Why We Watch: Cards, Packers give us early playoff preview


aaronrodgers2

(Aaron Rodgers photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packers)
(Larry Fitzgerald photo courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals)

By Clark Judge

Talk of Fame Network

OUR SUNDAY BEST

GREEN BAY @ ARIZONA, 4:25 p.m. (EST)

The line: Cards by 4-1/2

The story: This could be a preview of the NFC playoffs, with mighty Arizona measuring itself against a preseason Super Bowl favorite. Of course, much has changed since then, with the Cardinals flexing their muscles and the Packers surviving a turbulent season that included four losses in five weeks.

But Green Bay is back on track despite the possible absences of tackle David Bakhtiari and cornerback Sam Shields. The Pack won its last three (including that miracle in Detroit) and just clinched another playoff spot. But should we consider them a playoff heavyweight again? The answer is here, with the Packers up against one of two NFL teams to have a top-five defense and offense.

It’s also a team that just subtracted safety Tyrann Mathieu, and that’s huge. And while we may not know the implications of his loss for a couple of weeks, we’ll get an idea here — with quarterback Aaron Rodgers testing the Cardinals’ secondary with shots downfield.

Rodgers is having another decent year, but Arizona’s Carson Palmer is having a better one – and he may be the difference. The guy’s won 25 of his last 29 starts, including nine of his last 10 at home, and if you’re going to beat him you better get ahead and force him to take chances.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: This is Arizona’s first afternoon home game in nearly three months. The last time they had one was Week 4. Since then, they’ve had three home prime-time contests, seven road games and a bye.

THREE OTHERS SUITABLE FOR WALL-OF-FRAMING

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(Tom Brady photo courtesy of the New England Patriots)

NEW ENGLAND @ N.Y. JETS, 1 p.m. (EST)

The line: Patriots by 3

The story: With one more win, the Patriots gain home-field advantage for the second straight season. But they’re not the story. The New York Jets are because … well, because they can’t afford to lose. Period. New York is in a playoff sprint with Kansas City and Pittsburgh, and, sorry, Gang Green, but those two have easier paths to the finish line.

“This is huge for me,” said quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

I don’t doubt that. But it’s just as big for teammates that haven’t been to a playoff game since the 2010 season and lost nine of their last 10 to New England. And that’s where the trouble begins. This isn’t another obstacle for New York. It’s Tom Freakin’ Brady, who has 20 TDs and three interceptions in his last 10 starts vs. the Jets.

And it’s Bill Belichick, who always has a scheme to minimize the effectiveness of opponents’ biggest playmakers. In this instance, its wide receiver Brandon Marshall, whom the Patriots held to four catches and 67 yards in an October victory.

I have no doubt the Jets bottle up what’s left of New England’s running game, but how do they disrupt Brady? Answer: Take away the short passing game and hope to get to him with blitzing pass rushers. If that doesn’t happen, it’s see ya next year.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: In his last four starts, Fitzpatrick has 10 TDs and one interception. He has a personal-best 26 touchdown passes and needs three more to tie Vinny Testaverde’s club record.

CAROLINA @ ATLANTA, 1 p.m. (EST)

The line: Panthers by 7

The story: Carolina looks like a dead-bolt cinch to make it to 16-0, and this is the last speed bump along the parade route. Once upon a time, Atlanta was a worthy opponent. But not anymore. In fact, this is the same team Carolina hammered two weeks ago in a 38-0 beatdown.

So why can’t that happen again? It can. But the Falcons have something at stake here, and it’s called self-respect. They have a chance to show their fans they’re not as dreadful as that mess that caved two weeks ago. Moreover, they have an opportunity to demonstrate there might be hope for next year.

Of course, that’s the half-full approach. Another way of looking at it is that the Falcons have nothing left to play for, have been in full-scale retreat for two months and are woefully overmatched by the NFL’s best team. Cam Newton is playing at another level these days, so that’s the more viable option, but there’s always the chance Atlanta rediscovers that September magic and pulls the shocker.

Unfortunately for Falcons’ fans, it’s not much of one.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Panthers have run for 100 or more yards in 25 straight games, tied with Seattle for the longest active streak.

N.Y. GIANTS @ MINNESOTA, 8:30 p.m. (EST)

The line: Vikings by 5-1/2

The story: It’s been a bad week for Big Blue. First, they lost Odell Beckham for this game. Then came word that Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer won’t rest starters if the Falcons and Packers lose Sunday. Put them together and what do you have? Another Giants’ loss, in all likelihood.

Once upon a time, the Giants were in position to win the NFC East. Now, they’re toast, with the futures of coach Tom Coughlin and GM Jerry Reese on life support. Could an 8-8 finish – as remote as that is – save them? It saved Coughlin in 2006. But that was then, and this is now, and then the Giants at least made the playoffs. But look what’s happened since New York won Super Bowl XLVI: It’s 28-34, with no playoff appearances.

The problem here is that the Giants are up against a better team that not only has weapons galore – including Adrian Peterson and rapidly improving quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who’s coming off his best game ever – but an incentive, too. With a victory, the Vikings clinch a playoff spot. Plus, how is New York going to puncture the Vikings’ seventh-ranked pass defense without Beckham? I’m surprised the betting line isn’t bigger than it is.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: With 100 yards, Eli Manning will set a team record with five 4,000-yard seasons.

MONDAY NIGHT LIGHTS

GreenAJ

(A.J. Green photo courtesy of the Cincinnati Bengals)

CINCINNATI @ DENVER, 8:30 p.m. (EST)

The line: Broncos by 3-1/2

The story: Talk about an intriguing game. If the Bengals win, they nail down the AFC North, clinch a first-round bye and open the door in Kansas City for an AFC West title. If the Broncos win, they can clinch the AFC West (with a Kansas City loss), stay alive for the first-round bye and open the door for a Peyton Manning return.

Manning won’t play this game. Brock Osweiler will. And so far, that’s been OK. But there are a couple of problems that need to be addressed: 1) His pass protection sprung leaks the past two weeks, and 2) he’s failed to put up a single second-half point the last three. Honest. None vs. San Diego. None vs. Kansas City. And none vs. Pittsburgh.

If that happens again, look for the Bengals to pull the upset.

Yeah, I know, AJ McCarron’s the quarterback, but he has enough talent around him – on offense and defense – to make this a photo-finish. In all likelihood, the Bengals won’t crack the league’s top-ranked run defense, and that’s how the Broncos like it. They want to put the pressure on McCarron and force him beat him, figuring he’s not up to the job.

Cincinnati probably won’t have Tyler Eifert again, and that’s a plus for Denver. But the Bengals should return cornerbacks Leon Hall and Dre Kirkpatrick, and that’s a plus for them. The Broncos, meanwhile, may have safety T.J. Ward back in the lineup. He practiced the past two days and seems ready to go.

Make this one a game that goes to the wire, and, given the Broncos’ recent second-half history, that could be a problem for Denver.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: Gary Kubiak is 5-0 vs. Cincinnati, while the Broncos lost their last nine in Denver.

LOCK OF THE WEEK

Regular Season

(Ben Roethlisberger photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers)

PITTSBURGH over BALTIMORE, 1 p.m. (EST)

The line: Steelers by 10

The story: I know this series has a history of close games, but not here and not now. The Steelers have Big Ben at quarterback. The Ravens could have Ryan Mallett, a fourth-stringer. Up until the past two weeks, the Ravens played opponents close, but that ship has sailed, people. They dropped their last two by a combined 49 points. Consider this another step to January for Pittsburgh.

Hall-of-Fame worthy: The Steelers won their last 10 in December.

UPSET ALERTS

(Home team in capital letters)

Rick Gosselin. Washington (+3) over PHILADELPHIA. The Redskins can wrap up the division with a win over the Eagles. Kirk Cousins will get it done.

Clark Judge. Chicago (+3) over TAMPA BAY. Lovie Smith wants to send a message to his old team, but his old team beats him to it: We’re Number Two.

Ron Borges. NEW YORK JETS (+3) vs. New England. Take the Jets and the points vs. a beaten-up Patriots team. New England needs only to win one of its last two to lock up the No. 1 seed , while the Jets need to win twice to keep their playoff hopes alive. Go with the more desperate team.

FIVE GUYS ON SUNDAY’S HALL-OF-FAME RADAR

Philadelphia QB Sam Bradford. In two prior games vs. Washington he’s thrown for six touchdowns and one interception and surpassed 100.0 in passer ratings in both starts.

Carolina WR Ted Ginn Jr. He’s aiming for his fourth straight game with two or more touchdowns.

Detroit QB Matt Stafford. In his last five homes games he’s thrown for 13 TDs and one interception and has a passer rating of 115.2.

Chicago QB Jay Cutler. He’s won all three career starts vs. Tampa Bay.

Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald. He has four touchdowns in three career games vs. Green Bay (including the playoffs).

HALL OF NOTES-WORTHY

There are 18 teams still in contention for the Super Bowl.

New England has a sack in 27 straight games, the longest current active streak in the league.

Carolina is the fourth team in the Super Bowl era to start 14-0. Moreover, the Panthers won their last 18 straight regular-season games.

Under Bruce Arians, Arizona is 18-4 at home – the fourth-best home record since the start of the 2013 season.

Ben Roethlisberger leads the league with six 350-yard passing games.

With four catches Sunday, Antonio Brown joins Cris Carter as the only players in history to have back-to-back 120-catch seasons.

Tom Brady’s next touchdown pass will tie Brett Favre’s record for the most (481) with one team.

With seven catches Sunday, the Jets’ Brandon Marshall becomes the first player in league history to have six 100-catch seasons.

Anquan Boldin needs one catch Sunday to become the 13th player in NFL history to have 1,000 career receptions.

With a half-sack vs. Arizona, Green Bay’s Julius Peppers becomes the fifth player to have nine 10-sacks seasons since sacks were recognized as an official statistic (1982).

The Lions rank first in red-zone offense with a 71.4 touchdown percentage.

Andy Reid is 5-0 vs. Cleveland.

Denver makes a Monday Night appearance for the 24th straight season, second only to Oakland’s run of 28 straight (1970-97).

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