According to Pro Football Focus, the Cowboys' secondary is the best in the NFL. Just in time to face perhaps its toughest test. Rounding out the top five are the Giants, Patriots, Broncos, and Seahawks.
1. Dallas Cowboys (Rank entering Week 7: 4)
Top overall grade: S Barry Church, 86.2 (No. 9 among safeties)
Top coverage grade: CB Morris Claiborne, 85.1 (No. 12 among CBs)
Top run-defense grade: S Barry Church, 86.0 (No. 11)
Most snaps: CB Brandon Carr, 1,013
One of the biggest reasons for the Cowboys’ success this season has been the turnaround of the secondary. After having just one defensive back with an above-average coverage grade last season, all eight players with at least 100 snaps in 2016 earned average or above-average overall and coverage grades. Although they lack an elite-caliber player, this group has played consistently well as a unit. Byron Jones, Barry Church, Morris Claiborne, and J.J. Wilcox have all earned career-high overall and coverage grades this season, while rookie Anthony Brown has played well down the stretch in Claiborne’s absence.
A big reason for that PFF ranking was the play of Mo Claiborne, who will be back this week. Now we just have to hope that Sean Lee doesn't knock him out of this game like he did the last time we played Green Bay. The article also mentions that, of the defensive players who were out for the Philly game, only Justin Durant didn't practice last week.
"He's going to have rust because he's been off but some of the things that he does you can't coach," Jones said Tuesday on 105.3 FM in Dallas. "They're not necessarily from experience. They are just his natural gifts and we'll benefit from those. We certainly know he was playing at the highest level and best level he's played his career before he got his setback, his injury. I'd hope he can take right back up where he left off. That's probably optimistic, but we will certainly be better off for him being out there then we would be if he were watching the game."
I found this the most interesting article of the day. Well worth reading from beginning to end.
One day during offseason workouts, Cowboys coaches furrowed their brows at Prescott in confusion. At first he didn’t know why. But later, he figured it out.
During a pre-practice stretch period, when Wiz Khalifa’s We Dem Boyz pulsed through the speakers, Prescott rapped every verse. Minutes later, when the guitar of George Strait’s All My Exes Live in Texas twanged through, Prescott swayed along and belted the chorus louder than anyone else on the field.
"Being bi-racial and being from the country, I can talk to guys like Travis Frederick from Wisconsin and Doug Free from Wisconsin," Prescott says of two offensive linemen on the Cowboys.
"And then I can go over and talk to Dez Bryant. I mean, think about the two different standpoints you need to have a real conversation with both, to really understand what they’ve been through. I don’t think many can do it. For me, it’s not hard. I’m blessed because it’s natural."
Thank goodness for Sean Lee. He's one big reason this Cowboys' team is different from the one in 2014.
"That was probably one of the toughest games from an injury standpoint that I dealt with," Lee said. "Anytime you play Green Bay in the playoffs, that’s a game you want to be a part of. And probably looking back, of the games I missed, that’s one of the games I regret not playing in."
Here's Gosselin's ranking of the final eight playoff teams' quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, secondaries, special teams, and coaching. He ranked the Cowboys 6th, 1st, 5th, 1st, 2nd, 7th, 8th (he must not have read PFF's rankings that are linked above), 3rd, and 6th. With the low score being better, he gives Dallas a 39, tied for third with Atlanta.
Lots to quibble with here. Is it performance for this season, or a ranking based on his take on history? Look for an article later today on this very subject. Here's one part, though, that's on point.
The Cowboys went all in on rookie Ezekiel Elliott this season after selecting him with the fourth overall choice of the 2016 draft. The Cowboys were one of only two teams that ran the ball more than they passed it, and Elliott rewarded that commitment with an NFL rushing title. His 1,631 yards were almost 300 more than anyone else. He may be the best runner in the game today, but the most complete back is Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell.
Sturm looks back at the first contest and gives some advice for how Scott Linehan can attack the Packers. Tomorrow, he'll do the same for the Cowboys' defense. He has five main points, and this is the fifth.
5) Cole Beasley is a massive mismatch. I know most people will think Dez is your matchup issue, but I don't believe that in this game. Gunter is very solid against physical receivers (even Julio Jones), but speed gives them fits as a group. Micah Hyde inside against Beasley was a matchup that was very successful in Week 6. The Packers have no better options in the slot and this should be even better on a fast track.
Think the Packers' front seven can slow down Ezekiel Elliott in this game? Nah. Neither do I.
The Packers couldn't slow Elliott in the first meeting between the two teams in October. Green Bay entered the game with the NFL's top-ranked run defense, allowing an average of only 42.7 yards per game and 1.9 yards per carry. But Elliott bludgeoned the Pack for 157 yards on 28 carries in a 30-16 Dallas romp at Lambeau Field.
The Packers allowed only three individual 100-yard rushers all season. The other two came in their last two losses in November. Do you detect a trend? DeMarco Murray hammered Green Bay for 123 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in a 47-25 Tennessee victory, then rookie Robert Kelley thumped the Packers for 137 yards and three touchdowns on 23 carries in a 42-24 Washington triumph.
Jordy Nelson spent the night of the Wild Card playoff game in the hospital with broken ribs. Packers' coach Mike McCarthy says if Nelson can practice Saturday, he might play Sunday. But don't count on it. This article attempts to argue that it might not matter. Really? What do you think?
If Nelson does not play, the Packers will be without a wide receiver who led the NFL in touchdown receptions with 14 and ranked among the leaders in receptions (97) and yards (1,257) in the regular season.
"A big piece of our offense," wide receiver Davante Adams described Nelson as.
A big piece, but not all of the offense.
If Nelson does not play, that does not mean the demise of Green Bay’s passing game. The Packers showed in the wild-card round win against the New York Giants that they can survive without him.
Doug Free had a very bad game against Philadelphia the last week of the season, but don't expect the veteran on the Dallas line to play so poorly when everything is on the line.
The Cowboys need him at his best Sunday, when he’ll probably see quite a bit of Green Bay Packers pass-rusher Julius Peppers, who has 143.5 career sacks and is playing his best football of the season.
Peppers has 8.5 sacks this season, second on the team, and five in the past eight games. He also has 4.5 sacks in the five playoff games he has played in for the Packers.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett is not concerned about it. He knows Free will compete as hard as he can for as long as he can.
Archer's Five Wonders column.
I wonder where do people get this dink-and-dunk stuff with Dak Prescott? He’s not a dink-and-dunk quarterback. He averaged 8 yards per attempt. Tony Romo is at 7.9 yards per attempt for his career. Is going deep what Prescott does best? No, but the Cowboys had 38 pass plays of 20 yards or more. Not all 20-plus plays are equal, but did you really see a West Coast-type offense with short, quick passes? If you did, I saw a different offense all season. I think what has happened is some in the media have given voice to a small segment of fans who truly believe this even when presented with facts that state otherwise. Why give them a voice at all? And why get upset about it if you know it’s not true? If the Packers want to believe Prescott just throws underneath, then the Cowboys will be glad.