The Arizona Cardinals are trying to wrap up a first-round bye in the playoffs but will have to knock off an opponent trying to steal it from them when they host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. The Cardinals already have clinched the NFC West title and need one win in their final two games to secure the NFC's No. 2 seed.
Arizona is riding an eight-game winning streak and has set a franchise record with 12 wins behind a powerhouse offense that ranks No. 1 overall (422.9 yards per game) and second in scoring (31.8 ppg). The Cardinals still have an outshot shot at the top overall seed but would have to win out and have unbeaten Carolina lose twice.
After dropping four of five games, the Packers have rebounded with three consecutive victories to move one game ahead of Minnesota atop the NFC North. Green Bay is averaging 28.3 points during the winning streak.
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Here are three keys to the game for both the Packers and the Cardinals.
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1. Try something new at receiver, tight end
The Packers have struggled to get consistent production out of their top receivers. They have an opportunity to try some new things against the Cardinals, who will be without their biggest difference-maker on defense in Tyrann Mathieu. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers seems to have a budding connection with Jared Abbrederis. Fellow second-year receiver Jeff Janis, a special teams standout, should also get a chance to make a play on offense. Don't forget about veteran tight end Andrew Quarless, who returned from injured reserve this week.
2. Count on Damarious Randall to do his job
With No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields still in concussion protocol, the Packers will have to rely on rookie Damarious Randall to cover Cardinals top receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Randall should be able to handle this challenge. He helped shut down Dallas' Dez Bryant a couple weeks ago, and his 43-yard interception return last Sunday was key to Green Bay's 30-20 win over the Raiders. Quarterback Carson Palmer is having a career year, so Randall and the rest of the Packers' pass defense will have to be on point in Week 16.
3. Sack Carson Palmer at least four times
The Cardinals have a high-powered offense that's sure to put up points. The Packers' only chance to stop them will be to create several negative plays. In addition to stuffing some runs in the backfield, Green Bay will have to sack Carson Palmer at least four times. The Packers have premier pass rushers in Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers (15 sacks combined) who can stifle Arizona's dynamic passing attack with a handful of big plays behind the line of scrimmage.
1. Continue to ride the rookie
Coaches are fond of saying a player is no longer a rookie at this time of the year and there's no better example than David Johnson, who has been sensational in three starts since he was elevated to the lead running back. Johnson ran over Philadelphia to the tune of 187 yards and three touchdowns last week after rushing for more than 90 yards in each of his first two starts on a combined 41 carries.
2. Keep taking deep shots
Once upon a time it was considered blasphemous to engage Green Bay and quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a passing duel, but Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is probably the league's most aggressive play-caller. And why not? Carson Palmer has probably the most well-rounded group of wideouts in the league in Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd, with only a pair of drops by Brown last weekend preventing another huge passing performance.
3. Apply the Golden touch
While the Packers may rely on a heavy dose of running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks, Arizona has surrendered 696 yards through the air in the past two games - and that's before defensive back Tyrann Mathieu suffered a season-ending knee injury late in Sunday's win at Philadelphia. Rookie linebacker Markus Golden had only 3 1/2 sacks but, according to Pro Football Focus, entered Week 14 leading all rookie edge rushers with 45 quarterback pressures.