Sunday, January 15, 2017

NFL NFC Divisional Playoffs: Packers vs. Cowboys Preview and Prediction

Today's the day, Packer fans: the Green Packers take on the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas for the right to meet the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game next weekend. How are you feeling about today's game? If you have mixed feelings, you are clearly not alone. On the other hand, if you're riding high off the Pack's seven-game winning streak you'll see them as an unstoppable force no matter what. So let's look at just a few particulars to consider.
Head coach Mike McCarthy and QB Aaron Rodgers
need to come up big today against the Cowboys.

Photo by Rick Wood, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Deserving of all the praise it gets, the Dallas offense ranks fifth in the league overall in terms of both points scored (26.3) and yards per game (376.7). It is 23rd-ranked in terms of passing yards per game (226.9), which might be expected behind a rookie quarterback...a very good one, admittedly. Where the team gets its bump up the rankings comes via the rushing game and another outstanding rookie, Ezekiel Elliott. The 'boys generate 149.8 rushing yards per game, giving them the number two spot overall in terms of rushing attack. While QB Dak Prescott and Elliott may get the headlines, it's the Cowboys offensive line that provides the basis for everything that happens behind it. Led by Travis Frederick at center (both a southeastern Wisconsin native and UW-Madison Badger, by the way), this was and still is the best offensive line the Packers have faced all season. The Packers defense will need to keep the mojo going the way they did in the win against the Giants at Lambeau last weekend in order to stay in the game today. Elliott could take over the game if the Pack doesn't play the game of their season so far. Add to the offensive mix the fact that number one receiver Dez Bryant will return to play today. Coming off a week's rest, Dallas will put up points, no doubt.

As for the Packers offense, the Pack actually ranks ahead of the 'boys in terms of points scored during the regular season, at 27 points per game (4th overall). The Packers are a few spots behind Dallas, at number 8, in terms of yardage per game: 368.8. Not surprisingly, behind the arm of Aaron Rodgers and the hands of his many capable receivers, the Pack finished seventh overall in terms of passing yards per game: 262.4. The rushing game ranks 20th overall with 106.3 yards per game behind an efficient, albeit not explosive, attack now led by Ty Montgomery. Christine Michael, having now been with the team for sufficient time to get the playbook down, also offers a burst and rushing threat the Pack didn't have in the first match up. And, of course, FB Aaron Ripkowski can move the pile and also provide a pass outlet for Rodgers if needed. The Packers offensive line doesn't get the credit it deserves for its incredible protection given to Rodgers, allowing him time to move in and out of the pocket to find his receivers downfield. One of the strategies Dallas used in its October win over the Pack at Lambeau -- and will try to use again today -- was to keep Rodgers in the pocket. There's no secret to the fact that Rodgers is at his most dangerous when he breaks out of the pocket to scramble and find his receivers. The Cowboys frustrated Rodgers and the Packers offense in the first meeting. We'd expect Dallas to apply the same strategy as before and also expect the Packers to make adjustments. One of the biggest adjustments in that regard today will be playing without WR Jordy Nelson who was injured in the game against New York. Luckily, Randall Cobb returned in good form last weekend, Davante Adams is making big plays and undrafted rookie Geronimo Allison is in position to have a breakout game if other receivers are covered. Add another weapon the Pack didn't have in the first match up: TE Jared Cook. Cook's return from injury has coincided a great deal with the Pack's winning streak. Coincidence? We think not. Finally, neither the Packers nor the 'boys turn the ball over much; Rodgers, in particular, has been amazing during the winning streak, with no interceptions vs. the touchdowns thrown. That trend must continue today. So does the need for the Pack to get at least one or two takeaways. The Dallas strategy will be to keep Rodgers on the sideline by running the ball as much as it can to eat the clock and thus play defense by playing great offense.The Packers -- like Dallas -- will put up points, no doubt.

Let's just cut to the chase here and say that the Dallas defense ranks higher than the Pack, 14th overall vs. 22nd. In terms of each statistical category, Dallas ranks ahead of the Pack. So given basically a "push" in terms of offenses (for argument sake), shouldn't the nod go to the team with the better defense? You'd think so. But one of the elements which factored heavily into the earlier Dallas win was an inept Packers offense that still hadn't found itself...AND...four turnovers by the Pack. You may be surprised that the Packers actually ranked ahead of the 'boys in terms of season turnover differential. This is particularly the case, as fans know, for the Packers during their winning streak. The Packers tied with several other teams for second in terms of interceptions, with 17. Defensive back Damarious Randall appeared on the injury report yesterday and just how much he's able to play, and at what level, is a concern given the already thin defensive backfield. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has done a masterful job of cobbling together a defense given the injuries. The Packers will need a pass rush as well as run stuffers today. Veterans Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers need to play at the level they are capable of, that is disrupting the other team. The Packers defense has often given up yardage...big yardage on big plays. As long as touchdowns don't accompany all of those big yards, the Packers are in it. That will have to be the case again today: bend don't break.

The Prediction
We could go on and on, of course. But your head is already spinning, we know. Whether from all the data presented here or pre-game tailgating, we don't know. But either way, let's get to it, shall we?

The Packers will need to do something they really haven't done in the past three weeks, which is get out to a fast start. If they are able to do that, that will go a long way to easing the pressure on the defense to win this game...which, in fact, is something they may need to do anyway: come up with a couple big stops. But forcing Dallas to win behind a rookie QB in his first playoff game is preferable to having to grind it out against trying to stop a running back of Elliott's calibre.

The Packers will need to play their best game of the season on offense, defense and special teams to walk out of Dallas with the win. Luckily for Packer fans, they have been doing just that in recent weeks. They'll do it again today.

We're calling this one Packers 34-31 over Dallas.

Go Pack Go!!!

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