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Green Bay Packers Divisional Round Preview: Dallas Cowboys

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Packers Head To Dallas To Continue Decades Old Rivalry With Cowboys

This Sunday will mark the 8th time in postseason history that the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers have faced-off. From the “Ice Bowl” to “Dez Caught/Dropped It”, iconic moments seem to be the norm when these two teams get together.

The playoff series is currently in favor of Dallas at 4-3, but Green Bay won the most recent match-up two years ago at Lambeau Field.

In fact Green Bay has dominated the rivalry in recent years, winning four of the last five, the lone loss coming in week 6 earlier this season. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy holds a 4-1 record over current Cowboy’s coach Jason Garrett, and an overall 5-3 record against “America’s Team”. 

However, only one of those wins have come away from Lambeau Field.

Since 1993 the Packers have gone 1-9 in road games in Dallas. Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre went 0-9 in the Green & Gold, while Aaron Rodgers has yet to start a game in “Jerry’s World”.

And if the Packers are going to rebound from their mid-season loss and break a near 20-year trend of bad performances in Dallas, it starts with stopping the Cowboys talented rookie duo.

Prescott, Elliott No Longer Rookies in the Cowboys Backfield

When the Cowboys came into Lambeau week 6 and decimated a faltering Green Bay squad 30-16, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott didn’t have half a year of regular season football under their belts.

Prescott still managed to throw for 247 yards and three scores, while Elliott rushed for 157 yards on 28 carries. At the time no one was quite sure if the two young stars were for real or just riding a wave of success that would eventually crash.

Three months later the duo is competing for Rookie of the Year honors and have received legitimate consideration for league MVP.

Elliott has been able to use the NFL’s best run blocking line to perfection, finding and exploding through gaping holes on his way to the league rushing title (1,631 yards), just the fifth rookie since the 1970 merger to do so.

His backfield partner Prescott has been able to rely on superb protection from his line, an All-Pro back in Elliott and receiver in Dez Bryant, and one of the best possession tight ends in football history in Jason Witten.

The rookie quarterback hasn’t been asked to win games with his arm like Tony Romo was forced to for years because of the help around him, but he has still has shown great efficiency and vision in big moments.

However in the Cowboys only defeats this year, both against the New York Giants, Prescott showed his youth.

New York deployed various different looks in the secondary and often disguised their coverage until post snap. Prescott had a tough time with his reads against the unique looks, as most young quarterbacks do, completing only 51% of his passes for one touchdown and two interceptions in the two games.

Green Bay’s secondary is far from the Giants, but it’s a guarantee that Dom Capers will throw multiple looks at Prescott that look identical to those ran by Steve Spagnuolo and his defense. 

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Dallas head coach Jason Garrett will surely be aware of this, and most likely take limited risks through the air early on until they establish Elliott in the run game. The more men that Dallas forces Green Bay to put in the box, the more the pass lanes will open up late.

And that means the Packers ability and aggressiveness in containing Elliott is priority one. He not only can break off big runs at any time but also extends drives for Dallas and can keep the ball out of Aaron Rodgers’ hands.

Green Bay Hopes Redemption Isn’t Spelled “D-E-Z” On Sunday

The Packers limited options at corner have been well documented this season, but the position seems to be stabilizing a bit.

In October their number one corner by default, Ladarious Gunter, gave up two scores and over 150 yards in coverage to Dallas. But that was the old Gunter, or so we hope.

Last week against Odell Beckham Jr of the Giants, Gunter played extremely well, holding the All-Pro to just 28 yards on four catches. This week he’ll get the responsibility of another All-Pro, Dez Bryant.

Unlike covering Beckham with the non-existent run game of New York, Gunter will be stuck on an island far more often against Bryant. Green Bay will probably choose to bring safety Morgan Burnett up around the line of scrimmage to help in stopping Elliott, leaving him on his own on the back end.

With Bryant’s last playoff game being a 2014 loss to the Packers in which he dropped a potential go-ahead touchdown and only had three catches for 38 yards, he will be as motivated as ever.

Never has the absence of corner Sam Shields meant more during this season than now, but the remaining members of the wounded secondary need to do everything in their power to deny Bryant his redemption moment, because it seems the chances will be there.

Unlike Last Season, Packers Are Built To Succeed Without Nelson

Against a ball-control team like the Dallas Cowboys, the Packers ability to put points up will be crucial.

With a consistent run game and a low-risk passing attack the Cowboys set themselves up to dominate the time of possession every game. This means when Aaron Rodgers and his offense gets the ball they must score.

This hasn’t been a problem as of late, as Green Bay has put up 30-plus points in five consecutive games. Including wins against the number two (Giants), number three (Seahawks), and number six (Vikings) scoring defenses in which they put up 38 points in each. Dallas currently ranks 5th.

Also during the Packers current seven game winning streak, Aaron Rodgers has remarkably accounted for 20 touchdowns and zero turnovers while playing at the highest level of his career.

His rebound from an average start in 2016 can mostly be attributed to the Pro-Bowl level play of receivers Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson on the outside.

The combo finished 1st and 2nd in the NFL in touchdown receptions (Nelson 14, Adams 12), and proved to be one of the best one-two punches in the league by season’s end.

Unfortunately the Packers will be without Nelson Sunday after he broke two ribs last week on a hit from Leon Hall. Much like last year when they lost Randall Cobb early in the Divisional Round against Arizona, they will need others to step up and take his place.

Despite many flashing back to last season’s struggles without Nelson in the line-up, the two offenses couldn’t be more different. For one, the emergence of Geronimo Allison and Jared Cook seem to provide solutions.

Green Bay’s best bet to stay hot may be using Cook on the edge more often because of the many problems he creates with his size and speed.

The Cowboys have one of the best linebackers in the game at their disposal in Sean Lee, but even he can’t hang with Cook in coverage. And if they attempt to put a corner or safety on him he has a massive size advantage.

In addition, the Packers will frequently use a three-wide receiver set made up of Adams, Cobb and Allison. A formidable group for any secondary, especially one in Dallas that ranks 25th in pass yards given up and has allowed the second-highest completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks (67.1).

If Rodgers is able to stay in the same rhythm that he’s been in as of late and his protection holds up, he has enough weapons without Nelson that there is no reason he can’t put up a fourth straight game of 300-plus yards and four touchdowns.

Final Thoughts

In the Aaron Rodgers – Mike McCarthy era, the Packers have played in 8 road playoff games, going 4-4. In those games they have averaged 30.4 points per game, number one in the NFL during the span.

All but one of their four losses came on the last play of the game, and in the previous two Rodgers tied the game on the final possession before his defense gave up game-losing scores.

The difference is that in those years Green Bay was merely surviving, limping in and hoping for a miracle. Not this year.

Like their Super Bowl winning year of 2010, the Packers are relatively healthy and clicking on all cylinders.  Regardless of Dallas opening as favorites, this is a game Green Bay should win.

Not only because of Aaron Rodgers, but because the recent resurgence of the Green Bay defense and their ability to force turnovers.

They’re not shutting down Elliott or holding him below 100 yards when all is said and done, but as they did against New York, it’s about bending and not breaking. As long as the defense can successfully hold the Cowboys to field goals, the offense will find a way to leave Dallas victorious.