It has been a somewhat fantastical year for the Dallas Cowboys, but the 13-3 record will mean little if they do not come away with a win against the Green Bay Packers. Much of the coverage and analysis leading up to the divisional round game between the two has been all about Aaron Rodgers and his rather remarkable play over the last part of the regular season. Add in the decisive defeat of the New York Giants in the wild card round and the much discussed lack of playoff experience on the Cowboys, and some see this as a game that Green Bay wins. However, if you look at the Vegas odds and other, more analytical predictions, you see that the Cowboys are actually favored. For instance, NumberFire, a betting prediction site, has Dallas with a 70% chance of advancing.
When you dig a little deeper, it seems that the pro-Packers voices are generally basing their forecasts strictly on Rodgers being the better quarterback. He is certainly one of the top in the game right now, perhaps better than any other passer besides Tom Brady. But right now, he is also just about all the Packers have. They have become a one-dimensional team. The Cowboys are anything but that. With Ezekiel Elliott teaming with Dak Prescott behind that stellar offensive line and a solid group of receivers, they have an offense that can hurt you in multiple ways. And the defense, despite a lingering opinion that it is mediocre, is actually playing very well, and getting better. The pass rush began to emerge late in the season, and over the last four or five games, Dallas actually had as many sacks as any team in the league, while the secondary was solid throughout, lacking a real standout, but with no real weak links to exploit. And now the Cowboys are the healthiest team in the playoffs.
No one should become overconfident, because Rodgers has largely been carrying his team on his shoulders quite successfully since about midway through the season, but the deeper you look into things, the more reasons there are to think the Cowboys should come out on top.
First is that offensive balance. Elliott is the league’s leading rusher, and he didn’t even play in the final game of the season. Dallas only ranked 23rd in passing yards per game for the season, but second in rushing - and somehow that equated to being fifth overall in total yards per game. That is how big an impact the rushing game had. And as we all had hoped it would coming into the season, the combination presents opposing defenses with a real dilemma. If you stack the box to stop the run, Prescott is still effective enough to move the ball through the air. Drop into coverage, and Elliott will devastate you on the ground. Add in how well the team has protected the ball, and that lets them also control the clock, keeping the ball out of the other team’s hands, which is particularly relevant with Rodgers coming to town.
Of course, that ball control also lets the defense stay fresh. And Dallas has been stingy all year, yielding only 19.1 points per game. Green Bay has given up 24.3. The Cowboys also have not allowed many big plays, while having quite a few of their own. That defense has only one real star, All Pro linebacker Sean Lee, but it has a bunch of players that execute their assignment every play, which is far more important. Dallas wound up the year with a points differential of +115, versus only +44 for Green Bay.
Those are the kinds of numbers that add up to the Cowboys having an advantage just about everywhere except at quarterback. And the team did not ask Prescott to do what Rodgers has been forced into. In only a couple of games was winning placed on his shoulders, and in cases where it was, such as the overtime win against the Philadelphia Eagles or the come-from-behind victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he proved up to the task, driving the team with his passing to get the wins.
The win last Sunday against the Giants actually had one of those much talked about blueprints to defeat the Packers. New York stopped them on their first five drives, all of which ended in punts. But the Giants’ offense was unable to get more than a couple of field goals in return. Had Eli Manning and his seafaring receivers done a better job, the Giants may have gotten enough of a lead early to be making the trip to AT&T Stadium this week. But they didn’t, and the Packers came storming back.
Dallas is much more likely to get points early, based on their regular season games. Scott Linehan has been particularly effective with the first drive of games. If the Cowboys can stay on course, they should be a much more formidable opponent than the Giants (no matter how much consolation they take in their two very narrow wins over the Cowboys).
That brings up the rust question. In addition to the bye week, several players, including Elliott and Lee, sat out the last game, and others like Prescott and Dez Bryant saw very limited action. And a whole group of players, like Tyron Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, Terrell McClain, Cedric Thornton, and Morris Claiborne, are expected to return from injuries that kept them off the field, some for extended time. But the tradeoff of being able to get all those players healthy while still getting home field for the playoffs is one that any team would likely make. Reports from this week are that the practices are going very well, with great intensity. The Cowboys look fully ready to hit the field playing well.
Much analysis of teams looks at things on a unit by unit basis, but that can miss the big picture. The Cowboys are a team that works with great synergy. The various parts of the offense and defense work to support and amplify one another, just as the ball control attack helps out the defense. Focusing too much on the different parts can fail to see how well the whole functions, and that is an error that the pundits who think Rodgers is going to run roughshod over the Cowboys seem to be making.
Overconfidence is certainly not warranted, but that does not seem to be a problem under Jason Garrett. His day to day and game to game emphasis is perfect for this situation, and no team reflects its head coach more than the Cowboys. There is no guarantee that they will win. But all the indications are pointing that way, if you look at them correctly.