As the number one seed in the NFC, the Cowboys are favored to cool off the red hot Packers and advance to the NFC title game next weekend. The ‘Boys have a lot of things working in their favor: they’re healthy, rested and have been the best team in football all season, this side of Boston.
Meanwhile, the Pack enters the game without their top wide receiver and with four defensive starters listed on the injury report.
But there is a recipe for a Packers upset. If they can get all of the ingredients together and follow instructions they could come out of this game with a ticket to the NFC Championship.
1. Start fast. If the Packers come out like they did last Sunday, they’re finished. 29 yards after their first 2o plays? That won’t cut it against the Cowboys. Let’s face it: Dallas is going to score points. If the Pack can jump out to a lead, it will put pressure on their rookie quarterback–more on Dak in a bit.
2. Hang on to the football. In the first matchup in October, the Packers turned the ball over four times, three via fumbles. That’s a Lambeau rarity and has fluke written all over it. The Pack finished the season at +8, while the Cowboys were at +5. In fact, Green Bay only punted once in the first meeting–they were too busy handing the ball over to the Cowboys. During this seven game winning streak, the Pack has been outstanding at hanging on to the football. That trend must continue.
3. Slow Zeke. OK, this is one of those hard ingredients to find, where you have to go to that specialty store and search high and low. Elliot has had a historic rookie season, and the Packers did a poor job containing him the first time around. He is the focal point of the offense, making things exponentially easier for Prescott and the Pack must do all it can to avoid giving up big plays in the running game. Over 60 minutes, Zeke will get his yards but the defense must do its job by wrapping him up and not missing tackles. You have to think Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan are different players than they were in October and the rest of the unit understands they can’t let him loose in the open field.
4. Receivers need to win their matchups. Losing Nelson will hurt in this game, because the secret to the turnaround for Dallas’ defense has been its secondary, which is the league’s top rated unit according to Pro Football Focus (incidentally, the Giants are ranked #2, which should provide some hope). In the October meeting, the Cowboys won this matchup–the receivers were having a hard time getting open and Rodgers couldn’t make anything happen. There’s no one stud on this defense–no one made the Pro Bowl. Safety Barry Church has been the most consistent. There is also no weak spot, so it’s going to need to be a group effort. Obviously, the Pack’s passing game is red hot: Adams, Cobb, Allison and Cook will all be counted on to keep things rolling against a defense that bends, but does not break–which brings us to:
5. Red Zone must mean end zone. The Cowboys give up a lot of yards, but stiffen in the red zone. Rodgers needs to continue his electrifying play and get the team in the end zone whenever the team is knocking on the door. If they fumble on the one yard line like they did in October, this one won’t be close.
6. Packers D needs to force Prescott into mistakes. One of the headline storylines leading into this game is Rodgers vs. a rookie quarterback. Now Dak has looked nothing like a rookie since he took the field this season, but the playoffs are a different story. He’ll have butterflies and if he starts off shaky, there could be murmurs for Romo emanating from the stands. We know the ‘Boys’ offensive line is the best in football, but somehow, some way, Dom Capers needs to get pressure in his face and force him into quick decisions.
7. Don’t let Dak’s legs beat you. Making things even more difficult for the defense is the fact that Elliot isn’t the only dangerous ball carrier. Dak will take off if he sees open field, so someone will need to be assigned to keep that from happening. Dallas has offensive weapons all over the field. They need to make Dak try to find open receivers and not let him extend drives by running it himself.
8. Win on special teams. A key element in last week’s win over the Giants was the play of special teams. Jason Schum’s punting, that unit’s coverage, led by Jeff Janis and the Pack’s returners all need to come up big in this one.
9. Balance on offense. If the Packers are to pull this one out, it will be by riding the arm of Rodgers. But they need a semblance of a running game and we’ll hope that Ty Montgomery is fully healthy. We know he’s amped to return to his hometown and put on a show. Christine Michael injected some much needed life into the run game last week when he took the field in the third quarter. They need to be a solid 1-2 punch, to keep the Cowboys’ defense honest.
10. Rodgers. All of the above elements are needed for this recipe to come out right, but Aaron Rodgers trumps all. There are some eerie elements to this season that remind us of 2010: dealing with major injuries throughout the season, earning a playoff spot on the final day of the season, beating and NFC East team in the wildcard round and then going on to face the top seed on the road. We all remember what happened next. Rodgers put on maybe the best performance of his remarkable career, shedding the Falcons. He is always capable of a game like that and his performance over the past eight weeks leads us to believe he can do it again.
Dallas has the stats. Green Bay has the star. And if the stars align just right, and the ingredients above are all in place, the Packers could turn the Cowboys’ magical season into a one and done in the playoffs. It took me a while, but I’m a believer.
Packers 31 Cowboys 30