Back on Nov. 21, after losing at Washington, which was their fourth straight defeat and left them with a 4-6 record, the Packers were ahead of only two teams in the NFC standings. Seven weeks, and seven victories, later, Green Bay is one of just four playoff teams remaining with a chance to represent the conference in Super Bowl 51. Running the table sure turned the table.
The Packers are riding a wave of late-season momentum – and the scorching-hot play of Aaron Rodgers – into Dallas, where they will face the Cowboys in the Divisional Round game on Sunday. During the current seven-game winning streak, since Rodgers made his famous pronouncement, the devastatingly careful quarterback has been peerless, passing for 19 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Rodgers guided the Packers to their Wild Card Round win over the Giants last week, and now he leads them to Dallas – the city in which they beat the Steelers and won the title six years ago – to try and upset the top-seeded Cowboys. Overall, Green Bay is as healthy a team as it’s been all season, though the offense will be without leading receiver Jordy Nelson, whose rib injury suffered against New York has him ruled out for Sunday.
Only a handful of players remain from the Super Bowl team that raised the Lombardi trophy in Dallas, but all week the Packers expressed confidence and belief in themselves and their teammates. Since training camp, head coach Mike McCarthy has insisted that this particular squad has a unique energy, last week saying it was "as ambitious a group of men as I’ve ever been around."
There will be plenty to watch – and listen to, with everyone’s favorite FOX broadcasters, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, on the call – during Sunday’s showdown between two of the NFL’s (or, #America’s) most popular teams. It's a game that has even non-sports fans excited. Here are five things, in particular and besides Rodgers’ routine amazingness, to keep an eye on when the Packers face the Cowboys:
1. The pregame coin toss and kickoff decision
This one may sound weird, but hear me out. The winning team of the coin flip gets to decide whether it wants to kick off to start the game or defer its choice until the second half, essentially choosing to receive the ball in the third quarter. The Packers are one of many teams that regularly chooses to defer; as McCarthy and Rodgers have said, they like having the opportunity to potentially score at the end of the first half and then again at the beginning of the second half. League statistics from the past few years have shown that teams that defer have won slightly more often than those that haven't.
But, should they win the flip and get to make that decision, this might be the game to take the ball first. The Packers’ offense has been cruising the past two months – they averaged 30.8 points per game over the final six games of the regular season, then scored 38 last week against New York – and it’ll be crucial to get ahead of the Cowboys. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL in rushing yards this season with 1,631 – 300 more than the next player; in Week 6, he destroyed what had heretofore been a very good Packers run defense, carrying 28 times for 157 yards.
Dallas is a ball-control offense, and while Green Bay has won several games this season despite having less time of possession than its opponent, this is not the team to whom you want to fall behind. Elliott is a tireless, relentless monster, and he’s going to eat on Sunday, no matter what; but if the Packers can take an early lead, they may be able to mitigate his impact. Let’s just hope that, unlike in last year’s Divisional Round game against the Cardinals, the coin actually flips.
2. Packers’ pass defense against QB Dak Prescott
The fourth-round draft pick out of Mississippi State has not looked at all like a rookie this year. Prescott was third in the NFL in passer rating (104.9), just ahead of Rodgers (104.2), and his 0.9 interception percentage – he threw four on 459 passing attempts – was second only to Tom Brady. Prescott had one of his rare interceptions against the Packers in their previous meeting, but generally has not turned over the ball.
Green Bay’s depleted defensive backfield has been beset by injuries and ineffectiveness. Without their top cornerbacks for much of the season, the defense gave up the second-most passing yards in the league (4,308), allowing far too many big plays. Down the stretch, though, the secondary became much more opportunistic, and the Packers finished with 17 interceptions, which was tied for the fourth-most. That aggressive playmaking papered over some of the unit’s deficiencies, and players and coaches on both sides of the ball constantly stress the importance of winning in turnover differential.
The secondary will be helped enormously if Green Bay’s pass rush can rattle Prescott, who was only sacked 25 times behind an excellent offensive line; 22 quarterbacks were taken down more in 2016. Finally relatively healthy, Clay Matthews has been wreaking havoc lately – his strip-sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery against the Giants may have been the defensive play of the year – and veteran Julius Peppers has reemerged as a force, with a sack and two passes knocked down last week. Nick Perry, who led the team with 11 sacks, was a full practice participant all week and could give the Packers a major pass-rush boost.
3. LaDarius Gunter covering Dez Bryant
Going into this season, the Packers probably wouldn’t have preferred to have Gunter, an undrafted rookie in 2015 who barely played last year, basically become their No. 1 cornerback. But injuries to Sam Shields, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins – along with others, which decimated the secondary – meant Rollins had to take on an unexpected, large role, frequently covering the opponent’s best receiver.
Given his background and limitations – he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.69 seconds, and is considered a comparatively slow cornerback – Gunter has performed extremely well, especially in high-stakes situations against premier receivers. In the Week 8 loss to the Falcons, Gunter matched up on Julio Jones and helped keep him to five targets and just 29 yards; in last week’s win over the Giants, he covered Odell Beckham Jr., and limited the All-Pro to four catches on 11 targets for 28 yards.
Like Beckham, Bryant is a hugely talented but enigmatic receiver. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Bryant, who led the Cowboys in touchdown catches, might actually be an even better matchup for Gunter – who has good size and strength and uses those attributes to his advantage – than the speedy Beckham. This week, Gunter said he was looking forward to another challenge, but again emphasized that stopping the powerful Bryant would be less a 1-on-1 battle than a total team effort.
4. The Packers’ other receivers
Thanks to Giants safety Leon Hall’s injurious hit, we know Nelson is out Sunday. That’s a huge loss, obviously, but the Packers’ pass-catching cupboard isn’t exactly bare, and Rodgers makes almost any player better (see: Jeff Janis in last year’s Divisional Round game). Randall Cobb had his best game of the season last week, Davante Adams is now one of football's better receivers and undrafted rookie Geronimo Allison has developed into a surprise playmaker.
But the guy that can best replace some of Nelson’s prodigious production – he led the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns – is tight end Jared Cook. Rodgers has talked often about Cook’s importance and the two have said they share a valuable chemistry, impressive since this is the tight end’s first year in Green Bay. With Cook on the field in 2016, Rodgers has thrown 21 touchdowns and just one interception, according to ESPN Stats & Info. A matchup problem for defenses because of his size and speed, Cook creates space and opportunities for both himself and other receivers, even when he doesn't get the ball. Over his last three games, Cook has averaged seven targets and 59.3 yards.
"We're doing a lot of different things than we were last year, a lot of things better," Rodgers said this week of how the offense can continue to thrive without Nelson. "I think our offensive line is playing better. Our scheme has advanced. We're getting more contributions from the tight end at this point, and Richard (Rodgers) and Jared (Cook) are making plays for us, and I think we're a little deeper at receiver now with the emergence of Geronimo [Allison]. Davante [Adams] is a legit receiver in this league, and obviously Randall Cobb, who is established as well."
5. The battle in the trenches
Widely regarded as the best offensive line in the NFL, Dallas’ big boys up front are a huge reason for the preternatural success of the rookies, giving Prescott lots time and Elliott huge holes. The Cowboys had three starting linemen voted to the Pro Bowl, with guard Zack Martin and former Badgers center Travis Frederick joining tackle Tyron Smith, who was also named to the AP All-Pro Team for the fourth consecutive year. With a sterling, stalwart line, Dallas was fifth in the league in total offense and scoring.
On the other side, veterans Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion, as well as rookie Kenny Clark of late, lead a defensive line that has quietly been one of Green Bay’s steadiest units the whole year. In the Packers’ 3-4 scheme, the linemen don’t get a lot of glory, simply expected to occupy blocks and allow the linebackers to make big plays. In the two teams’ meeting back in October, the Cowboys dominated the line of scrimmage, allowing just two quarterback hits on Prescott and paving the way for a 191-yard rushing day for the team.
Usually Daniels is the voluble defensive lineman. This week, though, it was Guion who sounded ultra-confident that Green Bay would win the fight in the trenches. "Ezekiel Elliott had a pretty good game the last time. But this time it's not going to be like that. Hopefully this time we come out fighting, get them off the field, get the ball to Aaron Rodgers and let him do his thing. … I'm not a fortune teller. I can't tell you what's going to happen, but I can tell you it's going to be a rumble in the jungle, baby."
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.