If there wasn’t so much at stake, this is the one game Cowboys fans would’ve wanted. If they knew, rather than just hoped, that this team and its two personable rookie leaders are part of a Cinderella season, they’d want this match against the Packers.
Green Bay is the Cowboys’ longest standing rival. The Packers feature the league’s best quarterback at the height of his powers, riding a seven-game winning streak that’s created an aura of invincibility. This victory would satisfy on many levels and set the stage for a deep playoff run.
According to our friends in the desert, the Cowboys are 4.5 point favorites over the Packers, although that number is subject to moving before Sunday’s 3:40 p.m. kickoff. Here are the three biggest reasons each team could leave Jerryworld with a win.
Three Reasons the Packers Will Beat the Cowboys
1. Aaron Rodgers — Packer’s quarterback Aaron Rodgers is, far and away, the scariest thing facing the Cowboys and their fans on Sunday. The Cowboys could play a nearly flawless game on offense and still lose 41-38. Rodgers is, when he’s on, that good. And boy has he been on over the back half of the season.
On Nov. 20, the Redskins waxed the Packers in Maryland, beating Rodgers and company 42-24. After the game, Rodgers promised that the Packers would “run the table.” So far, Green Bay has done just that, rolling to seven consecutive victories over the season’s final month and a half. Rodgers has been brilliant over the same stretch, accounting for 20 total touchdowns and no interceptions. Last week against the Giants, he led the Packers to 38 points over the game’s last two and a half quarters against a defense that stymied the Cowboys’ potent offense twice this season.
Somehow, Rodgers has even mastered the Hail Mary, football’s most inherently random play. Last week he completed one for a touchdown to Randall Cobb, giving him three Hail Mary touchdowns in the last 13 months, an unprecedented level of success.
2. Juju — Inasmuch as they matter at all, many of the traditional intangibles favor the Packers as well.
Rodgers is the best of the NFL’s post-Brady/Manning quarterbacks, and he’s only got one Super Bowl — which, it should be noted, he won on the Cowboys’ home-field against the Steelers in 2011 — on his resume. He seems due for another championship and winning when the other team has the best player on the field is always a big ask. The Packers are the hottest team in the league, riding the aforementioned seven-game tear. They’re also taking on a Cowboys team with zero playoff experience at quarterback or running back. Even Dez Bryant, who seems like he’s been playing for the Cowboys for the last decade, has only played in two playoff games in his career. The second of those games, against the Packers, ended badly.
3. Julius Peppers — While the Packers’ defense isn’t worth fearing, they do have a sure-thing hall-of-famer, Julius Peppers, sitting on the defense line, ready to challenge Cowboys’ left tackle Tyron Smith as he returns from an MCL sprain suffered the night after Christmas against the Lions. Peppers, now 36 years old, isn’t the athletic, edge-rushing monster he was during the first decade of his career, but he is still capable of turning it on for the playoffs, as he demonstrated chasing Giants quarterback Eli Manning all over the field on Sunday.
Three Reasons the Cowboys Will Beat the Packers
1. Ball/Game Control — Thanks to running back Ezekiel Elliott and a dominant offensive line, the Cowboys are capable of keeping the ball away from anyone, even Rodgers. When Dallas and Green Bay played in Green Bay in October, Elliott ran all over the Packers’ defense, racking up 157 yards on 28 carries. In the months since, the Packers’ secondary has been racked with injuries, leaving them unable to cover on the back end without resorting to a deep-lying cover-two zone. Play that against the Cowboys on Sunday, and Elliott might get to 257 yards thanks to fewer defenders in the box. The more success Elliott has early in the game, the harder things get for the Packers. As good as he is, Rodgers needs at least some help from Green Bay’s mediocre running game. If the Packers get behind early, that becomes less and less likely.
The Cowboys are capable of consuming large chunks of clock and yards thanks to Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott’s ability to prevent turnovers and convert third downs. That’s the best medicine against a passer as potent as Rodgers.
2. Dez Bryant — Thanks to their depleted secondary, the Packers will likely be faced with picking their poison. If they decide to let their safeties creep toward the line of scrimmage — as they’ll need to do to have any chance of containing Elliott — Bryant will be there to exploit the Packers on the back end. With Packer’s No. 1 receiver Jordy Nelson likely out due to a couple of broken ribs suffered against the Giants, Bryant will be the best receiver on the field. After missing the game in October with his own injury, look for him to take advantage of what is sure to be a soft match.
3. The Cowboys are healthy — Thanks to clinching home-field advantage and a bye into the divisional round before Christmas, the Cowboys won’t have played a meaningful game in 27 days by the time they take the field Sunday. While they will certainly have some rust to shake off, Dallas has managed to get basically their entire roster healthy over the past month. Mo Claiborne, the team’s best cover cornerback, will play for the first time since Thanksgiving. DeMarcus Lawrence, one of the Cowboys’ best pass rushers, will play for the first time in a month. Smith’s healthy, as is defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford. The Cowboys are distinctly more healthy than the Packers, who got beat up against the Giants. That’s never a bad thing.