Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer played well in the Week 16 win over the Packers and is ready for the postseason rematch.
The day after Carson Palmer tore his ACL last season, he was despondent.
The veteran quarterback slowly and sullenly hobbled to a press conference table at the Cardinals' training facility, and then wondered aloud if he'd be wanted back inside the building in 2015.
His mind was reeling, but it was a preposterous thought within the organization to move on without him, underscored by a Palmer-less 3-5 record down the stretch.
While Palmer rued the missed opportunity of 2014 -- upset that a chance to push for a title slipped through his grasp – any frustration quickly transformed into a maniacal determination to get back.
Now, 12 months and 13 days later, a golden shot awaits. Palmer is healthy and playing better than ever, the roster around him is loaded and a Cardinals team which had the best regular season in franchise history is primed for the playoffs.
The Cardinals (13-3) will begin what they hope is a deep postseason run by hosting the Packers (11-6) in the NFC Divisional Round on Saturday night at University of Phoenix Stadium. When the team went into its Wild Card game against the Panthers last year, the talk of a Super Bowl run rang hollow with a third-string quarterback at the helm.
With Palmer leading the way, it's solid as oak.
"To know you've got a guy like that back, it's everything," linebacker Kevin Minter said.
Palmer has never won a playoff game. He had a pair of chances with the Bengals, but tore an ACL on his first pass in a 31-17 loss to the Steelers in the 2005 postseason, then fell to the Jets, 24-14, in 2009.
As he made his way back from his second devastating knee injury this offseason, Palmer said it wasn't fear that drove him, but the possibility of building on the excitement of 2014.
"Anticipation and expectation, but no fear whatsoever," Palmer said.
With an elite offense and a defense not far behind, the Cardinals are listed among the favorites to win the title, but it's a path filled with roadblocks. The first hurdle is Green Bay, a team they walloped in Week 16 but one which enters riding high after a 35-18 win over Washington in the Wild Card round.
The Cardinals are being picked by most to win, but at this time of year, one bad game can mean the difference between a memorable title push and an early vacation. The players have watched poor performances play out against in-season foes the Rams, Steelers and Seahawks.
"You can't go off who you have, because we've lost with everybody and we've won with everybody," safety Tony Jefferson said. "It's all about execution and sticking to the gameplan. Regardless who you have, who they've got, they're going to bring their best and we've got to bring our best. The hunger's got to be there. It's the playoffs."
The Packers are in better shape now on their offensive line, which is crucial after giving up nine sacks in the first meeting. The Cardinals' defensive backs have the talent to stick to the Packers wideouts through their routes, but once quarterback Aaron Rodgers freelances it's dangerous, and keeping him bottled up is paramount.
On the flip side, Green Bay would love to pressure Palmer using only four pass rushers in order to give the back end as much help as possible against a scary air attack. The Cardinals moved the ball well both by passing and rushing in the first meeting, and the personnel won't look much different for either team.
Rodgers said this week that the Cardinals have all the pressure on them because they are the favorites. It's a reversal of history for both franchises, something wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said the Cards must handle correctly.
"It's a lot different situation when you're being hunted as opposed to hunting," Fitzgerald said. "When we came in a surprise team (in 2008) -- they'll probably get knocked out in the first round, nobody expected anything -- and we kind of played to that. Now, we're the favorites. We're playing at home. We're expected to win, so you can't be lulled to sleep by that stuff."
Coach Bruce Arians dismissed talk of pressure on his team heading into the game --- "Pressure is something when you're not prepared," he said – and the high expectations clearly beat the alternative.
Palmer was helpless to control last year's playoff outcome, when a futile offense resulted in a quick one-and-done. The Cardinals have Super Bowl aspirations again, and this time, no one's questioning their legitimacy.
"We finished a lot stronger than (2014)," left tackle Jared Veldheer said. "We're firing on all cylinders and there aren't a lot of guys in new roles. We're fortunate enough to be blessed with pretty good health. Guys are ready to roll, ready to do this, ready to win a game."
RUCKER, MAURO LISTED AS QUESTIONABLE FOR GAME
The Cardinals have listed defensive tackles Frostee Rucker (ankle) and Josh Mauro (calf) as questionable on the final injury report, although both seem likely to play. While there was only a walk-through on Friday, in the team's estimation, Rucker and Mauro would have been limited participants in a normal practice.
Linebacker Markus Golden (knee), guard Mike Iupati (shoulder) and Palmer (finger) are listed as probable.
For the Packers, wide receiver Davante Adams (knee) and tight end Andrew Quarless (knee) were ruled out. Cornerback Sam Shields (concussion) and cornerback Quinten Rollins (quad) are questionable.
Those listed as probable are left tackle David Bakthiari (ankle), who missed the first game between the teams, as well as defensive tackle Mike Daniels (hamstring), linebacker Jayrone Elliott (quad), defensive end Datone Jones (neck), running back Eddie Lacy (rib), guard T.J. Lang (calf), linebacker Mike Neal (hip), tight end Justin Perillo (hamstring), tight end Richard Rodgers (hip) and guard Josh Sitton (back). Bakhtiari did not practice Friday.
Images of the key players for the Cardinals' NFC Divisional Round opponent