The Green Bay Packers haven't lost a game since November 20th against the Washington Redskins. After getting thrashed 42-24, the Packers have done exactly what Aaron Rodgers said they would do when they were 4-6; run the table. They have been in playoff mode since Thanksgiving and they have been on a tear through the NFL. So have the Dallas Cowboys, who have been the story of the NFC, if not the NFL, this season. There are particular reasons and stories that lead to where these two teams find each other at this time of the year. However, we at BTB were posed with a great question about these two teams that really make you think. Here is the query we received from one of BTB's regular readers
One thing that has been circulating around the Packers fanbase is that one of the reasons they have been on the seven-game win streak is that their defense has stepped it up. Although this is true, with a critical lens we have come to learn that it may not be so much that the Packers defense has stepped up as it is that they have just played inferior offenses. It makes me wonder whether our pass rush has improved or whether we have just played teams with poor pass protection [recently]?
What an excellent topic to discuss as it poses questions to both teams and really makes for an interesting look at this matchup come Sunday. We'll start with the opposition and speak about the Green Bay Packers' seven-game streak. The first thing that jumps out to you is the competition they have had over these past seven weeks. It is definitely a valid point that the opposing offenses may not have been the strongest offensive competition to have faced. We will review some of the stats, but you should also reference VAfan's take on this very subject.
It all started with a 27-13 thumping of the Eagles, who ranked 22nd in total offense. Then they followed that with wins over the Texans (29th), Seahawks (12th), Bears (15th), Vikings (28th), Lions (21st), and the Giants (25th). Only two of the past seven offenses have been average, the rest have been quite below average. Only three of the past seven opposing quarterbacks they faced have the skins on the wall in the NFL to argue themselves elite with Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, and Eli Manning. So yes, the competition for the Packers have been a bit soft on offense. Also, consider that four of the seven wins have come for Green Bay at Lambeau Field, where Rodgers has a 57-16 record as a starter as opposed to away games where he's 41-35. That's two fairly different records to speak of.
Further tackling the idea that the Packers' defense has played a lot better over these seven weeks, that is true. However, here is another nugget to consider, Green Bay's defense at home have been the league's 14th best defense. When they have been on the road, though, they have ranked at 28th in the league. Over these seven weeks, on the road, the Packers are giving up nearly 22 points per game. They were within one score in wins against the Bears and Lions, the only team they blew out on the road was Philadelphia. At home, the Packers average only giving up 15.25 points per game. Home crowds always help the home defense and that won't be the case this Sunday as Green Bay must travel.
Shifting our focus to the Dallas Cowboys and their defense, in their 30-16 win against the Packers, the defensive line only managed one sack in that game. The Dallas defense excelled at forcing turnovers intercepting Rodgers once and recovering three of five forced fumbles. That game was officially the emergence of David Irving. Over the past several weeks, that emergence has become a coming-out party. However, instead of looking at the stats on NFL.com, it may help get a better understanding of the competition levels by looking at PFF. Using their player tool grades, despite how we may not always trust them, they tell a different story for Dallas because you can look at individual performances.
By PFF standards, the Cowboys' defensive line is awful. They haven't given any player along the defensive line an above average grade. In fact, Irving and Tyrone Crawford are the only guys with an average grade in the 70's. In the last month of the season, the Cowboys' pass rush has become significantly better. They had 19 total sacks at the beginning of December. That's a paltry average of only 1.7 sacks per game over the first 11 games of the season. In the last five games, the Cowboys have recorded 16 more sacks or an average of 3.2 sacks per game. If you compare that to the offensive lines they have played then PFF owes this defense an apology.
To answer the question: No, the Cowboys' pass rush hasn't only been better because of their competition. They started with the Vikings, three sacks. Then they traveled to New York, three more sacks with three average or above rated offensive linemen. Next was Tampa Bay, four more sacks with three average or above rated offensive lineman. They tacked on four more sacks against the Lions without two starters and three average or above rated offensive lineman. They finished the year with two sacks against the Eagles without the majority of their starting defensive line, who have all five offensive linemen at average or above average at their positions.
When you then compare those notes with the NFL statistics, you find that the Cowboys have faced on average the 13th rated offensive line with only Detroit and Minnesota being in the bottom-10 in sacks given up. Tampa and Philadelphia are in the middle and the Giants give up the least amount of sacks ranking 4th. Fast forwarding to this week's competition, the Packers' offensive line has been good. Statistically speaking, though, their offensive line has given up 10 more sacks on the season than your Dallas Cowboys.
Sure, the Cowboys haven't faced world-beaters over their final five weeks as their defensive line has been on this run. With that said, they have faced five first-round picks at quarterback, racked up 16 sacks missing key contributors, and have the pleasure of playing for their hometown crowd. Though the Giants racked up five sacks against Aaron Rodgers, they took themselves out of position to make plays on defense. The Dallas Cowboys are not going to sell out to sack Rodgers, they're going to play smart and stay in position. If you been watching "The Orphans" all season long, it's more important to stay in position and do their individual jobs. That's what makes this defense underrated and underappreciated. Both teams are vastly different from where they were in their first meeting but the edge still goes to the number one seed.