8:20 PM EST, FOX – Line: Cardinals -6.5, Over/Under: 50.5
Division leaders square off in the desert, as the unbeaten Arizona Cardinals look to remain perfect as they play host to the surging Green Bay Packers from State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. After a controversial summer, it appears that winning indeed cures all ills as the Packers (6-1, 1st in NFC North) have won six consecutive games following a disappointing loss in the season opener. Coming into the campaign, the status of (reigning MVP) Aaron Rodgers (68.3%, 1,710 YDS, 6.70 NY/A, 15 TD, 3 INT, 66.2 QBR) dominated the national headlines, with the 38-year old requesting a trade, which after months of deliberation was never met by Green Bay, creating more bad blood between club and Quarterback, with Rodgers resigned to leaving as a free agent at the culmination of this season. So with the clock ticking, the Packers are looking to make this final run with the three-time MVP count after coming oh so close in recent years; (Head Coach) Matt LaFleur’s charges have advanced to each of the last two NFC Championship Games, only to come up short on both occasions, including a 37-20 thumping at the San Francisco 49ers in early 2020 before losing a thrilling 31-26 affair at home to the (eventual Super Bowl Champion) Tampa Bay Buccaneers last January. Initially it looked like this team going to be in for a rough ride early after getting blasted by the New Orleans Saints (38-3) on a neutral field no less, with Rodgers picked off twice in what would be their only loss of the year to this point. Since then, Green Bay has won six straight outings on the strength of a balanced, efficient attack and an opportunistic Defense en route to building a comfortable multi-game lead within the NFC North. While he may not be thrilled with his situation, you wouldn’t know it from his play on the field as Rodgers has been his vintage self during this streak, completing 70.5% of his attempts for an average of 262.8 yards on a healthy 7.59 net yards per attempt, with fifteen touchdowns in comparison to just one interception, while picking up another two scores with his legs (the Bears can vouch for that last one). The ground game has gotten going too during this stretch, with the Packers churning out 122.8 rushing yards prior to last weekend’s 24-10 victory in Washington, which marked the first time that they were held below 100 yards since Week Two, amassing just fifty-seven yards against a ferocious defensive front. (Tailbacks) Aaron Jones (89 CAR, 404 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 2 TD) and A.J. Dillon (52 CAR, 231 YDS, 4.4 Y/A, 0 TD) have settled into this “thunder & lightning” dynamic, with the former leading the team with 404 yards and a pair of touchdowns while also factoring heavily into the passing game with twenty-six receptions for 186 yards and four more scores. LaFleur has emphasized the importance of the run game since he’s been in Green Bay, opening the Offense up to the possibility of play-action and other creativity, which was rarely seen prior to his arrival; Rodgers threw a career-high 140 passes out of play-action last season (up from 124 in 2019), though has attempted just forty such throws thus far for 334 yards, accounting for just under 20.0% of his passing yardage, which is down from 26.9% in 2020. A reason for this could be his Receiving Corps, which is the deepest it’s been in years, and that depth is to be tested in a MAJOR way tonight as they are set to be without both (All-Pro) Davante Adams (52 REC, 774 YDS, 14.3 Y/R, 3 TD) and Allen Lazard (15 REC, 184 YDS,12.3 Y/R, 2 TD) who have landed on the league’s Reserve/COVID-19 list earlier in the week. A year after leading the National Football League with a career-high eighteen touchdown receptions, Adams is averaging a personal-best 106.3 yards thus far. Needless to say, his precise route-running will surely be missed tonight. With that said, arguably the biggest proponent of the Packers’ recent string of success has bee the play of their Defense, which has really started to find itself under the watch of (new Defensive Coordinator) Joe Barry. After spending the last four years in Los Angeles as Sean McVay’s Assistant Head Coach, the 51-year old was brought into the fold by LaFleuer, yet another McVay disciple, to inject some more big plays into a unit that had lacked that dimension in recent seasons. In previous posts we’ve discussed the term havoc plays, which includes all defensive plays that end in a loss, a turnover, or deflected pass. Through seven weeks, Green Bay has racked up fifteen tackles for loss (32nd Overall), eighteen sacks (9th Overall), seven interceptions (7th Overall), five recovered fumbles (8th Overall), and twenty-seven deflected passes (18th Overall), equating to a 16.7% havoc percentage. During this streak they’ve forced at least two turnovers in all but one contest, parlaying to a healthy Plus-8 differential. (Veteran Linebacker) De’Vondre Campbell (68 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH, 2 FF, 1 FR, 2 INT, 3 PD) has been a revelation after being acquired via Free Agency, leading the team with sixty-eight tackles and three takeaways, while the pass-rush has stepped up admirably without (Edge-Rusher) Za’Darius Smith (1 TKL), who continues to languish on Injured Reserve with an ailing back. Five different players have logged multiple sacks, with (former 12th Overall Pick) Rashan Gary (25 TKL, 1 TFL, 15 QBH, 3.5 SK, 1 FF) really flourishing under Barry’s guidance, recording season-highs in Quarterback Hits (4) and sacks (2) in last weekend’s win over Washington. Unfortunately, Barry also tested positive for COVID-19 and will not be calling plays for tonight’s affair, though reportedly took part in the week’s gameplan virtually. As the Packers look to maintain their momentum on a short week it bears noting that they are 9-5 on Thursday Nights dating back to 2011, though if take into account that three of those were Season Openers and another was a Thanksgiving Day affair that immediately followed another Thursday contest, they’re really 6-4 on the short week. Furthermore, they have lost four consecutive meetings with the Cardinals dating back to 2009, though tonight’s encounter will be their first since a 20-17 loss in the desert back in 2018. Of course, Rodgers has some history with Arizona who together authored two of the most entertaining postseason performances of his venerable career; though he came up short on both occasions, Rodgers accounted for 423 yards and five touchdowns before a sack fumble return to the house ended a wild 51-45 overtime affair in the 2009 Wild Card, followed six years later by 41-yard walk-off touchdown to send the 2015 Division Championship into overtime where he and Green Bay eventually fell 26-20.
Meanwhile, the last remaining undefeated in the NFL, the Cardinals (7-0, 1st in NFC West) are off to their best start since 1974 when the franchise was coincidentally still located in St. Louis, and with a win tonight would move to 8-0 for the first time in their long history. Simply put, this team has been a prime example of how to build progressively, for over the course of three seasons they have exhibited noticeable improvement with each passing year. Needless to say, when the Bidwell’s opted to hire (Head Coach) Kliff Kingsbury in 2019, they were met with some serious murmurs from around the NFL. In addition to parting ways with (Former Head Coach) Steve Wilks after just one year in the desert, the 42-year old had never coached in the professional ranks, and quite frankly left a lot to be desired given his time on the collegiate level; in six years at Texas Tech, he managed to amass an unremarkable 35-40 record (.467), which included five straight losing campaigns. However, what Kingsbury had going for him was he recruited and developed (2018 MVP) Patrick Mahomes and (2018 No. One Overall Pick) Baker Mayfield, and employed a particular system that was being eyed by some NFL teams, with the New York Jets reportedly wanting to hire him as their Offensive Coordinator. The Cardinals, who held the No. One Overall Pick in the Draft that year opted to beat Gang Green to the punch and made Kingsbury their leading man, with the skipper’s glowing affection for (reigning Heisman Quarterback) Kyler Murray (73.5%, 2,002 YDS, 7.78 NY/A, 17 TD, 5 INT, 65.0 QBR) proving to be the decisive factor as the franchise made him the first selection overall. While Year One certainly featured it’s ups and downs, with Arizona finishing last in a STACKED NFC West at 5-10-1, Year Two concluded with a much more respectable 8-8 record. Coming into Year Three, (General Manager) Steve Keim set out to add some veterans to the mix, which he did in the form of (three-time Defensive Player of the Year) J.J. Watt (16 TKL, 5 TFL, 10 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 PD), (seven-time Pro Bowl Receiver) A.J. Green (24 REC, 406 YDS, 16.9 Y/R, 3 TD), and (three-time Pro Bowl Center) Rodney Hudson to name but a few, with the likes of (two-time All-Pro Edge-Rusher) Chandler Jones (9 TKL, 5 TFL, 14 QBH, 5.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR) returning to the fold after missing most of 2020 with a torn ACL. As a result, this group has developed into a potent cocktail on both sides of the football, with the Offense averaging a robust 32.1 points per game (4th Overall) on 423.3 total yards (7th Overall), while the Defense has yielded the fewest points in the league (16.3) and forced fourteen turnovers (4th Overall). After a stellar Sophomore campaign Murray has really come into his own this season, particularly as a passer in which he’s posted career-bests in a slew of categories including completion percentage (73.5%), yards per game (286.0), yards per attempt (9.0), net yards per attempt (7.78), touchdown percentage (7.6%), and passer rating (116.8). While he was seriously effective as a rusher last year (133 CAR, 819 YDS, 6.2 Y/A, 11 TD), he’s become far more comfortable within the pocket, utilizing his surreal quickness and agility to set up huge plays downfield to a Receiving Corps that while headlined by (All-Pro) DeAndre Hopkins (43 REC, 420 YDS, 12.7 Y/R, 7 TD), is deeper than ever with the additions of the aforementioned Green and (Rookie) Rondale Moore (26 REC, 303 YDS, 11.7 Y/R, 1 TD,), along with (former Pro Bowl Tight End) Zach Ertz (21 REC, 255 YDS, 12.1 Y/R, 3 TD), who was acquired last week via trade with the Philadelphia Eagles. In fact, Ertz wasted no time in making his presence felt in the desert with three catches for sixty-six yards and a touchdown in his debut in last weekend’s 31-5 beatdown of the Houston Texans. Hopkins would also breach the end zone against his former employers, reeling in seven receptions for fifty-three yards. But getting back to Murray, the 24-year old is averaging just 18.0 rushing yards per game (down from 51.2 a year ago), in large part because he doesn’t have to; the addition of Hudson has gone a long way towards stabilizing the Offensive Line and affording him more time to stay in the pocket, while the tandem of (Tailbacks) James Conner (89 CAR, 336 YDS, 3.8 Y/A, 6 TD) and Chase Edmonds (68 CAR, 397 YDS, 5.8 Y/A, 0 TD) has been nothing short of a pleasant surprise. On the opposite side of the football, the story is about to get more interesting indeed, for the Cardinals are being hit with their first dose of adversity in the form of the aforementioned Watt’s latest injury; the 32-year old is likely to miss the remainder of the campaign with a shoulder injury suffered against his former team last Sunday, marking the fourth time in the last six years that his season has ended prematurely. It remains to be seen how this will effect (Defensive Coordinator) Vance Joseph’s unit, for even with Watt on the field they rank next-to-last in opponent’s yards per rush (5.0). Furthermore, his presence was expected to open things up for the aforementioned Jones, who despite accumulating a career-high FIVE sacks in the Season Opener has been shut out over the last six weeks. Arizona will be counting on the continued growth of their young core, with (Defensive Backs) Budda Baker (40 TKL, 2 TFL. 1 FR, 1 INT, 2 PD) and Byron Murphy (24 TKL, 3 INT, 7 PD, 1 TD), along with (versatile Linebacker) Isaiah Simmons (47 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 0.5 SK, 2 FF, 1 INT, 3 PD) each raising their level of play throughout the first half of 2021. And they’re going to need to keep that up as they prepare to meet the aforementioned Rodgers and the Packers, who will serve as the latest test for this upstart contender; with these teams sporting a combined record of 13-1, there has never been an episode of Thursday Night Football to feature a better aggregate mark. However, don’t expect these Cardinals to shrink in the face of their more heralded opponent; Kingsbury’s charges went on the road and HAMMERED the Tennessee Titans (38-15) and Los Angeles Rams (37-20) by a combined FORTY-TWO points and is two weeks removed from relegating the Cleveland Browns and their top-ranked rushing attack to a season-low seventy-three yards in a 37-14 drubbing. Arizona is 4-5 on Thursday nights since 2012, losing three in a row including each of their last two under Kingsbury’s watch.