Sunday afternoon's first game of the divisional round (thanks to the Steelers-Chiefs game being pushed back because of weather conditions) is set up to be a doozy. With a tepid start to the playoffs, there's high optimism about this weekend's game, and the biggest tilt should be the Packers-Cowboys matchup at 4:40 p.m. ET Sunday.
It's two blue-chip franchises going head-to-head for a spot in the NFC Championship Game. In one corner, there's Super Bowl winner and current holder of Best Quarterback in the World Aaron Rodgers, whose Packers ran the table after limping to a 4-6 start to the season.
In the other corner are the 13-3 Cowboys, a team fueled by two rookies (Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott) and the best offensive line anyone has seen since the 1970s. The Cowboys really only lost two games the entire year (Week 17's throwaway against the Eagles shouldn't count), both to the same opponent.
That opponent was not the Packers, who Dallas thrashed 30-16 in Week 6, at Lambeau Field no less. That game is the obvious blueprint for a Cowboys victory at home.
Let's look at four reasons the Packers can ensure a different outcome this time around.
1. Quarterback play
This is the easy and obvious path to a Green Bay victory. Rodgers is playing at a level that other NFL quarterbacks can only hope to achieve right now, looking like the most dangerous weapon in the NFL over the past several weeks. When the Cowboys and Packers squared off the first time, the Packers' offense was slumping.
Since Rodgers' annual proclamation (this time "run the table"), Green Bay has been white hot, winning seven straight games. Rodgers, though, has been on an entirely different planet.
|Points/Game||Comp/Att (%)||Pass Yards/Game||Pass Yards/Att||TD/INT|
|Weeks 1-11||24.7||289/449 (63.2)||276||6.73||25/7|
|Weeks 12-WC||31.9||167/240 (69.6)||289||8.45||19/0|
That stretch of football is stupid. He has zero business beating out Matt Ryan for MVP (no one does, as chronicled here), but the way Rodgers closed out the season is why people put him in the conversation, and rightfully so. Colleague Pete Prisco did a fantastic job breaking down Rodgers' return in After Further Review here.
That hot play carried over to the postseason, with Rodgers catching fire against a stout Giants defense in the second half and leading the Packers to a 38-13 blowout. Dallas' defense is simply not as good as New York's -- the Giants ranked fourth in pass defense DVOA at Football Outsiders, while the Cowboys were 18th.
In the first matchup, Prescott outplayed Rodgers. Don't expect as many red zone fumbles from the world's best QB this time around.
It's not unreasonable to expect the performances to be flipped given the stage; it's also a requirement for the Packers to win.
Which leads us to this: Prescott will be making his first postseason start Sunday. The list of quarterbacks who have started divisional-round playoff games as rookies is a pretty short one. But there are some impressive names on there: Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Dan Marino, etc.
In the past 15 years, for the sake of keeping it modern, there are five rookies who have started in the divisional round. Here's how they did:
|QB, Team||Opponent||Date||Comp/Att (%)||Yards||Yards/Att||TD/INT|
|Russell Wilson, SEA||@ATL||01/13/13||24/36 (66.7)||385||10.7||2/1|
|T.J. Yates, HOU||@BAL||01/15/12||17/35 (48.6)||184||5.26||0/3|
|Mark Sanchez, NYJ||@SDG||01/17/10||12/23 (52.2)||100||4.35||1/1|
|Joe Flacco, BAL||@TEN||01/10/09||11/22 (50.0)||161||7.32||1/0|
|Ben Roethlisberger, PIT||NYJ||01/15/05||17/30 (56.7)||181||6.03||1/2|
Interestingly, the guy with the best stats by far (Wilson) lost. Those five quarterbacks went 3-2 in those games, with Wilson and Yates (obviously?) being the only losses. That's surprising given the level of play -- no one outside Wilson stood out, and Wilson set the rookie record for passing yards in a playoff game.
Also interesting: Only four rookie running backs in the same time frame carried the ball 20-plus times in a divisional matchup. Two of them -- Ryan Grant and James Starks -- played for Green Bay. Grant ran for 200 yards against Seattle in 2008, the only guy of that group over 6 yards per carry. Shonn Greene, along with Mark Sanchez above, was a rookie producing against the Chargers in the 2010 playoffs.
Shorter version of the running back situation: It wouldn't be surprising at all for Elliott to have a huge day.
Both of these items are good news for Prescott, because it means he doesn't have to be superhuman for the Cowboys to win. Elliott can carry the load if he's just average.
The bad news is history tells us this particular stage is very often too big for rookies. It wouldn't be surprising to see Prescott, as good and cool under pressure as he has been all season, struggle against a veteran-laden defense in a huge spot.
If he does struggle and he struggles early, it opens up the possibility of Green Bay getting out to a hot start.
3. Get the lead
Prescott and the Cowboys have been front-runners all season (their first loss came in Week 1 and their second came in Week 14, both against the Giants). They've held the lead most of the time in these games, although Dallas and the offense have been sensational in clutch situations.
What this offense hasn't really seen is a big deficit. As noted by Pete Prisco on Twitter recently, Dak has limited exposure when facing a big hole.
Great stat is Packers jump on Cowboys early: Dak Prescott has thrown 16 passes all season trailing by nine or more points. 16— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) January 11, 2017
This is massive because if the Packers can indeed jump out to a big lead -- anything like 14-0 or 21-0 -- it would put the Cowboys in a position they're not used to. They could still run the ball and certainly would try to control the game with the ground attack anyway. But it would cause Prescott to push the ball down the field a little bit more, it would take a rookie quarterback in the divisional round out of his element and it would apply some serious pressure.
There's even a Tony Romo factor here if the lead is substantial at halftime. Cowboys fans won't want to hear it, and there's no reason to push a narrative that doesn't exist ... until it does. If Green Bay is up big at the half, it wouldn't be surprising to see Jerry Jones saunter briskly to the locker room for a little meeting with coach Jason Garrett. Just keep it in mind.
Regardless of who's under center, spotting Aaron Rodgers points is always a bad idea. If the Packers can flip the game script and play front-runner, they'll have a huge advantage in this game, especially with Rodgers and Mike McCarthy showing a willingness to put the gas peddle on the floor despite a lead against the Giants last week. A lack of a true running game has made them a little less conservative, and there's no doubt they'll keep putting up points against Dallas too.
4. Stop the run
This is the end-all, be-all issue for the Packers. The Cowboys are a run-first team, the No. 2 rushing team in the NFL with Elliott rolling to the 2016 NFL rushing title by more than 300 yards despite not playing in Week 17.
Making matters worse for the Packers is they weren't better against the run on their hot streak down the stretch. In fact, they were worse in both yards per game allowed and yards per rush allowed.
|Rush Yards/Game||Rush Yards/Att||Rush TD|
It feels like a decade ago, but heading into the Week 6 matchup against the Cowboys, the Packers were actually on a historic pace in terms of rush defense. That turned out to be a house of cards when Green Bay was gashed by Elliott and the Cowboys -- they would promptly cave over the next few weeks, with the nadir coming against the Titans (DeMarco Murray/Derrick Henry ran for 154 yards) and Redskins (Rob Kelley rumbled for 151 yards and three touchdowns in prime time).
Against Dallas, the fourth-quarter highlights are just a bunch of gassed-out Packers defenders chasing Elliott around.
Packers defenders, via the Green Bay Post-Gazette, believe the issues are something they can fix by simply maintaining discipline.
Linebacker Clay Matthews insists the Packers were "just doing too much" while trying to slow Elliott down before.
"He does a real good job," Matthews said, "of kind of finding the holes and being patient, and that's where he makes a lot of teams pay. I'm not saying we have to do anything special, but we need to do our job. If you look at the runs he hit on us the first time, it was guys just doing too much or kind of playing outside the scheme.
"That's what we're focusing on this week, is being accountable and doing our job and being where we need to be."
And defensive tackle Letroy Guion said he catches Zzzz's in the evening because the problems from the first matchup are "correctable."
"Makes me sleep better at night," Guion said, "when we go back and watch that game and see the things that we need to do better, and know that we can correct it. It's not something that's not correctable."
The other bonus to the run defense is that the Packers' offense, by playing well, can flip the field on Dallas.
All of this is well and good before the game kicks off. In the words of Mike Tyson, everyone's got a plan until they get punched in the mouth. And no one punches defenses in the mouth quite like the Cowboys offense, particularly that great wall they've established on the offensive line.
There absolutely is a formula for the Packers to win, though. It just involves stopping a running game that hasn't really been stopped all season.