Packers vs. Cowboys: Three thing to watch in divisional round

Oct 16, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) carries the ball as Green Bay Packers linebacker Nick Perry (53) tackles in the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 16, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) carries the ball as Green Bay Packers linebacker Nick Perry (53) tackles in the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports /

The Green Bay Packers travel to Texas this Sunday to face the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Cowboys are the best team the Packers have played all season, and Green Bay will be attempting to avenge their 30-16 loss back in Week 6.

Here’s three things to watch.

1. Cobb is Key

Cobb’s lackluster statistics last season seemed to prove that he was nothing more than a complementary slot weapon and that he needed a healthy Jordy Nelson to be productive. His disappointing 2016 seemed to show that he couldn’t be a top receiver even with Nelson healthy.

But last week, Cobb temporarily silenced the skeptics by putting up a vintage performance of five catches, 116 yards, and three touchdowns with Nelson sidelined.

It’s certainly possible that Cobb’s lack of production has been due to a shoulder injury he battled all of last year and a hamstring injury he sustained before Week 8 this year. The Packers better hope that he’s back to full health, because they’ll need him to step up.

With Nelson missing the game, Cobb will be the preeminent slot threat and Rodgers’ most trusted target. Expect Rodgers to look for him when he escapes the pocket, in the red zone, and on crucial third down plays. The Packers could also use him on designed screen plays and the like to get the ball in his hands and let him run.

Cobb had 7 catches on 11 targets in the first meeting between these teams, but just 53 yards. The Cowboys played largely man coverage against the Packers in that game with great success.

This time, Cobb could be covered by veteran Orlando Scandrick or rookie Anthony Brown, who’s been a pleasant surprise for Dallas. He’ll need to beat single coverage in order for the Packers to start breaking down the talented Dallas secondary.

2. Men in the Middle

Despite Dak Prescott’s excellent rookie season and the presence of Dez Bryant, the Cowboys offense undeniably runs (get it?) through Ezekiel Elliott and the ground game. They ranked second in the NFL this year with an average of 149.8 yards per game.

The main storyline for the Week 5 Packers-Cowboys matchup was the Dallas ground game against the Packers’ then first-ranked run defense. Elliott gashed the Packers in that game for 157 yards on 28 carries. Green Bay’s run defense has slipped since then to eighth in the league, giving up 93.2 yards per game.

Unfortunately, the Packers cornerbacks aren’t reliable enough for Dom Capers to consistently load the box against the run with an extra safety. So the burden will largely be on the front seven to contain Elliott and force Prescott into uncomfortable positions.

Dec 27, 2015; Glendale, AZ, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Jake Ryan (47) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Packers 38-8. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion are ferocious run defenders, and Nick Perry is an excellent edge-setter. They’ll be in difficult battles all day against the Cowboys’ exceptional offensive line.

But perhaps the most important task will fall on Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez. They’ll need to fight off blockers at the second level and tackle in space against the explosive Elliott.

Ryan had possibly the best game of his career last week against the Giants. But Elliott and the Cowboys present a whole new test. He, Martinez, and even Joe Thomas will be key to Dom Capers’ game plan. If they can even slow down Elliott somewhat, it will allow Capers to protect his corners with safety help and call more aggressive plays.

3. The Head Honcho

Every week, I’ve listed three things that could be crucial to the outcome of the upcoming Packers game. But the nature of football ensures that there will never be ingredients more important to a win than the leadership of the head coach and the performance of the quarterback.

Along with Aaron Rodgers, Mike McCarthy will be the Packers’ most important person on Sunday.

Some fans actually thought that Mike McCarthy’s job could be in jeopardy earlier this year, but he since has reestablished himself as a “highly successful NFL coach.”  There’s two areas where he’ll need to excel against the Cowboys: the scripted gameplan, and the gameday decisions and adjustments.

For the gameplan, McCarthy needs to find ways to get Rodgers in a rhythm early. Rodgers was a mess in the first quarter last week. McCarthy also needs to compensate on offense for the loss of Jordy Nelson, especially in the red zone where Jordy was so prolific.

Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /

But perhaps more significant will be the decisions that McCarthy makes in the heat of the moment.

Against the Seahawks in 2014, McCarthy’s decisions to repeatedly kick field goals on fourth down in the red zone cost the Packers at the end of the game. Against the Cardinals last year, it’s reasonable to argue that he should have gone for two after the Rodgers-to-Janis Hail Mary rather than play for overtime.

And even last week, a bizarre decision to go for it on fourth down in the second half with a power running play backfired.

It’s debatable as to whether the above criticisms are fair. The balance between aggressiveness (last week) and patience (Seattle) is a hard one to straddle.

Against the Cowboys in the 2014 playoffs, McCarthy made a great decision by challenging Dez Bryant’s non-catch near the goal line in the fourth quarter.

For the Packers to win, McCarthy will need to be on top of his game with creative play calls and intelligent decisions once again.

Next: How the Packers can beat the Cowboys


Packers 34, Cowboys 31

If the Packers can somehow pull out this win, I’ll probably pick them to eventually hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

But this Cowboys team has been better than the Packers pretty much all year long. And with the secondary hurting and Jordy Nelson out, I think Dallas is better positioned on paper to win the game.

But “on paper” is an irrelevant term when Aaron Rodgers steps on the field. For that reason, and against all my better instincts, I’m picking a Packers win.