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Without Tyrann Mathieu, Cards’ no-fly zone still in effect

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) is sacked by Arizona Cardinals cornerback Jerraud Powers (25) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The players who comprise the Cardinals secondary gathered this week at Jerraud Powers’ house for some laughs, some food and a little bit of football talk in the wake of Tyrann Mathieu’s season-ending ACL tear.

Every player there understood how badly Mathieu wanted to be a part of this season’s playoff run. Every player there wanted to dedicate part of that run to what Powers called a “fallen soldier,” but Powers wanted to make sure the Cards’ focus was still in the right place.

“He wanted to be in this position, but let’s not just neglect everything we did and just say we want to do it for Ty,” said Powers, who assumed Mathieu’s nickel position. “Everybody in this locker room wants the same thing he wants. Let’s keep everything in perspective but just know that we have to elevate our games because he was a big part of our defense.”

Mathieu may be grounded and safety Rashad Johnson still may be sidelined by an ankle injury, but the Cardinals’ made it clear against one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks that the no-fly zone is still in effect.

The Cardinals held Rodgers to 15 completions on 28 attempts for 151 yards and a 66.2 passer rating. The completions, yards and passer rating all represented the second lowest marks of Rodgers’ season. Arizona also intercepted him once (he has just seven this season) and forced him into three fumbles, two of which the Cardinals recovered and returned for TDs in a 38-8 win over the Packers on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium that secured a first-round playoff bye.

“We didn’t have a ton of guys open,” Rodgers said. “A few times, we didn’t have a chance and a few times, one and two are covered and I’m trying to move in the pocket and just wasn’t able to go somewhere with the football.”

Pressure from the defensive front played a major role in the secondary’s success, as it always does. The Cardinals recorded eight sacks of Rodgers and one of backup Scott Tolzien. The nine sacks were the most the team has posted since recording 10 against Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham on Dec. 7, 1986.

While that pressure forced Rodgers into some early or errant throws, some of the sacks were also a product of coverage.

“I knew we had really good matchups,” coach Bruce Arians said. “That’s a pretty good defensive performance without your two starting safeties.”

The Cardinals may not be able to replace Mathieu’s elite ball-hawking abilities, but Powers said he still must elevate his game in Mathieu’s absence.

“Ty was a flash, play-making nickel type guy,” Powers said. “In my mind, we can’t miss a beat from that nickel position. We have to have the same type of production or the defense isn’t going to be the same.”

While Powers held up his end of the bargain with three tackles and two fumble recoveries, the biggest question mark was cornerback Justin Bethel, who lacks the experience that the other key members of this unit possess.

The Packers knew that and Rodgers targeted Bethel repeatedly.

“I don’t know how many times they threw at me,” Bethel said, smiling. “They kept on doing me that back shoulder throw. That’s one of the hardest routes to cover.”

Bethel held his own. While he allowed a 40-yard pass completion to Davante Adams and was also whistled for a 47-yard pass interference penalty, Bethel had a huge interception in the end zone late in the first half that saved QB Carson Palmer after he was intercepted at the Cardinals 21-yard line with Arizona leading 10-0.

Bethel also made a touchdown-saving tackle on fourth-and-goal at the end of the third quarter when he dropped Adams at the 2-yard line to complete a goal-line stand.

“I think it just shows our versatility, especially when we lose a guy like Ty,” said Bethel, who had seven tackles and a pass defensed. “No matter what or any kind of adversity comes our way, we’ll be able to go out there and perform at a high level.”

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