The hottest team in the NFL meets the best in the NFC as the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys hook up in the postseason once again for what should be an epic clash at AT&T Stadium.
The Pack enter as winners of their last seven games and are coming off a 38-13 beatdown of the New York Giants in their wild card matchup last week. Star quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been playing phenomenally ever since guaranteeing to win out two months ago and threw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns in his last outing against one of the best defenses in the league. Green Bay’s defense also has stepped up its game in recent weeks, led by Pro Bowl safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Looking to slow down that runaway train is the No. 1 seed in the conference. The Cowboys are led by their pair of rookie stars in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott who have taken the league by storm and led the team to a surprising 13-3 record. The team’s mammoth offensive line has played a big role in the pair’s success but may not have as important a role in the outcome of this one as their opposite numbers on defense will considering the opponent.
This is the eighth time the two teams have met in the postseason, with Dallas holding a slim 4-3 lead. The Packers won the last postseason encounter back in 2014 by a score of 26-21 in a game that was far more memorable for the controversy that resulted from a non-catch by Dez Bryant. Both squads met this season in mid-October in a game that solidified Prescott as the Cowboys’ quarterback after leading the team to a 30-16 victory at Lambeau Field. That win tied the all-time series between the two historic franchises at 17-all heading into this playoff clash.
NFC Divisional Playoff: Green Bay at Dallas
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 15 at 4:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Cowboys -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Playoff Jitters
Ever since they won three Lombardi Trophies back in the early 1990s, Dallas’ playoff history has been a bit tortured as America’s Team has found ways to lose in a variety of ways. That was certainly the case the last time they played the Packers back in 2015’s Divisional Round as Dez Bryant’s catch/no-catch is still being talked about. This year feels a little different for the Cowboys though, and that’s thanks mostly to the rookie tandem in the backfield of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. While both have played in big games during their college careers (and in the league this year), the playoffs are a different animal and it will be interesting to see how both perform on the spot’s grandest stage. They’ve been incredible on the field this season but things will certainly be very amped up to start this game so pay attention to any early jitters and how the tandem responds if there’s any adversity to start their first playoff game.
2. Stopping Rodgers
There’s no getting around it, but Aaron Rodgers is having another MVP-caliber season this year and has only enhanced his profile as one of the game’s best on this recent run. Stopping him remains a priority for the better-than-expected Cowboys defense but it’s easier said than done given the number of weapons the signal-caller has at his disposal. While Jordy Nelson left in the first half against the Giants and didn’t return (his status is in doubt for this one), the team had plenty of replacements to trot out for him as Randall Cobb caught three touchdown passes and Davante Adams added another 125 yards and a score last week. Dallas made life difficult in the first matchup but this is a much different group than the one they played in mid-October. Luckily for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, he does get some good news on the injury front with cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive ends Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence all expected to be in the lineup for the game. It’s a good thing because they’ll need all the help they can get to slow down the maestro under center.
3. Winning in the Trenches
One of Elliott’s most memorable games this season came back at Lambeau Field in Week 6 when he gashed the then-No. 1-ranked rushing defense in the league to the tune of 157 yards. The Cowboys’ offensive line put on a clinic and dominated the line of scrimmage in ways the Packers probably don’t forget. Green Bay’s offense has gotten most of the press during the recent run but if the Packers have any hope of knocking off the top seed in the NFC, the defense will need to have a heck of a game as well. That includes guys up front like Letroy Guion winning battles and closing down running lanes if the team wants a different result from their first meeting. Dallas won’t make things easy, but it’s safe to say that the winner of this one will be the team that dominates in the trenches when the Cowboys have the ball.
There has been a ton of talk this season about the NFL’s television ratings dropping but it’s probably safe to say that won’t be an issue for this game. In terms of matchups, it really doesn’t get much better than this given how historically successful the two franchises have been in the postseason and some of the big names involved in this year’s meeting on both sides of the ball.
For the Packers, that obviously starts with their star quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. He’s been shredding defenses left and right as his team got hot and when he’s not dancing around in the pocket, he’s launching Hail Marys in effortless fashion. Ty Montgomery has really come on late as a converted wide receiver-turned-tailback and there are weapons for days in the passing game even if Jordy Nelson won’t make it out for this game. Defensively, Green Bay can certainly get after teams with Clay Matthews shutting down run lanes and Julius Peppers still going strong coming off the edge.
They’ll be tested against a Dallas team that has seen all the pieces come together at the right time however. That starts up front with the high-priced offensive line the team has assembled but has paid off with career-defining seasons from rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. That backfield tandem will have no problem grinding out a win in the playoffs but you can’t overlook Dez Bryant and others in the Cowboys’ offense causing some matchup nightmares too.
It should all make for one great game and install the winner as the likely favorite to make it all the way down the road to Houston for Super Bowl LI. This figures to be one of those close games with several back-and-forth momentum shifts that come as a result of big plays. So in the end will it be a red-hot Green Bay team or the NFC’s No. 1 seed that moves on to the conference championship game.
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.