We're creeping up on the halfway point of the 2021 NFL season, and there is just one remaining unbeaten team: the Arizona Cardinals. At 7-0 and in first place in the NFC West, the Cards welcome Aaron Rodgers and the 6-1 Green Bay Packers to Glendale tonight for the Week 8 edition of "Thursday Night Football."
Green Bay has not lost since an embarrassing opening-week performance against the New Orleans Saints, winning its last six contests by an average of 9.5 points per game. Arizona, meanwhile, was averaging a double-digit victory per week even before blowing out the Browns and Texans over the last two weeks. Each team enters this game without at least one star player for one reason or another, and it'll be interesting to see how they each account for those absences.
Will the Cardinals remain undefeated, or will the Packers deal them their first loss of the season? We'll find out later this evening. For now, here's how you can watch the game.
How to watch
Date: Thursday, Oct. 28 | Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Location: State Farm Stadium (Glendale, Arizona)
TV: Fox | Stream: fuboTV (click here)
Follow: CBS Sports App
Odds: Cardinals -6.5, O/U 50.5
When the Packers have the ball
The big story here is the Packers' dire situation at wide receiver. Davante Adams was placed on the COVID-19 list earlier this week, and did not travel to Arizona with the team. It seems safe to assume that he is out. No. 2 wideout Allen Lazard is unvaccinated and a close contact of Adams, so he is also out. Marquez Valdes-Scantling may come off injured reserve after missing the last four games with a hamstring injury, but it would be difficult to count on him for a full complement of snaps. Green Bay has only Randall Cobb, Amari Rodgers, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Malik Taylor behind him, barring a practice-squad call-up.
Aaron Rodgers has made do with skeleton crew wide receiver groups before, and will have to do so again here. He at least will have the comfort of Cobb and potentially MVS, but none of the other active receivers have much experience actually catching passes from him. (St. Brown leads the group with 29 career catches across his four NFL seasons, though he missed one of them due to injury.) That will put a lot of pressure on tight ends Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis, and perhaps especially on running back Aaron Jones to carry the receiving load against Arizona.
Jones is actually second on the team with 28 targets (Adams has 73), 26 catches (54), and 186 receiving yards (744), and Rodgers has shown he is unafraid to pepper him with targets. He seems like a mortal lock to exceed his career-high of eight in this game, especially considering Arizona is No. 1 in the NFL in DVOA on passes to tight ends (albeit while having played a weak slate of tight end opponents) and No. 17 on passes to running backs. Both Jones and Tonyan will presumably do much of their passing-down work against linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Jordan Hicks, though Zaven Collins could work in as well. (Arizona could also use Budda Baker in that role, but he and Jalen Thompson have been key to limiting opponents' damage on downfield passes.)
Green Bay still doesn't have its preferred starting offensive line, as David Bakhtiari is not yet ready to return from the torn ACL he suffered toward the end of last season. This is a good unit that will improve further when he's back in the lineup, as his presence will allow Elgton Jenkins to kick back inside to guard, the spot at which he made the Pro Bowl last season.
The Cardinals get Chandler Jones back from the COVID-19 list for this game, but J.J. Watt is set to miss it after not practicing all week due to a shoulder injury and will reportedly need shoulder surgery. Jones doesn't have a sack since his ridiculous performance in the season opener against Tennessee, but he's an extremely dangerous edge rusher and his presence takes pressure off Markus Golden to be the top option against offensive tackles. Rodgers gets rid of the ball quicker than almost any other quarterback once he decides to make the throw, but he does on occasion hold the ball for a long time waiting for a receiver to spring open. Without Adams, that's a bit more dangerous -- especially with Jones back in the mix.
When the Cardinals have the ball
The only team that has held the Cardinals to less than 31 points is the 49ers, who kept them to 17 by limiting Arizona's third-down conversions (3 of 10) and benefitting from both Kyler Murray and Chase Edmonds playing while banged up. Both players have looked considerably healthier the last two weeks, with Edmonds in particular showing he's back to early-season form last week against Houston, registering his highest snap rate of the season (69 percent) after dipping below 40 percent in Week 6.
Murray is playing at an outrageous level right now, and he's doing it largely without relying on his skill as a rusher. He's using his legs to create big plays in the pass game by buying time for his receivers to get open in the scramble drill. As we wrote a couple weeks ago (numbers updated to reflect his stats from Weeks 6 and 7):
The best quarterbacks minimize the degree to which their performance drops off, either by getting rid of the ball quickly and with pinpoint accuracy, or by using their athleticism to make plays outside of structure. Murray does both.
He is 29 of 47 for 437 yards, four touchdowns, one interception, and a league-best 111.7 passer rating when under pressure so far this season, according to Tru Media. The man is just so slippery. You cannot take him down with one free rusher, because he will make that guy miss. He has to immediately step into the waiting arms of another defender when he starts to move around, or else he's going to make you pay, whether by taking off downfield himself (eight scrambles for 54 yards) or finding one of his many weapons in a developing hole in the secondary.
Even within the structure of the offense, Murray is essentially playing point guard in the Cardinals' egalitarian passing game. Arizona has five players (DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, Rondale Moore, and Edmonds) with at least 30 targets, and tight ends Maxx Williams (out for the year) and new acquisition Zach Ertz have combined for 22. The same five players all have at least 20 catches, while Williams and Ertz combined for 19. Hopkins has been Murray's main target close to the end zone, but everywhere else on the field, he's basically just spraying the ball around to whoever happens to pop open the quickest. It's incredibly difficult to defend.
It's even more difficult without the services of No. 1 cornerback Jaire Alexander, who remains sidelined. Rookie Eric Stokes has made a smooth transition to the NFL and is allowing just 6.2 yards per target on throws in his direction, but sticking with Hopkins all game might be asking too much of him -- even if Hopkins isn't 100 percent healthy.
The Packers have, as usual, struggled to stop the run so far this season, checking in 23rd in DVOA and allowing 4.9 yards per carry. Edmonds largely splits carries with James Conner, with Edmonds getting the work between the 20s and Conner handling red-zone opportunities. That arrangement is working quite well for Arizona thus far. Green Bay has historically struggled to deal with mobile quarterbacks, in particular. It's notable that Taylor Heinicke took off to run 10 times for 95 yards last week, and Justin Fields ran six times for 43 yards the week before. The Packers haven't faced many other rushing threats at the QB position just yet.
Prediction: Cardinals 31, Packers 26