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Game one of two? Cardinals prepare for Packers in potential playoff preview

TEMPE, Ariz. — In 2009, the Arizona Cardinals finished their regular season against a Green Bay Packers team they were set to face the following week in the Wild Card Round of the NFC playoffs.

It was an odd situation, and with nothing on the line and not wanting to show the Packers anything that could be a factor in the playoffs, the Cardinals — for the most part — rested their starters and ran a vanilla game plan en route to a 33-7 loss.

This season, the Cardinals are set to face the Packers in a Week 16 tilt that could be a preview of the divisional round, at least if things go as many expect them to. However, unlike six years ago, do not expect Arizona to ease up in any way. The starters will play and the playbook will be vast. There’s still too much at stake.

“I hope so,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said when asked if it enters his mind at all that these teams could meet again in the playoffs. “No, we’ve got to win. We’ve got to win so we do see them again, hopefully at our place.”

That’s the key.

With a win, the Cardinals would secure a first-round bye in the postseason, likely as the NFC’s No. 2 seed, and with that comes a home game in the division round. Then, if the conference’s No. 1 seed — presumably the Carolina Panthers — loses in the divisional round, the Cardinals could host the NFC Championship Game.

With a loss, well, they could still end up as the second seed, though the situation would be a bit more precarious and there would be a chance the Cardinals could fall to the conference’s third seed, which would mean playing at home in the Wild Card round before hitting the road the following week, likely heading to Wisconsin.

“It’s a good opportunity for us to win this week and you never know would could happen with the one seed, or whatever the situation is, and we could play all the games here at home if it turns out the right way,” cornerback Jerraud Powers said. “So it’s real big for us to get it this week so we don’t have to depend or hope going into the last week of the season that they slip up or something.

“Nobody in the league wants to go to Green Bay in January, so if we can stay here in this great Arizona weather — which has been cold to me the past month or so — it would be better for us.”

He’s not wrong.

With all that said, this game does present an interesting scenario, for both teams.

Though they are not guaranteed to see each other again, the fact that it could happen adds an extra layer of intrigue to Sunday’s matchup. What happens Sunday would have absolutely no bearing on what transpires in the postseason, other than possibly the location of the game, yet the winner will have that extra bit of confidence should they meet again. After all, if the Cardinals beat the Packers Sunday, why can’t they do it again, and if the Packers pull off the upset once, who is to say they can’t do it twice?

“We want to win it to send a message, and they want to win it to send a message because we both realize that we’re probably going to play each other again,” Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer said, adding that otherwise the approach to this game does not change even if it’s a playoff preview.

And why should it? There’s no doubt the Cardinals would rather not empty their bag of tricks Sunday, preferring to save a few things for Round 2. But before the Cardinals can even think about the playoffs, they need to determine their seed. They know that, and are well aware of what a win Sunday would mean.

In a season filled with franchise firsts and records, a victory would mark another step toward Santa Clara.

“It’s a huge setup for a first-round bye,” safety Rashad Johnson said. “Two wins to get in the Super Bowl instead of three; I’d rather go two instead of three, and for us, we want to get a home field game. We know how great our crowd is and how well we play at home. But at the end of the day, none of that matters if we don’t take care of Sunday.”

Some stories for pre-game reading

In case you missed it, the Cardinals were the last team in the NFL to have a 12-win season.

As his role has increased, so has David Johnson’s confidence.

I wrote that losing Tyrann Mathieu hurts, but does not kill the Cardinals.

The Cardinals had seven players named to the Pro Bowl. Some think they should have had an eighth.

Arizona has no choice but to move on without Tyrann Mathieu.

Craig Morgan wrote on how facing the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers presents a litmus test for Carson Palmer.

Bruce Arians received a pretty cool Christmas present courtesy of Patrick Peterson.

Miscellany

-With a win Sunday, the Cardinals would improve to 25-5 against non-NFC West teams under Bruce Arians as well as have at least one victory over every NFC team since 2013.

-The Cardinals are two touchdowns away from establishing a new franchise record for touchdowns in a season. The current mark is 53, and it was set in 1948.

-Larry Fitzgerald’s first reception will be his 100th on the season and would make Fitz the ninth player in NFL history to record at least 100 catches in at least three different seasons.

-Fitzgerald is five catches away from breaking his own franchise record for receptions in a season, which he set at 103 in 2005.

-Carson Palmer is one touchdown pass away from setting a new career high for touchdown passes in a season. His current top mark of 32 was previously set in Cincinnati in 2005.

-With 307 passing yards, Palmer would pass Kurt Warner for second place on the franchise single-season passing yardage list. The franchise record of 4,614 was set by Neil Lomax in 1984.

-If David Johnson runs for 100 or more yards he would become the third rookie in franchise history to rush for 100+ yards in consecutive games.

-Receiver John Brown is 67 yards away from 1,000 on the season.

-Kicker Chandler Catanzaro is 12 points away from establishing a new franchise record for points in a season.

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