NFL Divisional Playoffs: (3) Dallas Cowboys (13-4) at (2) Green Bay Packers (12-4) full throttle, in-depth preview and prediction

“Oh my goodness.” “Good God.” “This is insane!” “Can’t wait!”

Those were the types of thoughts many NFL fans generated once they realized the Dallas Cowboys were going to play the Green Bay Packers this week. Granted, last week’s Cowboys/Lions game was tainted by the referees, but that was last week. The Lions had every opportunity to win that game, but as usual, they choked the game away.

This week, however, is a matchup of titanic proportions. For just the third time in NFL postseason history, and the first time since the 1970s that a team with an undefeated road record takes on a perfect home team. And, the Cowboys and Packers are just that. But prior to predictions, here is a breakdown of five aspects of the of this game, such as how each team got to this point, statistics, head-to-head history, and the biggest headline of the game.

 

Green Bay’s home field advantage.

No team was more dominant at home than the Green Bay Packers. They averaged nearly 40 points a game in Lambeau Field, and aside from the 26-21 win over the New England Patriots in Week 13, put up at least 30 points in every home game, including 40 or more in four games, and over 50 in a pair of games. Aside from their Week 2 31-24 nail-biter comeback over the Jets, and the season finale against the Detroit Lions, the Packers outscored opponents 182-30 in their other six home games. Of those 30 points allowed, the Patriots put up 14 of them. I could go into detail, but the story has been routine for the Packers. Any team that was not from the AFC East got stomped. On the road, the Packers have been about average, going 4-4. But at home, no team is more ferocious.

 

Dallas’ road dominance.

In the NFL, going unbeaten at home is tough, but not too rare. Going 8-0 on the road, however, is downright historic. Coming into the 2014 NFL regular season, only seven teams had gone unbeaten on the road. Thanks to the Dallas Cowboys, that statistic has moved up to eight, after this year’s regular season.

Aside from their first road game of the season, a 26-10 win over the Tennessee Titans, no other road game, barring the season finale and the win at the Bears, was a blowout. Heck, even those games were thrilling at some point. But, the Cowboys have constantly found a way to get it done on the road. Here’s a look at their greatest road hits.

Week 3: Cowboys at Rams.

In Week 3, the Cowboys spotted the St. Louis Rams a 21-0 lead. The last of those three touchdowns was a 25-yard interception return from Rams’ cornerback Janoris Jenkins, and with 6:06 remaining in the first half, the game looked like it would be a shocking blowout. However, the Cowboys showcased their mettle in full form, and got on the comeback trail. They scored ten points in the final five minutes of the half, and virtually cut the deficit in half.

Then, they scored on the second half’s opening drive, via a 68-yard bomb from Tony Romo to Dez Bryant, and added a field goal to cut the deficit to 21-20. In the final quarter, after the Rams scored a field goal, Romo led the team on an 84-yard drive that took up about half the quarter, and capped it off with a 12-yard touchdown pass from Romo to Terrance Williams, and took their first lead with 6:13 remaining in the game. Just one play later, linebacker Bruce Carter returned an interception 25-yards for a touchdown, and the Cowboys lead swelled up to 34-24. The Rams scored a touchdown with 2:36 remaining, and got the ball back just 38 seconds later. However, quarterback Austin Davis threw an interception to Morris Claiborne, and the Cowboys’ comeback was complete.

Week 6: Cowboys at Seahawks

Going into Week 6, the Cowboys had proven a lot of doubters wrong. Many people believed the Cowboys would be lucky to get even seven wins on the year. But by Week 6, the Cowboys had already won four games. After dropping their opener 28-17 against San Francisco, the Cowboys won four straight, winning over the New Orleans Saints via 38-17 blowout, and a thrilling 20-17 overtime win over the Houston Texans. But, there was no way they would win in Seattle, right? Could they even manage to avoid getting blown out on that October 12th afternoon?

Very early in the game, the Cowboys looked ready to melt down. They allowed the Seahawks to score a field goal on the game’s opening drive, and on their first punt, they saw it get blocked, and then returned 25 yard by Mike Morgan for a Seahawks touchdown. Just midway through the opening quarter, the Cowboys ship looked like it had begun sinking. However, they scored a touchdown on a two-yard pass from Romo to Gavin Escobar, and cut it to 10-7.

The Cowboys carried the momentum into the second quarter, scoring a field goal on a 15-play drive that took up almost ten minutes, and closed out the first half with a touchdown pass to Jason Witten with just 16 seconds left.

Midway through the third quarter, Cowboys’ kick returner Dwayne Harris muffed a punt, and Mike Morgan recovered for the Seahawks. Just two plays later, Russell Wilson ran into the endzone from nine yards out, and the Seahawks tied the game up at 17. A few plays later, Tony Romo fumbled the ball, and the Seahawks got it back. With 3:20 remaining in the quarter, Steven Hauschka kicked a field goal, and gave the Seahawks a 20-17 lead. Surely, the game was over now, right? There was no way the Cowboys would regain their senses.

Well, the Cowboys kicked a field goal of their own on the next drive, from 56-yards out, and went into the final quarter tied with the defending at 20 apiece. Both teams punted in their first possessions of the final quarter, before the Seahawks kicked a field goal with 8:16 remaining.

On their next drive, the Cowboys converted a third-and-20 from their own 31-yard line with a Tony Romo pass to Terrance Williams, and followed up with a pair of Demarco Murray rushed for 25 and six yards. On the next play, Murray ran 15 yards into the endzone for a touchdown, and with 3:23 remaining in the game, led 27-23.

After the Seahawks turned the ball over on downs, the Cowboys added another field goal, extending their lead to 30-23. Two plays later, Russell Wilson’s pass was intercepted by Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain, and the Cowboys stunned the world in Seattle. It was this game that made people believe the Cowboys could be great.

The divisional games

Each of the three road divisional games the Cowboys played proved something different about them.

In Week 12, the Cowboys, then 7-3, were coming off a bye week. Meanwhile, the New York Giants were 3-7, but very potent. The Giants got off to a 14-3 lead, due to a pair of Eli Manning touchdown passes to standout rookie Odell Beckham Jr, including a 43-yard second quarter-opening catch that many consider to be one of the best plays in NFL history. After the Cowboys answered with a touchdown pass to Jason Witten, the Giants scored a rushing touchdown with rookie running back Andre Williams, and led 21-10 at halftime.

In the second half, Tony Romo threw a pair of touchdown passes, first to Cole Beasley for 45 yards, and then to Dez Bryant from 31-yards out, taking a 24-21 lead into the fourth quarter. In that fourth quarter, the Giants went 93 yards on 14 plays, and Andre Williams’ three-yard touchdown gave the Giants a 28-24 lead with three minutes remaining.

Hoping to up his 2013 feat in the New Meadowlands, when he led the Cowboys to a game-winning field goal, Tony Romo led the team 80 yards down the field in under two minutes, and capped off the drive with a 13-yard pass to Dez Bryant, giving his team a 31-28 lead with 1:11 remaining. On the following fourth down, Manning’s pass to Rashad Jennings was completed just short of the first down marker, and the Cowboys proved once again that they can pull off comebacks.

In Week 15, just two weeks after a pitiful 33-10 performance on Thanksgiving Day agains the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cowboys got the opportunity to avenge their embarrassment on Sunday night football. They were coming off a dominant 41-28 win at Chicago, which was a lot more one-sided than the final score would indicate.

Both the Cowboys and Eagles shared a matching 9-4 record, with the winner controlling their own destiny in terms of making it to the playoffs. And the Cowboys did not wait to start rolling.

On the first play of the game, Eagles returner Michael Huff failed to accept the kickoff, and the live ball was recovered by the Cowboys at the Philadelphia 18. Just five plays later, Demarco Murray ran into the endzone from a yard out to give his Cowboys an early 7-0 lead.

On their next drive, the Cowboys went 88 yards on 16 plays, capping off the drive with a short touchdown catch for Dez Bryant. The drive took up over eight minutes, and the Cowboys led 14-0 after the first quarter. Less than three minutes into the second quarter, Bryant caught yet another touchdown pass, this one for 26 yards out, and the Cowboys were up 21-0. Then, the notorious Cowboys of the past few years reared their ugly head.

The Eagles scored the final ten points of the second quarter, cutting their deficit to 21-10. On their first third quarter drive, they scored yet again, and after Tony Romo fumbled the football, scored yet another touchdown. All of a sudden, the once insurmountable 21-0 deficit had turned into a 24-21 lead, and the Cowboys looked cooked.

But then, a strange thing happened. The Cowboys did not hang their head, nor did they give up. Instead, Romo and company responded with a two-yard Demarco Murray touchdown just five minutes later, and reclaimed the lead. On the final play of the third quarter, they intercepted a Mark Sanchez pass, and took over deep in Eagle territory.

A few minutes into the final quarter, Dez Bryant caught his third touchdown of the game, this time from  25 yards out, and the lead swelled to 35-24. Each team added a field goal, but the Eagles turned the ball over on multiple occasions within the frame, falling 38-27 to the Cowboys. The game proved that unlike recent years, they were not going to run away when faced with adversity. Instead, they grabbed it by the neck, and choked out a huge victory.

In the season finale, although they had clinched the division, the Cowboys starters played in order to keep their competitive juices flowing. They scored 17 points in the opening quarter, and set records on back-to-back plays. First, Demarco Murray broke Emmitt Smith’s team record for rushing yards in a season. Then, Dez Bryant broke Michael Irvin’s record for touchdown catches in a season. The team led 27-10 at halftime, and never looked back. They proved that they take every game seriously, and have a “take no prisoners” attitude as their new mantra.

Aaron Rodgers’ calf injury

Without question,  no individual player headline has dominated the coverage of this game like Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’s calf injury. Once rumored to be a slight sprain, it is actually a tear. As a result, he will be more of a stationary target, and against an improving Cowboys pass rush, that could pose a problem. Of course, the Packers could just lean on running back Eddie Lacy, who has been excellent lately after a rough start to the season, but that does not suit their style. If Rodgers is not in full form, the game will not go as planned for them. They barely edged out the Detroit Lions a few weeks ago, who are an average road team. Against a team that thrives away from home, this injury could wind up being a major gamechanger.

 

Head-to-head: recent history vs. playoff history

Over the past few years, the series is split at two apiece. The first two of those games, back in 2007 and 2008, went the Cowboys’ way.

On November 29, 2007, the Cowboys and Packers faced off in what could have been that year’s NFC Championship preview, had it not been for those meddling Giants. The Cowboys took the lead in the opening quarter, and while the Packers came close on occasion, never retook the lead. Brett Favre threw two interceptions prior to suffering  elbow and separated shoulder injuries in the second quarter. In relief, Aaron Rodgers threw for 201 yards and a touchdown, while adding 30 yards rushing on five carries.

In Week 3 of the 2008 NFL season, Rodgers’ first start against the Cowboys did not go his way. While he threw for 290 yards, he failed to notch in a passing touchdown. He did garner a rushing score, but the Cowboys, anchored by 217 yards rushing and a pair of long passes to Miles Austin, won the game 27-16.

The 2007 and 2008 editions of the game saw Wade Phillips coach his Cowboys to wins over the Packers. But in Week 9 of the 2010 regular season, Aaron Rodgers ended Phillips’ head coaching career. The Cowboys, who were 1-6 entering the game, were playing without Tony Romo due to a season-ending collarbone injury. Rodgers and company showed no remorse, however, scoring 28 first half points, and routing the Boys to the tune of 45-7. Rodgers completed 27 of his 34 pass attempts for 289 yards and three touchdowns, while adding 41 rushing yards. The next week, Phillips was fired, and the Packers ended the season with their first Super Bowl win in over 40 years.

Oh, and then there was the 2013 classic. The Cowboys needed a win to sure up playoff hopes, but blew a 26-3 lead and lost 37-36. I could spend days analyzing all that went wrong for the Cowboys that day, but I have to study for a Spanish test, and do not want to throw up due to how utterly nauseating that meltdown was.

As far as playoff history goes, this matchup has plenty. Okay, so maybe they’ve only faced off six times in the past 47 years in the playoffs, and the latter four were Cowboys victories. But, the last of those came in 1996. It was the last of three straight seasons where the Cowboys, led by “The Triplets”, ended Brett Favre’s season. In 1994, they won 27-17, and followed up with a 35-9 beatdown. In 1996, they won 38-27 in one of the more entertaining NFC Championships in NFC postseason history.

But the most memorable postseason tilt between the Cowboys and the Packers came back in the 1967 NFL Championship game, better known as the “Ice Bowl”. The temperature was -15 degrees Fahrenheit, with the wind chill being 33 degrees colder. Statistically, every player sucked, or at best was adequate, barring Boyd Dowler. He caught four passes for 77 yards and two touchdowns, but was not the man responsible for the games’ biggest play.

With 4:50 remaining in the game, the Packers got the ball trailing 17-14. At this point, the wind chill was −70 degrees. However, Packers Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr completed three passes for 44 yards, leading the team to the Cowboys 11-yard line. AfterChuck Mercein’s eight-yard run to the three-yard line, the Packers failed to get into the end zone on three straight runs.

However with under 20 seconds left to play, Star ran his legendary quarterback sneak, and the Packers took a 21-17 lead. The Cowboys had a few chances, but Don Meredith’s horrendous day ended with two incompletions, and the Packers won the game. They finished the season by defeating the AFL Champion Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II by a score of 33-14, but the “Ice Bowl” was the game that went down as one of the most memorable ever.

Statistics

For anyone who loves offense and star power, this game is a dream come true. Both teams excel in one area, and are pretty good in the other.

The Packers are eight in the nation in passing offense, and eleventh in rushing offense. Their passing attack is as lethal as it gets, highlighted by high-flying receivers Jordy Nelson 98 catches, 1,519 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Randall Cobb (91 catches, 1,287 yards, 12 touchdowns). They are arguably the best receiving duo in the NFL, even moreso than Atlanta’s, and have been key to Aaron Rodgers (4,381 passing yards, 38 passing touchdowns, five interceptions, 269 rushing yards) having an MPV-caliber season. Eddie Lacy has done a tremendous job reversing his early season struggles, rushing for over 90 yards in five of the last six games.

Defensively, Clay Matthews has returned to prime form with 11 sacks, and when he has played as an inside linebacker, the rush defense has vastly improved. Meanwhile potential hall of famer Julius Peppers has chipped in seven sacks of his own. The team has garnered 41 sacks on the year, and has forced 27 turnovers.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys have three MVP candidates! Tony Romo (3,705 passing yards, 34 touchdowns, nine interceptions) has been efficient in all but one game this season, Demarco Murray (1,845 rushing yards, 13 rushing touchdowns, 416 receiving yards) won the league’s rushing crown by a mile, and Dez Bryant (88 receptions, 1,320 yards, 16 touchdowns) has been a tremendous playmaker all season long.

Tight end Jason Witten (64 receptions, 703 yards, five touchdowns),  is playing his best football of the season lately, garnering over 60 yards in three of the last four games. Terrance Williams (621 yards, eight touchdowns) started the season hot, slowed down massively for several months, but has four touchdowns the past two weeks.

Defensively, the Cowboys are almost as good stopping the run (eight in the NFL) as they are at generating it (second in NFL), and have forced 31 turnovers. Bruce Carter leads the team in interceptions with five.

Prediction: Honestly, this game could go any which way. I genuinely do not believe the Cowboys are better than the Packers. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they won along the lines of 34 to 10. However, for some reason, I believe they will win. I have no idea how, but I cannot shake off the feeling. That said, I have yet to pick an upset this post season, so, Head pick: Cowboys 27, Packers 31. Heart pick: Cowboys 38, Packers 35, overtime.

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