The first half of the season went extremely well for the Dallas Cowboys, considering that they managed to go 4-1 without Dak Prescott and then got two strong wins with him back. They have had their bye week and look to be a lot healthier than they were in the Chicago Bears game. Given how they dominated in that contest, it is cause for optimism that they can easily get to double-digit wins and might even still contend for the NFC East crown and the number one seed.
First, though, they have to face the Green Bay Packers. While the Packers are having some pretty significant struggles, they often seem to rise to the occasion against the Cowboys, no matter what. Do you remember the infamous Matt Flynn game? There are certainly challenges for Dallas, and our David Howman and Tom Ryle have some specifics to watch.
David: It certainly looks like the Cowboys are the far superior team in this one, but I’m still a little afraid to believe that. I think one of the biggest challenges would just be historical trends, which might seem like a lame answer. But the Packers have ripped the hearts out of Cowboys fans with relative ease for quite a while, and especially with Aaron Rodgers under center. It just feels so hard to believe that this won’t be the game where the Packers remember how good they can be.
This game is also at Lambeau Field, which is one of the best homefield advantages in the NFL. Even this year, with how bad the Packers have been, they’re still 2-2 at home. Are they really about to have a losing record in Lambeau? Not to mention that a loss to the Cowboys would extend their losing streak to six games, which Green Bay hasn’t done since 1988. Obviously, none of these historical trends will actually influence the game on Sunday, but it sure does feel too good to be true.
Tom: I’ll just take a subset of your concern, and the low hanging fruit here and say that the biggest challenge I see is Aaron Rodgers suddenly acting like Aaron freaking Rodgers again. We have been crushed before by him making some Superman throws in games. He has had precious few of those this season, but that is no guarantee they won’t come on Sunday.
He also knows he is on the national stage against his former head coach, Mike McCarthy. I’m not going to say he’s petty... Yes, I will say he’s petty and is going to find some extra motivation. This is a game where the Cowboys’ pass rush has to be putting constant pressure on him and getting a few sacks. The secondary also has to be on its toes, even if the stable of receivers is hardly what Rodgers has had in previous seasons. Dallas cannot afford to get cocky and needs a great game plan against him to keep his rather miserable season going in the same direction.
David: I agree that Dallas needs to be on their A+ game this week, and I think part of that extends to the officiating crew this game has drawn as well. I usually don’t like to pay too much attention to that sort of stuff, but in a game like this it becomes notable. This week’s game will be called by Brad Allen and his crew, and that group of zebras has had a tendency to favor the home teams considerably.
On the year, this crew has called just 44% of penalties on the home team and the home team is 5-2 in those games. The Cowboys were the beneficiaries of one of those wins when they beat the Bengals in Cooper Rush’s first start this year. The Cowboys were also called for two unnecessary roughness penalties in that game; Allen’s crew has called just two such penalties in all their other games all year.
It hasn’t been much of an issue lately, but penalties have been a problem for the Cowboys in general. It sunk them plenty of times last year in critical spots and the issue hasn’t completely gone away this year. With the Cowboys coming into this game as the road team now, I’m going to be closely watching the distribution of penalties between the two teams and crossing my fingers that it doesn’t become an actual issue.
Tom: The flags are a concern, but there is another, and that is the run defense against the Packers. While it is true that when Dallas is ahead, it wants the other team to run the ball, the operative part of that is when they are ahead. What they can’t let Green Bay do is take an early lead and then lean on the run to keep moving the ball and eat up clock. They have to get some early stops and turn it back over to the offense so the run doesn’t become a problem.
This may be the game where Johnathan Hankins could really pay off, and Damone Clark could be important as well. They need to get a better handle against the run while also not letting the Packers keep drives alive with third-down conversions - which relates back to Rodgers.
Additionally, this involves the Cowboys keeping the offense cranking at a high level. They need to score early to get that lead. Against the Bears, they were on fire. But the Packers are statistically the second best defense Dallas has faced. If they slow Kellen Moore’s offense, it could make the running game crucial for the defense. It all ties together. Green Bay is certainly having its struggles, but they cannot be dismissed out of hand. The Cowboys indeed need to be playing at top efficiency in all phases of the game to keep this one from turning into one of those dreaded traps.