When you look at stats, game tape, and recent trends, the Green Bay Packers come up from under the radar and surprise as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Remember how Aaron Rodgers(notes) was constantly under pressure earlier in the season? In the second half of the season, with Rodgers getting rid of the ball quicker and the Green Bay line getting healthier, he was only sacked 13 wines in the last eight games after suffering 37 takedowns in the first eight contests. That mirrors a late-season offensive efficiency that has taken the Pack to the top of Football Outsiders' Weighted DVOA rankings. In short, this is an opponent-adjusted metric designed to spot teams with great momentum down the stretch. No team has a better Weighted DVOA than the Packers, and this has to do with more than just their passing game.
In the second half of the season, Green Bay's run DVOA spiked from 11th in the first half of the season to first overall in the second half. Yes, the Packers do have a running game. You may have missed it in all those interesting shotgun formations and multi-receiver packages, but Ryan Grant(notes) finished seventh in the NFL this season with 1,253 rushing yards and only Chris Johnson finished higher in FO's season-total metric for running backs.
And the defense? Fuhgeddaboudit. That's been the biggest story this year for this team, how Dom Capers came in and installed the old-school "Blitzburgh" style 3-4 he ran in the early Bill Cowher days. Only the Jets allowed fewer total yards, only the Jets and Vikings allowed fewer first downs, only the Ravens allowed fewer rushing yards per attempt, only the Jets, Bills and Saints allowed a lower overall passer rating, and no team came close to Green Bay's turnover ratio of +27. That scheme has allowed the Pack to overcome the losses of Aaron Kampman(notes) and Al Harris(notes), turned Clay Matthews(notes) into a dominant rookie edge rusher, and put Charles Woodson(notes) firmly in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.
The Arizona Cardinals are actually a better team than the one that surpised just about everyone by finagling a Super Bowl berth last year, but it might not be enough in this case. Last year, it was the Cards who caught fire at the right time. Now, the numbers don't seem to match up. They still have the lethal Kurt Warner(notes)-to-Larry Fitzgerald combo, but Capers will either put Woodson man-on-man with Fitzgerald, or cover him on the other side with zone brackets that may have Warner bailing to safety valves underneath. With Anquan Boldin(notes) at game-time decision status with ankle and knee injuries, the Cards may lack the complementary threat that would keep the Capers D off Fitzgerald's back at all times.
Arizona is a pass-happy team with the ability to run the ball with power, and they must find a way to do so against Green Bay's outstanding ground defense. But the real key is the avoidance of mistakes -- as opportunistic as the Packers prove to be with their ridiculous turnover ratio, the Cards are just as prone to giving up the ball -- they did so five more times than they took the ball away. Arizona can win this game if they play at the peak of team ability, but I don't like their chances. The Packers are as hot as the Cowboys, or Chargers, or any other team left in the playoff hunt.