GREEN BAY – The Panthers are undefeated, but no team in the NFL has more impressive rankings than the Cardinals.
The No. 1 offense in the league is complemented by the No. 7 defense. The Cardinals’ lowest ranking is No. 12 against the pass, and that number has fallen in recent weeks largely because opponents haven’t been able to run the ball and have had to resort to the pass.
“Doing a really good job of stopping the run,” Cardinals Coach Bruce Arians said when asked the reasons for his defense’s success this season. “Our red zone defense has really picked up. The biggest thing is taking the ball away. We’ve been really good at getting turnovers, especially the last three weeks. Just playing hard and fast and physical.”
The Packers will be facing a Cardinals team playing at its highest level of the season. They’ve won eight in a row and are fresh off a 40-17 pasting of the Eagles, a game in which a new star emerged, running back David Johnson.
A rookie out of Northern Iowa, Johnson rushed for 187 yards and three touchdowns against the Eagles. He has seven rushing touchdowns this season to go with 30 pass receptions that include four touchdown catches.
“He didn’t slip for us. We had our fingers crossed for him the whole time,” Arians said when asked how Johnson made it under the radar to the third round of the draft.
“He’s worked hard his whole life,” Arians added. “He had jobs at Northern Iowa cleaning latrines and working in the cafeteria. This is a very mature young man who’s paid his dues. He’s not like a guy who’s been given everything, highly recruited and they have a sense of entitlement. You have to be very aware of those guys.”
The Cardinals are pursuing the franchise’s first league title since 1947. They were on course for a run at a title last season until they lost starting quarterback Carson Palmer and his backup to injury.
“Last year, we were 9-1 and lost both quarterbacks. You can lose a lot of guys, but you can’t lose your quarterbacks. With those guys healthy this year, it’s made the difference,” Arians said.
Palmer is the NFL’s second-rated passer (106.7 passer rating). He’s thrown 32 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions. His receivers include Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd, a trio that has combined for 19 touchdown catches.
“It’s hard to say I’ve ever had anyone play better,” Arians said of Palmer. “I think Ben’s (Roethlisberger) Super Bowl year, the year he won it, he was lights out all season. Peyton’s (Manning) second year; still he was up in interceptions. (Palmer is) playing extremely well right now, with a lot of confidence.”
Arians was one of the NFL’s esteemed offensive coordinators when he took the Cardinals head coaching job. Asked why Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ numbers are down, Arians said: “Probably the receivers are different. He lost some guys he had an unbelievable rapport with and chemistry with. It looks like they’re building it with James (Jones) and (Randall) Cobb and a couple of those guys, and the young tight end. It looks like getting the running game back has really helped them.”
The Cardinals lost cornerback Tyrann Mathieu to a torn ACL this week. Mathieu intercepted five passes this season and returned one of those picks for a touchdown.
“If there was a spot we had to lose a guy, it was probably the one spot we were deep at,” Arians said. “Nobody has played better in the league than Patrick (Peterson). Nobody even throws at him. Whoever he gets is canceled out.”
The Cardinals can clinch the NFC’s No. 2 seed with a win over the Packers. The Packers can claim the No. 2 seed with wins over the Cardinals and Vikings, combined with a Cardinals loss to the Seahawks on the final day of the season.
“This is probably perfect scheduling for us, to have such a big game after clinching the division. There’s so much riding on the game. I didn’t have to say anything to get them ready this morning,” Arians said.