GREEN BAY, Wis. – Last time Arizona and Green Bay met, they combined for a playoff-record 96 points, piled up more than 1,000 yards of offense and needed overtime to settle the game.
On a defensive touchdown, no less, for a Cardinals win.
"I think," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said, "it's probably one of the most exciting playoff games that I've ever been a part of."
And that's from a guy with a Super Bowl ring.
"That," Larry Fitzgerald added, "was a special day."
Sequels are rarely as good as the original, however, and Sunday's game between the Cardinals (4-4) and Packers (5-3) isn't likely to buck that trend.
The Cardinals arrive at Lambeau, where they haven't won since way back in 1947, on a four-game losing streak, including a 24-3 rout by San Francisco on Monday night. Despite having Fitzgerald, their offense is, to put it politely, a mess. Injuries have left the offensive line shakier than a Tilt-a-Whirl, and its 39 sacks allowed are nine more than any other team. (And Aaron Rodgers thought he had it bad with the 28 sacks he's taken.) Arizona is scoring a measly 11.5 points per game during its losing streak while turning it over seven times.
Yet the Cardinals insist they're not that far from the group that rode its stingy defense to a four-game winning streak to start the season, including a big win at New England.
"We've been close in a lot of games," Whisenhunt said. "The San Francisco game wasn't close, obviously, but the other ones have been. It's a play or two here or there."
Sometimes, though, that 4-0 team seems as distant as the one that beat the Packers in that NFC wild card on Jan. 10, 2010.
Twice the Cardinals took a 21-point lead in the second half, only to see the Packers rally and tie the game. Neil Rackers missed a 34-yard field goal at the end of regulation for Arizona, and the Cardinals won on Karlos Dansby's return of a fumble by Rodgers. Kurt Warner finished the day 29 of 33 for 379 yards with no interceptions, and matched his career high with five TDs.
"Kurt Warner played a masterful game, one of the best in the history of the playoffs," Fitzgerald said.
The Cardinals lost the following week, and haven't been back to the playoffs since.
Haven't had a winning season, either, going 5-11 in 2010 and needing to win five of their last six games to finish at .500 last year.
"We need to realize that we have a chance; we started out 4-0 and we've let four slip away," Arizona offensive guard Daryn Colledge said. "We need to control this. If we can go on a nice little run here at the end like we did last year, we got a chance to get ourselves to the playoffs. But we need to make that decision right now. Or we can be the team that just lets it slip away and make excuses for ourselves and call it a season."
As disappointing as that desert shootout was for the Packers, it was the start of their latest resurgence. They won the Super Bowl the next year. They won their first 13-0 games last year and finished the regular season 15-1, with Rodgers producing one of the finest seasons of any quarterback on his way to MVP honors. He set an NFL single-season record with a 122.5 passer rating, and threw for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns with just six interceptions.
"That was something that was frustrating at the time and disappointing, to play well and to score that many points and not win and not be able to make the most of your opportunities down the stretch," Rodgers said. "Every team is different. ... So, as frustrating as it was, we wanted to see what the 2010 season was going to be like and we had new challenges and we made the most of them."
The Packers got off to a rough start this season — remember the Inaccurate Reception? — and their locker room often looks more like a MASH unit with all the injuries they've had. But they have begun to find their groove, and three straight wins has put them back in contention in the NFC North. Rodgers is playing like an MVP once again; he has more touchdowns (18) in the last five games than 15 — yes, 15 — NFL teams have managed all season, and was chosen the NFL's offensive player of the month for a sixth time Thursday.
After scoring a total of 57 points in the first three games, the Packers have averaged 30 points over their last five. They have held their last three opponents to 24 points or less, and are tied with Arizona for the league lead with 26 sacks.
Beat the Cardinals on Sunday, and Green Bay can head into its much-needed bye knowing it is carrying momentum into the final stretch of the season.
"At this point of the season, you start thinking where you want to be at in December," Rodgers said. "And if they want to be where we want to be, this is an important game for both teams."
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