We start today's epic linkfest with The Great Bob Sturm:
Sturm goes "to the tape" for his weekly Xs and Os masterpiece. This time around, he examines each of the six times Tony Romo was sacked, as well as the winning TD pass. A couple of takeaways:
- this was only the third time in Cowboys history that they won while surrendering six sacks
- the Lions effectively "chased" the Cowboys out of using spread (s02 personnel) on second downs, which they have employed to great success during the last month of the season
- it seems that Detroit decided to treat the Cowboys right side as a backup RT and a rookie RG.
- Ndamukong Suh is really, really good
The latest news from Big D:
JJT offers ten reasons the Cowboys defense has exceeded expectations. Two of these suggest a pleasing level of "clutchness":
- They make plays at winning time. Of the 34 turnovers the Cowboys have forced, 17 have occurred in the fourth quarter.
- The pass rush has continued to improve, especially with the improved health of defensive end Anthony Spencer. Of the 31 sacks the Cowboys have this season, 16 have been in the fourth quarter, including two against Detroit.
Here's the skinny from Toddzilla:
In leading the Cowboys to an NFL-best 8-0 road record this season, Romo has thrown 20 touchdown passes and two interceptions. He has completed 70.6 percent of his passes and thrown for more yards away from home (1,933) than at AT&T Stadium. In his last five games away from home, Romo has 15 touchdown passes and just one interception.
That's damned impressive.
Archer argues that Murray has just two 100-yard games and nine carries of 10 yards or more in his last six games. In the first 11 games, by contrast, he had 10 100-yard games and 38 carries of 10 yards or more. His head coach does not see a runner who has been affected by career highs in carries and yards, however:
"I thought he was outstanding in the game the other day (against Detroit) -- a lot of dirty runs against a team that’s very good defending the run," Garrett said. "I think we’ve been really balanced over this last stretch. We’ve made a lot of plays in the passing game, maybe as a result of the commitment teams have made to stop the run. We’re playing really good offensive football, and he’s a big part of it. Our ability and our commitment to run it I think has impacted us really favorably in the passing game and really made us the kind of offense that’s hard to stop."
Charles Haley has reached the Hall of Fame short list once again, where he's joined by his former coach, Jimmy Johnson. As Goose reminds us, Haley won five Super Bowl rings, three with Dallas and two with San Francisco; Johnson won two Super Bowl rings and engineered one of the most dramatic turnarounds in NFL history, coaching a 1-15 team in 1989 to a Lombardi Trophy by 1992.
Because Carter has been making so many big plays at the end of games, Rod Marinelli has taken to calling him "The Closer." In December, Carter has backed up both outside linebacker positions and played in the nickel defense.
"The role we’re working at him is really good," Marinelli said. "He’s really good in space, because he has speed. He’s good in coverage, especially man. He’s made so many big plays for us all year."
Parnell, Tiny Jim points out, is nearing the same number of starts as Free at the right tackle spot. But the drop-off from Doug Free, if any is minimal, as per his position coach:
"I think, across the league, he could start for any other team at right tackle – he’s that talented," Callahan said. "We’re really fortunate to be a little bit deep at tackle, so that’s a good thing for us....I think he’s done great from top to bottom. I think he’s stepped in and we haven’t skipped a beat. That speaks to his preparation and his ability to prepare week in and week out like a starter."
And the news from the Frozen Tundra...
According the the big guns at the four-lettered sports behemoth, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' calf muscle has a slight tear in it in addition to being significantly strained. The injury is not expected to prevent Rodgers from playing in Sunday's game, but it could affect how mobile and effective he is.
"There's no question he will play, but there's also no question he will not be 100 percent," said one doctor familiar with the injury. "The question is whether he'll be 95 percent or 50 percent."
Mays pens a terrific long-form piece on the Packers O-line, who have become the consensus best pass-protecting unit in the NFL:
...as a whole, this collection of Packers stands apart. In July, Mike McCarthy said it had the chance to be his best line in nine seasons as head coach. He was right. Not long ago, Aaron Rodgers was among the most terrorized quarterbacks in football. This year, few have been pressured less, despite his tendency to squeeze all he can out of a given play.
On Sunday, Spofford notes, Green Bay will face a Cowboys offense that is the most dangerous the Packers have seen since the Patriots in Week 13, and arguably the most balanced they’ve encountered all season. Because of this, he writes, they will have to - wait for it - trust the process. Some clarification:
The process has been all about changing the frustrating, season-ending struggles of recent playoff seasons and finishing with a flourish.
"We’re trending in the right direction," said [Clay] Matthews, who finished the regular season with 6 1/2 sacks in the final four games. "You want to be playing your best ball at the end of the year, and defensively speaking we’ve been doing that. We’ve been playing very well.
Ketchmen seeks to take the "Ice Bowl" down from its lofty pedestal, arguing that Sunday’s game is much more important. Want evidence? The Ice Bowl wasn’t even shown on TV in Green Bay!
Broaddus' weekly matchup post looks at two key tete-a-tetes: Tyrone Crawford vs. Packers OG T.J. Lang and Jason Witten against S Morgan Burnett. Here what he has to say about the latter of these battles:
The Packers want to get in the nickel package as quickly as possible in this game, which would take A.J. Hawk off the field. The Packers are much better when they can play this way, so the gameplan for the Cowboys is to try and get them to stay in this base defense as long as possible.
They can do this with their "12" personnel, which means that Morgan Burnett would most likely have to cover Jason Witten instead of say Micah Hyde being on the field in the nickel. The Packers might decide to treat Witten like a receiver and bring Hyde into the game to match him or even use Casey Hayward, who is a bigger option....
With the Cowboys wanting to play keep away from the Packers, running the ball will no doubt be a huge key, but using Jason Witten in [the] passing game is always a great option much like we saw last week against the Lions.
The Cowboys have the right defensive formula, Brooks writes in a detailed must-read, to defuse Green Bay's high-powered attack - provided the unit puts forth an exceptional performance. His three keys: 1) keep it simple; 2) neutralize Jordy Nelson; 3) allow their LBs to roam the middle of the field. Here, he addresses the second of these:
Nelson is the Packers' most explosive weapon, and Rodgers loves to target him for home-run plays. Given the impact of such plays, Dallas should commit to stopping No. 87 at all costs and force Cobb or one of the other receivers to carry the offensive load. Not to slight Cobb as a playmaker, but he did go six straight games this season without scoring a single receiving touchdown. The Cowboys would be wise to shade a safety toward Nelson and take their chances defending Cobb and Co. in man coverage.
Wire, the former Stanford standout and NFL linebacker, gives us three keys to a Cowboys victory: 1) protect against the Packer's defensive pressure; 2) Dez Bryant must win vs. press coverage; 3) Jam Jordy Nelson. More here on the last of these:
Look for the Cowboys to use the same game plan to account for Nelson that they used against Calvin Johnson last week. Johnson was targeted eight times and finished with five receptions for 85 yards. The Cowboys used Cover-6 as one of the methods to disrupt him and jam him at the line of scrimmage while putting a safety over the top. Cover-6 is a double-coverage consisting of Cover-4 on one half of the field and Cover-2 on the other.
In a surprisingly objective piece, Reischel rates the two teams by position group, giving the Cowboys a 3-2 advantage (with two rated as even). Dallas has the advantage at running back, defensive line and special teams; Green Bay takes the cake at linebacker and in the secondary.
In an ESPN Insider piece (behind a paywall), Schatz, one of the founding fathers at Football Outsiders, opines that the passing game will determine the winner on Sunday. The crux of his argument lies in this:
...the quality of the Cowboys' running game made absolutely no difference between their wins and losses this season (when the Dallas running backs combined to gain at least 5.0 yards per carry, the Cowboys went 5-3; when the running backs gained less than 5.0 yards per carry, the Cowboys went 8-1).
Romo, however, makes all the difference for Dallas.
When Romo had a QBR of at least 60, the Cowboys went 12-0. When Romo had a QBR of less than 60, the Cowboys went 1-3, with their only win coming last week against Detroit. (They were 0-1, of course, with Brandon Weeden under center.)
Of course, one can make the argument that the threat of Murray helps to make Romo more efficient...
Now that we've reached the division round, game previews are more than a local affair; they are a national obsession. Lots to choose from here...
In a terrific piece, Freeman previews the upcoming game from several unique angles. Several items caught my eye; here's one of them:
This to me from a Cowboys player I've known for several years, speaking on Tony Romo: "He always got a bad rap, to me at least. The thing that always amazed me about him was how when he would get criticized, he never showed it to us. He was always the same guy. Everyone I know that knows him appreciates how mentally tough he is. I respect him more than any player I've ever played with."
The two teams' respective ESPN beat reporters hold their weekly must-read Q & A. Here's Archer on the Cowboys' attitude after beating the Lions:
I was struck in the locker room after they beat the Lions that there wasn't this sense of relief that they won a single playoff game. There was a sense that they wanted more. There is no doubt this team has overachieved, but I don't think the Cowboys view it that way. They're not looking at this like they're playing with house money. They see a real opportunity to advance.
And here's Demovsky on the challenges presented by the Cowboys' running game:
Even Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers admitted the Cowboys' running game will be their biggest test yet. The Packers feel better about their run defense now than they did halfway through the season, and with good reason. They went from 32nd -- dead last -- in rushing yards allowed to a somewhat respectable 23rd by the end of the season. And over the final eight games, they actually ranked fifth in the league in rushing defense. But let's look a little bit closer at whom they played during that stretch. Only one of their final eight opponents ranked in the top 10 in rushing yards per game, and that was the Eagles at No. 9. Only two other teams finished in the top 20 -- the Vikings (No. 14) and Patriots (No. 18). The other five teams ranked 24th or worse in rushing yards per game this season. The Packers haven't seen a running game like this since Week 1 in Seattle.
A substantial preview, with several interesting statistical observations. Here's one; hit the link to see the rest (you'll be glad you did):
We've been talking about things having to give, and that also applies when it comes to DeMarco Murray's ability to break free for big runs. Murray ranked second in the NFL with 15 20-yard runs and broke off a league-high three 40-yarders in 2014. That explains why, according to Football Outsiders, the Cowboys averaged more "open-field rushing yards" than all but one other team in football this season.
But the Packers surrendered only five 20-yard runs, which was the second-lowest mark in the league, and were rated by Football Outsiders as the best open-field run defense in football.
Lane's weekly collection of fascinating football factoids has much to chew on. A couple of examples:
- The Packers defense finished with the seventh-lowest opposing quarterback passer rating with 82.0. Romo had four games against four other teams in the top 10, and posted a 3-1 record along with three 95-or-better passer ratings.
- A win Sunday would join Garrrett with Tom Landry, Jimmy Johnson, and Barry Switzer as the only Cowboys head coaches to have won two playoff games.
- No Cowboys head coach in his first postseason trip has ever won two games.
- Green Bay’s offense has the highest scoring percentage for their drives in the NFL at 46.7 percent. Meanwhile, 17.4 percent of Cowboys opponents’ drives end in turnovers, the highest rate in the league.
A solid overview of the game's top storylines. Here's what they all amount to:
The cold and logical pick -- and the wise one -- is Green Bay. Indestructible at home, Rodgers and the Packers have the requisite skill-position talent to end this game before it starts. They also have the best quarterback -- maybe of all time -- running the show.
Dallas, though, has the star power on offense to go punch for punch with Green Bay's high-octane attack. If the Cowboys can run the ball and keep Rodgers on the sideline, this will go down to the end in a classic for the ages. Expect nothing less.
Dallas Cowboys 31, Green Bay Packers 29
And we'll close with this gem:
the Packers are inviting spirited, hearty shovelers – as many as 500 – to brave the elements and assist with the process....Shovelers need to be at least 15 years old and will receive $10 per hour, with payment to be made immediately upon completion of their work. The Packers will provide shovels to all who come to help.
Only in Green Bay...