Welcome to the playoffs! After all the trials and tribulations of the regular season, this is where things really start getting real. It has been said that the regular season only exists to determine playoff seeding, but the playoffs are where the real football begins.
This isn’t a new experience for the Cowboys, being in the postseason. Mike McCarthy has taken this team to the playoffs three years in a row now, the first time since the 90’s for this franchise. While that’s all well and good, it really doesn’t matter much when considering the Cowboys are 1-2 in those games, having been eliminated by the 49ers both times.
The Cowboys must go on a deep playoff run for this season to matter. Whether or not they can finally clear the hurdle that is the 49ers, the Cowboys’ first test begins at home against the Packers. They’re heavy favorites, with the second largest point spread for the Wild Card round, and that’s for a few reasons. For starters, they haven’t lost a game in Dallas since the season opener last year. The Cowboys have been one of the league’s best teams all year, but they’re especially good in AT&T Stadium.
Another factor is the state of this Packers team. They moved on from the Aaron Rodgers era in the offseason and longtime backup Jordan Love became the starter under center. Not only were the Packers breaking in a new quarterback with minimal experience and maximum expectations, but the surrounding cast was extremely young. With an average age of just under 26 years old, the Packers have the youngest roster in football.
As you might expect, there were growing pains early on. Green Bay started out 3-6 and, in the middle of November, looked to be dead in the water. Love, in particular, had been very mistake prone and gave fans few reasons to have faith in the future. But while the roster is very young, the coaching staff is experienced. Head coach Matt LaFleur, who also calls the offensive plays, won 13 games in each of his first three seasons. That wasn’t an accident.
LaFleur began to get a feel for his offense, the best way to utilize them, and how to get the best out of his young quarterback. The Packers suddenly started scoring with consistency and they finished the season 6-2 to sneak into the playoffs. Over those final eight games, they were second in EPA/play and actually led the league in EPA/dropback.
Of course, that doesn’t paint the whole picture. The Packers lit up the scoreboard to finish out the year, but they also won all but one of those games by one score. That highlights the Packers’ biggest weakness: their defense. Green Bay ranks 23rd in EPA/play allowed and 27th in defensive DVOA; they gave up 30 points to the Panthers, a team that (outside of that game against the Packers) scored 33 points in their last five games combined.
Not only is the defense a big problem for Green Bay, but there exists the possibility that the offensive fireworks were a bit of a mirage. With the exception of the Chiefs, a game that featured a very controversial ending, the Packers didn’t face a single defense that finished the year in the top 10 in defensive DVOA. The Packers still deserve credit for those performances, but it’s not like they were shredding great defenses.
Therein lies the problem for the Packers, and the reason for such optimism around the Cowboys. Green Bay will have to travel into an environment in which nobody but the Cowboys have won all year and put their Swiss cheese defense up against one of the most efficient offenses in the league. At the same time, the Packers will be asking their young quarterback to try and win a shootout in his playoff debut against one of the most fierce pass rushes and most opportunistic defensive backfields.
None of that means the Packers have no chance, but the odds certainly aren’t in their favor. The Cowboys have one of the easiest first rounds in the playoffs to start things off, but it won’t be a walk in the park. Still, the Packers haven’t beaten a team that plays even close to how the Cowboys do at home. If Dallas can simply get out of their own way and play their brand of football, we should be back here next week talking about the divisional round matchup.