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A week off in January: Cardinals enter final week with bye already in hand

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver John Brown (12) scores a touchdown as Green Bay Packers strong safety Morgan Burnett (42) defends during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals have already accomplished some goals in 2015.

They’ve already clinched the NFC West, guaranteeing at least one home playoff game and they did that while setting a new franchise record for wins.

Sunday, they had another goal in mind: Beat the Green Bay Packers and secure no worse than the two-seed in the NFC Playoffs.

Mission accomplished.

The Arizona defense flustered Aaron Rodgers all day, racking up nine sacks, forcing four turnovers and scoring two touchdowns in an impressive 38-8 win at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The win guarantees a Cardinals’ bye in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, which begin in two weeks.

“To get a bye, whichever seed it is, is outstanding,” head coach Bruce Arians said. “That’s the goal we set back in April in our first team meeting. It was to learn from the 9-1 situation we had last year and not play well enough to win, to learn how to play well enough to win, and we really still haven’t done anything other than get a bye.

“You don’t get rings for byes; you only get t-shirts and hats.”

This marks the fifth time the Cardinals are in the playoffs since relocating from St. Louis in 1988. In the previous four trips, they’ve had to play in the Wild Card round.

“When you can get a first-round bye, that is like winning a playoff game,” defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. “You don’t have to play in the Wild Card round and that is huge.”

The Cardinals turned on the jets in the second quarter, outscoring Green Bay 17-0. They’d put up three more touchdowns in the third quarter on the way to their ninth straight win. The Packers (10-5) came to Glendale hoping to win out and overtake the Cardinals for the number-two seed in the NFC. It wasn’t to be.

“It sucks man,” receiver James Jones said about Green Bay squandering it’s chance to leapfrog Arizona. “We worked too hard. You talk about offseason workouts when no one is watching to OTAs to training camp to practice during the week to all of those meetings you sit in to come out here and put that on film.

“At the end of the day, that is what really eats at you.”

The Cardinals may have one other goal on their to-do list before the playoffs roll around. With Atlanta’s win over Carolina Sunday afternoon, Arizona can still clinch the top overall seed in the NFC with a win over the Seattle Seahawks coupled with a Panthers’ loss to Tampa Bay.

Some players, not surprisingly, downplayed that storyline.

“Coach alway talks about not watching what other people are doing, just taking care of our business. We have another tough game against a division opponent and this our next focus,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “If we win the number-one seed, great. If we get the number-two seed, great. We are going to continue to play and do our best.”

Currently, the Tampa Bay-Carolina game is slated to kick off at 11 a.m. Phoenix time next Sunday, Jan. 3. If the game time isn’t altered by the NFL, the Cardinals would take the field against Seattle at 2:25 p.m. knowing if they need to win to secure the top spot. That, of course, would lead to personnel decisions by the coaching staff. If the Panthers beat the Buccaneers, the Seattle game is virtually meaningless to the Cardinals, which could alter Arians’ thinking on playing time.

“We’ll wait and see,” he said. “If they flex their game, they’ll make decisions. Like I said, you’re talking about three or four people. We’re not talking about nine or 10.

“We don’t have that many guys on our roster to reset.”

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