Rodgers matchup a litmus test of Palmer’s NFL status

Dec 24, 2015, 11:04 AM | Updated: 4:59 pm

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TEMPE, Ariz. — Since the dawn of the current decade, the NFL’s quarterback pecking order has been regimented in trios of names. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers always topped the list. Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers took extended turns in the limelight. Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Joe Flacco had periodic flirtations.

When you scan the annual lists of NFL passing leaders and the annual draft lists of players chosen at that position, it’s stunning to see how few teams receive quality quarterback play, let alone elite performance. In his third season in Arizona, however, it’s clear that Carson Palmer has claimed a spot in the NFL’s tough-to-reach QB penthouse.

Through 14 games, Palmer ranks third in the NFL in passing yards (career-high 4,277), second in passer rating (106.7) and he is tied for third in touchdowns thrown (32). With a win over Green Bay on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, Palmer would punctuate his place in the game on two fronts. The Cardinals would clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs and Palmer would take down the guy who has been the NFC’s best quarterback this decade: Rodgers.

Regardless of Sunday’s outcome, however, Green Bay’s two-time MVP winning quarterback believes Palmer already belongs among the NFL’s elite QBs.

“I think he’s got to be leading, or right in the MVP debate,” Rodgers said Wednesday via conference call. “He’s had a great season.”

“I got to know him a little bit over the years, and I have a ton of respect for him as a player. He’s just a great guy to be around. I’m really happy for his success and I think he deserves to be in the conversation for sure.”

By his own standards, Rodgers is having an off year. He is 16th in yards (3,379), 12th in passer rating (95.2), tied for seventh in TD passes (29) and 24th in completion percentage (60.8). A large portion of those numbers can be attributed to Green Bay’s well-chronicled deficiencies at the receiver position, but Cardinals coach Bruce Arians isn’t underestimating the challenge Rodgers will present on Sunday.

“He’s got great feet in the pocket, but he can also get out,” Arians said. “When he gets out, he’s extending the play down the field and he’s extremely accurate with any kind of underhand, overhand throw. He’s the best there is at improvisation, as far as throwing the ball down the field, and he can still hurt you with his legs.”

There is another area where Rodgers still excels above all others.

“The biggest thing with him is that he just doesn’t throw interceptions,” Arians said. “He’s going to put it where his guys can get it and nobody else.”

Among quarterbacks with at least 450 passing attempts, Rodgers is tied with Brady for the fewest interceptions in the league at six. Among QBs with at least 1,500 attempts, Rodgers has the lowest interception percentage in NFL history at 1.6 (Brady is second at 1.9). Since he became a starter in 2008, Rodgers has more games without an interception (69) than any QB in the league.

Palmer has made strides in that area. He hasn’t thrown an interception in his last four games. Through 14 games, he has nine interceptions, putting him on pace for his fewest picks in a full season in his career.

That stat is all the more impressive when you consider how often Palmer throws the ball downfield. Palmer’s 138 attempts beyond 15 yards are the second most in the NFL, his 73 completions are No. 1 and his 52.9 completion percentage is second on such throws. He has amassed 1,887 yards and 13 TDs on passes of 15 yards or more.

“He just sees the game so fast and just has that patience about him where everything is in rhythm,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Any time the quarterback and the offense are in sync the way they are it’s fun to watch.”

Palmer has repeatedly attributed his success to his pairing with Arians, a coach he credits with revitalizing his career after two difficult seasons in Oakland. At the same time, Palmer admits he is far from a finished product.

“I’m still learning and getting better and figuring things out and making mistakes and improving on them,” he said.  “It wasn’t an overnight thing. It was a gradual progress and I think we’re still heading in that direction.”

Both Rodgers and Palmer were selected to the Pro Bowl this week — Rodgers’ fifth selection and Palmer’s third — but there is one step Palmer must still take to cement his place among the league’s great quarterbacks. He must win a Super Bowl.

In that regard, this week’s pivotal game against Rodgers is a major test, even if Palmer was downplaying its significance on Wednesday.

“Each game at this time of the year, the games mean a little bit more; they get a little bit bigger,” he said. “There are even more implications on this one, so it’s a little bit more important than last week.”

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