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Cowboys vs. Packers prediction: Let’s hope Sean Lee plays

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The Cowboys defense faces a momentous task on Sunday, which may become even more difficult with their leader possibly sidelined.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

By and large, not much has changed since these two teams met about 10 months ago in an NFC divisional playoff game that many won’t soon forget. The Packers, in particular, are almost the exact same team with very few dramatic differences. They still don’t run the ball particularly well, their quarterbacks and receivers are unchanged and remain very dangerous, Jared Cook is gone at tight end and replaced by former Cowboy Martellus Bennett, but for the most part the Packers will be rolling out almost the exact same offensive cast. One big difference is running back Ty Montgomery who is likely out with broken ribs. Defensively, Julius Peppers is gone and, otherwise similar to the Cowboys in that there are a few new rookies playing prominent roles in the secondary, but again, the cast remains mostly intact. Most importantly, Aaron Rodgers is still at the top of his game and looks primed for another elite season.

On paper the Cowboys look mostly the same as well but anybody who watches the team closely knows that there are slight differences that have had a big impact. The offensive line with two new starters is struggling to build the same type of chemistry that has served them so well over the last two to three years. That is negatively impacting Ezekiel Elliott, who doesn’t look quite as explosive as he did last season, as well as Dak Prescott who isn’t afforded the luxury of neutral down and distances as he was last year thanks to an utterly dominant line and running game. The pass protection also hasn’t been as top notch as it has in years past.

Defensively the names along the front 7 are more or less the same, but injuries and suspensions have kept key pieces like David Irving, Anthony Hitchens, and most importantly, Sean Lee on the sideline for varying periods of time. The secondary, which probably has more raw talent than it did last year, is also struggling to build chemistry and consistency while integrating so many new players after letting several veterans go.

Like many Cowboys fans I’m optimistic that the offensive line, secondary, and defense overall will improve as the season goes on, but the season hasn’t gone on yet as we sit here in the first weekend of October. As we stand today the defense is not well positioned to handle a quarterback like Rodgers who has the weapons at receiver that he has, especially if Lee is unable to play.

Lee is not only clearly the Cowboys best defensive player and one of the best linebackers in the league, but he is able to cover up for the mistakes of those around him, while keeping everybody on the same page. The Rams offense sputtered through much of the first half last week, and even when they got going it wasn’t their receivers killing the defense with bombs over the top. It was Todd Gurley and the tight ends out of the backfield and over the middle, in the short to intermediate, who were running free and getting yards after the catch.

That speaks not only to the coverage ability of the linebackers and safeties, but also the effectiveness of the communication and keeping everyone being on the same page. The return of Hitchens will certainly help but if Lee is out again I don’t see how the Cowboys defense can limit the Packers to less than about 27-30 points unless they get a few turnovers and the running game is able to churn out first downs like it’s 2016.

At the end of the day I’m not overly concerned about the offense in this matchup. They’ve always run well against the Packers, even when they rolled out Matt Cassel and Darren McFadden at Lambeau in 2015, and I feel like Dak Prescott and the receivers will make their fair share of plays through the air. They should be able to score somewhere in the mid-20’s to low-30’s themselves, especially at home.

The problem of course will be the defense, and even if Lee does play I feel like the Packers will still put up plenty of points. If the Cowboys are to have any chance to win this game Elliott will have to have a huge day on the ground, which to be fair he did twice against Green Bay last year, and the defense will have to get at least one or two turnovers.

With Lee looking doubtful and the offense still struggling to find it’s rhythm I don’t like their chances in this one. Without some fortuitous bounces and mistakes from Green Bay’s offense I foresee a long, frustrating day on the defensive side of the ball, with an offense that will play well enough but will ultimately struggle to keep up with the Packers who will likely put up over 400 yards and 30 points. Packers, 34-27.