Packers vs. Cardinals preview: Who has the advantage in Week 8?

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The Green Bay Packers (6-1) and Arizona Cardinals (7-0) will clash Thursday night at State Farm Stadium in one of the most highly anticipated primetime games of the 2021 season so far.

Both NFC heavyweights will be missing key players on a short week, but an excellent quarterback matchup and exciting talent all over the field for both teams should make Thursday night an electric and highly entertaining contest.

Football is a complicated game, but finding the reasons for winning individual matchups between teams is often a straightforward exercise. What wins games? Excellent quarterback play, winning the line of scrimmage, taking care of the football and taking it away, controlling the important situations and overcoming or taking advantage of the injury situation.

In our weekly preview series, Zach Kruse from Packers Wire and Jess Root from Cards Wire went deep into the matchup to determine who has the advantage at the five key factors for winning football games in the NFL.

QB play

Kyler Murray.

Packers Wire: For the first time all season, the Packers won’t have a sizable advantage at the quarterback position. Aaron Rodgers is playing incredibly well since Week 1, completing 70 percent of his passes with 15 touchdown passes, one interception and a passer rating of 118.6, but Kyler Murray is a legitimate MVP favorite after seven games. Now in Year 3, Murray looks like the complete package. Rodgers’ experience gives him the edge here in a few areas, but overall this should be one of the best quarterbacking matchups of the season. Without a few weapons at receiver, the Packers need Rodgers to be the ultimate game manager, which isn’t a diss. If he can play a clean game and distribute the ball decisively and effectively, the Packers will have a chance.

Cards Wire: Kyler Murray has been playing at an MVP level, and it has been by throwing the ball. He has three receivers now pacing to surpass or be near 1,000 yards. No one has more completions for more than 30 yards. He is playing extremely well in all phases, but the most marked improvement has been in the intermediate passing game. There are quarterbacks playing at as high a level, but no one is playing better.

Advantage: Push

Line of scrimmage

(AP Photo/Kamil Krzaczynski)

Packers Wire: The Packers won’t have All-Pro edge rusher Za’Darius Smith (IR) and might not have All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari (PUP) or edge rusher Preston Smith (oblique), giving the Cardinals a potential advantage on both sides of the line of scrimmage. In terms of ESPN’s pass and run block win rate, the Packers get the edge in pass-blocking, run-blocking and run-stopping, while the Cardinals have a slight advantage in pass-rushing. The grades at Pro Football Focus mostly agree, so the battle at the line might be closer than many would probably expect. The big question: Can the Packers keep a good pass-rush off Aaron Rodgers? The Packers quarterback has been deadly from clean pockets this season. Rodgers and the offense will need time to push the ball downfield, create explosive plays and score enough points to win. I’m inclined to give Arizona a slight edge here based on the crowd noise and in-stadium energy that often fuels a great pass-rush, even if J.J. Watt is out.

Cards Wire: Offensively, everything is clicking. Murray has time to pass the ball. While he is currently out, center Rodney Hudson has really improved the interior line play. They are much more physical up front on offense and it is notable in the running game. Murray made up a big chunk of the rushing attack last year, rushing for 819 yards in 2020. He only has 126 so far this season and the team is averaging 136.6 yards per game, which is fifth in the league. Murray averages only 18 yards of that per game. Defensively, the Cardinals are not great at stopping the run, but they shut down the Titans and the Browns, so the potential is there. Of course, they don’t have to stop the run much when they have led in most games. That said, the defense is playing very well up front. Chandler Jones, Markus Golden and J.J. Watt each have forced three turnovers with pressure.

Advantage: Cardinals

Turnovers

(AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)

Packers Wire: Here’s where the Packers need to create an advantage. The defense has forced 11 takeaways over the six-game win streak, including at least two in five of the six games. This team derives so much of its winning formula to the turnover battle. The offense protects the ball well, even though A.J. Dillon fumbled twice last week, and the defense is looking disruptive up front and opportunistic in the back seven. The Packers could have a real chance at an upset if they can force Kyler Murray into a bad decision or get better fumble-recovery luck (1-for-4 last week). The Cardinals are plus-8 in turnover margin this season, including plus-7 in fumbles (one lost, eight recovered), so it won’t be easy.

Cards Wire: The Cardinals are No. 1 in forced fumbles. They are third in takeaways. They are third in turnover differential at plus-8. Plus, they have forced 12 turnovers on downs, the most in the league.

Advantage: Cardinals

Situational

Chris Coduto-USA TODAY Sports

Packers Wire: Major advantage here for the Cardinals. Arizona has the No. 1 third-down defense, No. 1 fourth-down offense and No. 1 fourth-down defense, plus the No. 8 third-down offense, No. 7 red-zone offense, and No. 11 red-zone defense. This might be the best situational team in football through seven weeks. The Packers finally got a few red-zone stops on defense, but this team still ranks in the bottom half of the NFL in third-down defense and in the red zone on both sides. The offense has to avoid third-and-long situations because Arizona’s defense has feasted on teams behind the sticks this season. It’ll be a very long night if the Packers are in obvious passing situations consistently. And it’ll be even longer if the team can’t get off the field against Kyler Murray.

Cards Wire: This is also a strong point. They have the NFL’s best third-down defense at 28.8% allowed. They have the No. 1 fourth-down defense at 25% allowed and, as noted, have the most fourth-down stops with 12.They are eighth in the league in third-down efficiency on offense, converting 44.4% of the time. They have scored touchdowns on 68.8% of their trips to the red zone and are third with 4.6 trips to the red zone per game.

Verdict: Cardinals

Injury situation

(AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

Packers Wire: The Packers will likely be without four All-Pros: David Bakhtiari, Za’Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander (IR) and Davante Adams (COVID-19). Tough to beat that in terms of missing talent. Matt LaFleur’s team will also be without center Josh Myers (IR) and could also be without two other starting receivers (Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard), a starting edge rusher (Preston Smith) and a starting cornerback (Kevin King).

Cards Wire: Hudson is on injured reserve. Chandler Jones and Zach Allen return from the COVID list. Other than that, J.J. Watt is out and DeAndre Hopkins is questionable.

Advantage: Cardinals

Verdict: Cardinals

The Packers won’t have the big advantage at quarterback to rely on this week. Kyler Murray is playing great and leading an elite offense, so the Packers will probably need Rodgers to be at his best to have a chance to win. The offense must also avoid difficult spots against arguably the best situational football team in the NFL through seven weeks. If Rodgers is consistently facing third-and-long, it’s game over, good night. First and second down will be huge. Winning the line of scrimmage and the turnover battle could be the path to a victory for the Packers. Rodgers has been great from clean pockets, and the pass-rush and secondary have worked together well to create takeaways during the win streak. Still, most of the winning factors point Arizona’s way entering Thursday night.

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