The ostensible play of the game on Sunday was the reversed call on what appeared to be one of the great catches in playoff history: Dez Bryant's climb-the-sky-ladder grab on a critical fourth-and-two. I'm not going to discuss the ruling (or the play) here, other than to refer to what I wrote in last week's "By the Numbers" post:
Lions fans...can get as mad as they want about the officiating in Sunday's game, but the bald truth is that the Cowboys made plays in the final 8:25 and the Lions didn't. 8:25 is more than half a quarter of football; that's lots of time for the Lions to make a play (or several plays) to win the game. More importantly, the Cowboys' head coach went for the pin, whereas his Lions counterpart aimed for the safe, fat part of the green.
After the critical reversal, the Packers ran ten plays, and faced two third downs, one of them a third-and-eleven. The Cowboys couldn't make a play to get the ball back. In concluding, I'll add something I wrote back in 2012 about close games:
[Good teams are] good because they managed to avoid close games. In an NFL landscape in which a close game can turn on a flukey, chance moment - a fumble, a controversial officials' ruling, a deflected pass, a slip on the turf - the best way to be a winning team is to avoid being in a situation wherein luck can determine the outcome.
With this in mind, I submit that the real story of this game is that it shouldn't have had to come down to an official's call, since the Cowboys narrowly missed numerous opportunities to build the kind of lead where they would have been impervious the the vagaries that come into one of the "luckiest" of American professional sports. Let's pursue this angle a bit, starting here:
:16: The time remaining in the first half when Aaron Rodgers hit Randall Cobb for a 31-yard gain, the only successful play for the Packers in what proved to be the field goal drive that ended the first half. What made it the more remarkable was that it happened on second-and-twenty, immediately following DeMarcus Lawrence's second playoff sack. For the bulk of the game's first thirty minutes, the Packers' offense had struggled, to that point they had run 29 plays for 109 total yards, a paltry 3.76 per play. Indeed, the last two Green Bay drives had resulted in a fumble (on what should have been credited as a Jeremy Mincey sack) and a punt.
In no small part due to this stalwart defense, the Cowboys threatened to take a big lead into halftime. They lead 14-7 and had moved the ball inexorably into Green Bay territory with 48 ticks left in the first half. However, thanks to a series of bizarre and unfortunate circumstances, a first down at the Packers' 25 yard line turned into, in order: a re-spot; a botched snap; an incomplete pass; a startling missed field goal (is Dan Bailey in the first slump of his career?); a reprieve thanks to a Dallas false start; a blocked field goal; a Packers completion; the Lawrence sack; and then, finally, the completion to Cobb. A most unfortunate 48 seconds, to be sure, but not as costly as:
0: The number of Packers defenders between DeMarco Murray and the end zone when he fumbled on the Cowboys initial second-half drive. After inducing another Packers punt on Green Bay's opening drive after the half, the Cowboys ran a staple of their running game in which the right tackle blocks down and the two guards pull around the edge, with Murray following them. The play was blocked perfectly, and Murray was running past the first level, with no second level present, when Julius Peppers frantically extended a hand to slow him down and, miraculously, found ball. Fumble. Packers' recover. End of drive.
The consensus among informed observers is that, had he not fumbled, Murray scores on the play. In the television angle from behind the play, this seems a reasonable observation, as the only unblocked person between Murray and paydirt is Morgan Burnett, who has taken a regrettable angle. Green Bay recovered Murray's fumble, however, and subsequently drove for the field goal that made the score 14-13. While it remains a matter of debate how many points the end-of-half swing might represent (anywhere from three to ten), this second key swing is absolutely clear: it was a ten-pointer.
Want to know why the Cowboys lost? Look no further than these two radical swings, which cost the Cowboys anywhere between three and twenty points in a five-point game. But there's also this...
7: The number of points the Cowboys scored in the second half. As I noted above, the Cowboys could easily have scored between 17 and 21 first half points and, had they managed the first-half endgame more carefully, taken a 10-14 point edge into the locker room. Their failure to build more than a four-point lead in half one and their inability to register more than one second-half score was Dallas' undoing against a Green Bay team that had scored fewer than 30 points at home only once all season. What happened? Let's take a look at the Cowboys four second half drives:
First drive: We have already looked at this. After a pass interference call and an offsides penalty gave the Cowboys a first-and-five at their own 41-yard line, Peppers reached out blindly - and altered the fabric of the game.
Second drive: The Cowboys' most impressive drive of the game, a 6-play, 80-yard affair that featured a 20-yard pass to Bryant, an emphatic 13-yard run by Joseph Randle, and a 26-yard Murray scamper around right end down to the Packers' one yard line. For the drive, the Cowboys never faced a third down, and had only one second down, the second-and-five play that resulted in Randle's big run.
Third drive: After a Murray run and a nice 18-yard pass to Witten gave the Cowboys a first down, Tony Romo was sacked on consecutive plays - both of which appeared to be more coverage sacks than terrific plays by one of the Packers' pass rushers. After a third-and-23 screen attempt failed to get the necessary yards, Dallas punted.
Fourth drive: The series began with a huge DeMarco Murray run off of right tackle (the play was "F counter," which resembles the earlier play on which Murray fumbled, but with a twist: with James Hanna and Zack Martin pull outside of the down-blocking tackle). The drive officially slowed down with another potential "drive-killer": a sack of Romo on second-and-eight. A third down pass to Cole Beasley brought up the notorious fourth-and-two that resulted in the notorious reversal.
The Cowboys only had four second-half drives (more below on why this was the case), and three of them suffered from traditional drive-killers: a fumble and three sacks. No matter how many great plays the Cowboys did make on Sunday, they lost because they made or allowed too may bad or negative plays. And too many of those came from their vaunted offense, especially when it mattered most.
7: Also the number of passes attempted by Tony Romo in the second half, when he went 6-for-7, with the only incompletion being his final throw, the overturned play to Dez. Given that Romo was nearly perfect, it seems a bit peculiar that the Cowboys called only ten drop-backs (remember that Romo was sacked three times in the second half) - especially when it was evident that the opposing quarterback was gimpy and off his game. This figure makes a bit more sense, however, when we realize that Dallas ran only 20 second-half plays, a season low (more on that below). Speaking of plays...
69: The number of playoff victories by teams whose quarterbacks have a passer rating of 125 or higher, out of 70 total instances. This includes Aaron Rodgers' work on Sunday. The one exception? You guessed it: Tony Romo, who compiled an extremely impressive 143.6 passer rating. Despite being under duress, he had only four incompletions on the afternoon, two of which were the desperation throw to Terrance Williams on the bad third-and-one snap and the overturned catch by Dez. Another was a perfect pass on the Cowboys' second drive that went right through Jason Witten's Hall of Fame hands. Pretty nice work by Number Nine.
2: The number of ten+ play drives engineered by the Cowboys on Sunday. Over the course of the season, Dallas' winning formula largely consisted of sustaining offense by relying on the running game and converting third downs. This kept the defense fresh by keeping them off the field; when the Cowboys were at their best, they had a 15-20 play advantage over their opponents.
On Sunday, we saw flashes of this formula in practice: just before their failed field goal in the second quarter, the Cowboys had engineered two 12-play drives in their first four possessions and, at that point, held advantages in the categories that, throughout the season, have tended to suggest they'd wear down the opposition in the second half:
Total plays: 31-25
Running plays: 18-14
Time of possession: 17:34-11:19
But, although they had several opportunities to break the game open early, the Cowboys failed to do so. In part this is on the offense; after their twin 12-play first half mashers, only one of Dallas' second half drives went more than six plays (their final drive of the game, which totaled seven snaps). As a result, they surrendered the above advantages, ending the game with a negligible time of possession bonus (30:39-29:21) and rushing attempts (28-30) and a distinct disadvantage in total plays, 51-66.
Only three times this season has the Cowboys opponent enjoyed such a swelling advantage in plays from scrimmage: week four against the Rams (Rams 72-52); week twelve, at the Giants (74-53) and week thirteen, on Thanksgiving (75-58). The first two required that Dallas make explosive plays in the passing game; the third was their worst loss of the season. With Romo throwing only seven second-half passes on Sunday, the Cowboys weren't likely to generate enough explosives to overcome the Packers' advantage in total plays.
21: The differential in total plays in the game's final 30:29, the moment when the Packers took possession after Dan Bailey's blocked field goal. From that point in the game, Green Bay ran 41 plays, and Dallas ran only 20, a staggering difference. I looked at the number of plays run by the Cowboys and their opponents each half this season, and this is what I came up with:
|First Half||Second Half/ OT|
|Texans (OT)||47||24||+23||32/ 9||29/ 4||+3/ +5
|Redskins (OT)||37||23||+14||24/ 4||34/ 9||-10/ -5
What's interesting about this breakdown is that, when the Cowboys have had a decided advantage in plays run, the bulk of that advantage has come in the first half. In most cases, this is because they established a lead and the other team ran a lot of snaps in catch-up mode (note that the Cowboys biggest positive second half differential came against the Cardinals, when Dallas was the team in fourth quarter catch-up mode). Indeed, the games that most nearly mirrored Sunday's second half discrepancy came against Jacksonville (Cowboys had 24-7 halftime lead), Chicago (14-7) and at Washington (27-10).
In this regard, Sunday's loss most closely resembles the Monday night debacle against the hated Redskins, a game in which the Cowboys had a halftime lead and an advantage in total plays but then saw both evaporate as a struggling offense failed to protect a tiring defense. To my mind, that's the overriding narrative to be taken from Sunday's action: as Tony Romo and his boys failed to extend their halftime lead, Aaron Rodgers took over the game and began to punish a game but worn out defense. To wit:
95: yards passing by Rodgers on the Packers' touchdown drive that made the score 21-20. After a brutally effective Cowboys drive had given Dallas a 21-13 lead, it looked like the football gods were favoring the Cowboys: the Packers' Randall Cobb fumbled the subsequent kickoff, and a holding call on Brad Jones forced the Pack to set up shop on their own ten yard line. But, precisely when the Cowboys appeared to be wearing down the Packers defense, and after Green Bay narrowly escaped what would have been a potential game clinching turnover sequence, Aaron Rodgers took over the game.
To that point, the Packers run-pass ratio was perfectly even: 21 runs, 21 passes. On the next two drives, however, the Packers ran 15 plays, and 14 of them were passes. The first drive consisted of seven plays - all passes - and, thanks to a false start on Andrew Quarless - covered 95 total yards, all on Rodgers' arm. He was only 4-7 on the drive, but it kick-started a perfect finish; from that point in the game on, he went 13-16 for 211 yards and two scores.
What that means is, on his final 10 pass attempts of the game, Rodgers was a perfect 10-10 for 163 yards, two touchdowns and eight first downs. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, his 9-9 fourth quarter represents the most attempts without an incompletion in the fourth quarter of a playoff game in the last 25 years. As I have often said about Romo in recent weeks, that's some pretty special sauce.
511: Consecutive Aaron Rodgers passes at Lambeau without an interception - a streak that goes all the way back to early December 2012. In 22 straight home games, including playoffs, he has gone without getting picked. With that in mind, the Cowboys, facing a gimpy and uncharacteristically inaccurate Rodgers, wasted a rare opportunity. Its not often that his home mojo will be at this low an ebb...
.692: Green Bay third down conversion percentage on meaningful third downs (for the game, they were 9-14, but one of their failed conversions came on the game's final kneel-down). The Packers started the game 4-4 on third down and, after a muddy middle, converted all four third downs they faced on three drives at the end of the third and in the fourth quarters, including two third and threes and, more gutting, a third-and-twelve (discussed above) and a third-and-fifteen (which resulted in Davante Adams' 46-yard catch-and-run for a score).
Compare this to the Cowboys, who went 4-8 on the afternoon - a respectable 50% conversion rate, and likely good enough to win, had not Rodgers and company played lights out. And keep-away.
17: Davante Adams' number. The Cowboys' game plan going in was to put Orlando Scandrick on Randall Cobb and to keep a safety over Jordy Nelson, a plan that would put pressure on other Packers to make plays in the passing game. In the first half, they seemed unable to do so, and Aaron Rodgers looked nothing other than pedestrian. At halftime, it seems that the Packers' offensive coaches decided that their best matchup was Adams against Sterling Moore or Tyler Patmon. Adams, the rookie wideout from Fresno State, stepped forward. Big.
Indeed, after two meaningless receptions (on four targets) for a grand total of six yards in the first 30 minutes, Adams's second half was arguably the difference in the game. On Green Bay's final four drives, he hauled in five balls (on seven targets) for 111 yards, including one of the game's real turning points: the 46-yard catch, juke, and run on third-and-fifteen from outside of field goal range that made the score 21-20.
2:00: The time remaining in the game when Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy made a gusty call that flew under the radar, given that it came after the reversal on Bryant's catch. After another Quarless false start and two short Eddie Lacy runs, the Packers faced a third and eleven at the Dallas 35. McCarthy was faced with two options: run the ball, thus taking time off the clock but setting up a very difficult 50+ yard field goal. or try to convert the long third down and win the game - a move that, if it failed, would result in the same difficult kick attempt, and would take little time off the clock.
As Jason Garrett did last week on a crucial 4th and six, McCarthy trusted his guys. Rodgers' pass was tipped by Tyrone Crawford, but it somehow found Randall Cobb for 12 yards and the game-clinching first down. In closely fought playoff games, teams win through a combination of skill, play-making ability, guts and good fortune. Rodgers and his Packers teammates enjoyed all of these on this key snap.
1991: I've written several times that this team, which so many pundits are comparing to the 90s Cowboys, reminded me most vividly of the 1991 squad, which featured a group of young offensive talents under a first-year offensive coordinator, and an under-talented but try-hard defense that, in the season's final game, proved to be overmatched. Curiously, that squad won its first playoff game by four points against an NFC North team - Chicago - before having their defense exposed by a second NFC North team in Detroit.
That offseason, you may recall, the Cowboys stocked up on defensive talent (drafting Kevin Smith, Robert Jones and Darren Woodson in the first two rounds, and acquiring Charles Haley in the week before the season started) and they were off to the races. In the coming months, the Cowboys' braintrust appears to be faced with a similar task: upgrade the defensive talent so that they are capable of competing when it matters most: against the NFL's top quarterbacks.
1: The names remaining on what my podcast partner has affectionately termed the "Kill List" - the list of teams that have dealt the Cowboys humiliating or excruciating defeats in the last two years. Here's where it stands at present:
New Orleans (49-17 loss, 2013)
Seattle (27-7 loss, 2012)
Chicago (34-18 loss, 2012; 45-28 loss, 2013)
Detroit (31-30 comeback, 2013)
Philadelphia (33-10 loss, 2014)
Green Bay (37-36 comeback)
This team is comprised of a bunch of elephants: they have long memories, and don't suffer indignities gladly. I guarantee the Packers are atop their 2015 "Kill List." Given the vengeance they exacted from New Orleans and Chicago this year, if I'm the Packers, I'd watch out. It could get ugly...