In a 2017 NFL world defined by parity, 3-1 is all it takes to leave the Green Bay Packers tied for the best record in the NFC. Undefeated at home, Aaron Rodgers has looked better with each passing week while the defense, at times a work in progress, is allowing less than 300 yards a game.
RELATED: Dallas Cowboys Schedule
But the Packers, who have already lost their only major test on the road this season (at Atlanta), face a second one this Sunday in Dallas. The Cowboys, who lost three games over an entire season last year face the daunting prospect of starting 2-3. A tough schedule has combined with tough outings for Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott,and company as the young Cowboys try and avoid a sophomore slump.
It’s one of the great NFL rivalries of the past few decades that gets ready to heat up again in a marquee Sunday afternoon matchup. And did we mention revenge is on the Cowboys’ minds? It’s the Packers who knocked them out of the playoffs after a 13-3 season that left them as the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
The series between these two tradition-rich franchises is almost dead even with Green Bay leading 18-17 overall, including playoff games. The Packers have had the upper hand in recent seasons winning six of the past seven meetings, including last year's 34-31 thriller in the Divisional Round.
Green Bay at Dallas
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 8 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Cowboys -3.0
Three Things to Watch
1. Aaron Rodgers vs. Cowboys' defense
Trevor Siemian and Jared Goff are hardly household names in this league. But those quarterbacks took a great step forward in their development through the failure of the Cowboys’ pass defense.
Just take a look at these lines from the past few weeks. Both of these ended in Dallas losses.
Goff: 21-for-36, 255 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs
Siemian: 22-for-32, 231 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT
These guys have let loose on the Cowboys despite the front line playing well. Their 12 sacks are tied for third in the NFL, carried on the back of perhaps the NFC’s best defensive player. DeMarcus Lawrence is on a record-setting pace, piling up 7.5 sacks in four games.
But when the secondary doesn’t play well, Dallas is susceptible to the type of medium and deep passes that can doom a defense. Think about the 53-yard touchdown pass to Todd Gurley last week as an example. That play against the Rams could have been the difference in the game.
The Cowboys rank 20th, allowing 231.8 passing yards per game in a league that continues to be geared towards throwing the ball rather than running it, Aaron Rodgers, who QB rating has increased in every game this season, could be poised to take advantage of that. Against the Bears, his yards were down (179) but he was still laser sharp with a season-high four touchdown passes. He was just sacked twice and you just had the feeling he was in control throughout.
The Cowboys can’t let Rodgers get comfortable like that on the road. He’ll make them pay.
Remember the last time Rodgers was in AT&T Stadium, he threw for 355 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, but most importantly ended the Cowboys’ Super Bowl dreams by getting the Packers into field goal position after Dallas had tied it with just 35 seconds on the clock.
2. Ezekiel Elliott vs. Packers' rush defense
Elliott, who started the season with a 104-yard game against the Giants has seen the goodwill of his tabled suspension wear off. The last three weeks have produced two touchdowns but no 100-yard efforts. His total yards are down significantly, from 412 at this point last season, to 277. Staying focused was an issue a few weeks ago against the Broncos and it’s clear Elliott is facing his version of a sophomore slump.
Can the Packers and a home game provide a breakthrough? Green Bay ranks 19th against the run but have to yet to allow a 100-yard rusher. To be fair, some of their opponents have included the Bengals and Seahawks, teams that are a bit challenged when it comes to their ground game.
On the Cowboys’ end, while Dak Prescott has had a few missteps it’s Elliott who’s at the heart of the Cowboys’ offensive success, especially in what’s been a ho-hum season for Dez Bryant. Elliott needs to run well and establish rhythm in this offense.
3. Will Davante Adams play?
The fact we’re even talking about this possibility is a borderline miracle. Adams looked down for the count, not just for this week but the foreseeable future, after one of the most vicious hits we’ve seen last Thursday night in Week 4 against the Bears.
Taken out on a stretcher, Adams spent the night in the hospital and was put through the NFL’s concussion protocol. Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan was issued what will be a one-game suspension after appeal. It was a bad look for an NFL already dealing with a myriad of problems to start the year.
But Adams, thankfully has undergone a speedier-than-expected recovery and could suit up Sunday against Dallas. The Packers don’t need him, armed with a wide variety of scoring options. But just having Adams available and on the field will be a mental boost for their offense.
With Philadelphia playing a seemingly easier game (on paper) against Arizona at home, Dallas faces the possibility of falling two games back in the NFC East with a loss. It’s simply a regular season game teams looking to reach the Super Bowl can’t lose. A 2-3 record at this point, especially with so many strong NFC teams, would put the Cowboys in an early hole where an 8-3 finish might be needed to make the playoffs.
Green Bay enters this game tied with Detroit atop the NFC North, but it feels like the Packers have more wiggle room. I think that makes the difference as Ezekiel Elliott finally breaks out and delivers a season high in rushing yards.
Green Bay doesn’t want to play on the road in January. And if they lose this game, that possibility becomes more and more likely having already fallen to the Falcons. Losing to two teams that could make the playoffs makes Green Bay’s Super Bowl path (i.e., tiebreakers) that much more difficult.
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Packers 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.