidence" Whisenhunt said during a conference call with Packers beat reporters. "The one similarity between those two teams, last year's Cardinals team and the Steelers team that won the Super Bowl, was that nobody believed that either team was going to do that. Certainly, no team had gone three games on the road and won the Super Bowl like Pittsburgh did, and I think it's well-documented that nobody thought the Cardinals were going to do anything in the playoffs last year. And I think that can become a rallying point and help motivate you to play at a higher level. That would be the only thing I would say about those two teams, that's a different situation from Green Bay because they played very good football and have a lot of confidence. I don't think there are a lot of people who are saying they can't do that in the playoffs."

No doubt Whisenhunt was playing the "no respect" card for his team — considering many observers predict the Packers will emerge victorious today.

"There's a maturity that has to be involved with (winning on the road)," he said. "There has to be a confidence that you can do it. And I think certainly Green Bay has done a nice job with that. It certainly hasn't affected them coming into our stadium and playing. But I think it's really more about a mind-set, confidence in your team and what you're doing, and your ability to block out any distractions and keep your focus. If I learned anything from watching Green Bay last Sunday they were a very focused football team. That's what you have to be on the road."

QBs: Inside the numbers

— With an 8-3 career record in playoff games — and 26 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and a passer rating of 98.9 in the postseason — Warner gets the nod when it comes to playoff experience.

— Rodgers has been brilliant on third downs: 67.5 percent, 14 touchdowns, no interceptions and a league-best rating of 133.5 that's the best in the NFL since Warner's 137.3 rating in 1999. Warner, surprisingly, hasn't been that good on third down, with 57.5 percent accuracy, six touchdowns, four interceptions and a rating of 78.2. Rodgers has converted a second-ranked 51.0 percent of third downs into first downs. Warner ranks just 20th at 37.0 percent.

"It's a heightened sense of focus and it's something we work on in practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and we've got a great plan every week," Rodgers said. "The guys have done a nice job picking up the blitzes, and when I've got guys like Donald and Greg (Jennings), who can make plays after the catch, and Jordy (Nelson) and James (Jones), who are going to be matchup problems for a third and fourth corner, and Jermichael (Finley), who can get down the middle and make plays as well outside, you know, I just need to get the ball out of my hand quickly and get it to those guys."

— Warner has thrown 14 interceptions, and nine of those have come in the second quarter. The second quarter is the Packers' best, with a plus-70 differential in points.

— Plenty has been said about the Cardinals' receivers, but it's the Packers' receivers who have been the more productive playmakers. Rodgers has gotten 2,070 yards after the catch, good for third among quarterbacks. Warner has gotten 1,634 yards after the catch, which ranks 14th. Rodgers ranks tied for second with 39 completions of 25-plus yards; Warner is tied for 18th with 21.

— Warner is a fast starter. Taking that away will be key for Green Bay. In the first quarter, Warner has a passer rating of 112.0 on 75.8 percent accuracy, seven touchdowns and one interception. Playing from behind, on the other hand, has not been his strength. His rating is 74.0 on 62.3 percent accuracy, seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. By contrast, Rodgers has 12 touchdowns and one interception while playing from behind, and he has a passer rating topping 100 in every quarter.

Red zone


Larry Fitzgerald has a knack for winning jump balls.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
The one area on the field where the Cardinals excel is the red zone. Arizona has scored a touchdown on a league-best 70 percent of its possessions inside the opponents' 20-yard line. To put that into context, the Packers rank a solid ninth — surprised, are you? — at a distant 54.8 percent.

In goal-to-go situations, Warner is 16-of-24 (66.7 percent) with nine touchdowns and one interception. Rodgers is 16-of-28 (57.1 percent) with nine touchdowns and no interceptions.

The Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald, at 6-foot-3, has four touchdown receptions on first-and-goal. That will be an area of emphasis for the Packers' 28th-ranked red-zone defense (60.9 percent touchdowns).

"They've got a number of weapons," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "You've got a guy like Fitzgerald — Fitzgerald's really good down there because of his size. They're going to look for him because you can throw the ball up and he's so strong and has strong hands that if he's got any vision, he can really go up and outfight the defender for the ball. They bring him over the middle, he's got such a big span that he can go up and get the ball."

Spread them out

There's no doubt among the Packers that the Cardinals' offense is going to play the bulk of this game with three and four receivers, emulating what the Steelers did against Green Bay's depleted secondary a few weeks ago.

That plays one of the Cardinals' strengths against the Packers' clear weakness. One way to combat that is by blitzing, but the 38-year-old Warner is brilliant against the blitz and picked apart the Steelers' similar scheme in the Super Bowl last year.

"I think when he's back there and they have four receivers on the field, he has the ability to change the plays, he has the ability to change routes off a look," Capers said of Warner. "He has a very good feel for where the pressure might come from when you're spread out like that. They put a lot on him in terms of getting the ball out of his hands. Many times, you'll see the free defender come and he's responsible for getting the ball out before the guy can get to him."

No doubt the Packers' third and fourth corners, Jarrett Bush and, presumably, rookie Brandon Underwood, will be wearing giant bull's-eyes. Bush had a miserable day in that Pittsburgh game, but cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt expects a lot better today.

"The role Jarrett's going to play in this game and how we're going to use him, I think he's going to excel," Whitt said. "We're using his strengths. I'll take the blame for the Pittsburgh game of some of the issues that he had. I didn't do a good job of putting him in a position to use his strengths at the highest level. That won't happen this game. I've learned from that and he will have a very good game, I believe. We're going to put him in the best position to make impactful plays."

Four-point stance

— The Packers picked off a league-high 30 passes. Charles Woodson had nine and Nick Collins had six to rank among the league leaders, and seven other defenders had at least one.

"I think the one thing that I'm continually impressed with in regards to their secondary or really the back seven guys is their playmaking ability, the ability to get the ball," Warner said. "A lot of times, you'll play defenses that can swarm the football and get to it and make plays on the ball, but very seldom do you have full defenses or a number of players like they've got that have the ability to make plays on the ball, to catch the ball, to make good plays after making the catch. That's what makes them so impressive. They're very athletic, they cover a lot of ground, they're very aggressive, and when they get opportunities to make plays on the ball, they make them. Sometimes we'll go into games in this league and we'll say, ‘If we can just get this guy isolated on the safety, throw it up, because that's a distinct advantage for us.' This is one of those teams that you can't say that because they play the ball like receivers. It's impressive to watch."

— A key matchup for the Packers will be Pro Bowl rookie Clay Matthews going against left tackle Jeremy Bridges, who is starting with veteran Mike Gandy on injured reserve. Matthews didn't get a sack last week against Bridges but dominated the matchup. He finished with a career-high seven quarterback hits and drew two holding penalties, though not all of that production was against Bridges. "The great thing about it was, playing against him is better than watching any film on him," Matthews said. "I was able to work a few moves here and there. I've got a new plan going in. That's obviously to use the same moves and try new techniques in which that I saw were exposed the first time around. At the end of the day, it's a one-on-one battle and it's all chess match and counter moves. Hopefully, I get the best of him."

— For all Rodgers has done this year, he knows what the next step in his career has to be.

"Obviously, the quarterback is going to be judged — fair or unfair — on success in the playoffs, and you remember the quarterbacks — Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Tom Brady — who have won three or four Super Bowls. That's not my main focus, but at some point, you'd love to be mentioned in the same breath of guys like that that have won multiple Super Bowls."

— And finally, a final thought from injured cornerback Al Harris: "I really, really, really do think this is going to be one of the Super Bowl teams."

Extra point

— If it comes down to a last-second field goal, Arizona's Neil Rackers was 16-of-17 this season, a league-best 94 percent. His long was 48 yards and he did not attempt one from 50-plus, but he did hit from 54 last season. Mason Crosby finished 27-of-36, his 75 percent accuracy ranking 23rd among full-time kickers. He finished 6-of-13 from beyond 40 yards with a long of 52.


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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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