The NFL season is a long one. This Sunday, the red-hot Green Bay Packers will travel to AT&T Stadium to face the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Divisional playoff. Months ago, during week 6 of the 2016 season, these Cowboys traveled to Green Bay and laid a beat down on the Packers, 30-16.
October 16th, 2016 feels like a lifetime ago. And because it was so early in the season, and because things tend to change every week in the NFL, I am inclined to believe you can toss that game out the window when trying to forecast what will happen this Sunday.
There are some things which happened at Lambeau back in week 6 that I think will be carried over however, as they have remained constant during the entirety of the Cowboys' magical season.
Run Zeke Run
Whether the Cowboys were set to play Green Bay, New York. Detroit, or the '72 Dolphins, their formula for victory would be the same. Get Ezekiel Elliott his carries, yards, and touchdowns.
The league's leading rusher trampled over the Packers back in week 6, running for 157 yards on 28 attempts, and adding another highlight to his “Zeke Leap” reel. Before these two teams played, all the hype centered around the Packers number one rush defense trying to be the first to stop Zeke and the Cowboys. Obviously, they failed.
But the Packers run defense did continue to remain in the top ten throughout the season, finishing 8th in the league. While their run defense is no joke, they are also not as good as the ranking indicates, considering their secondary has provided lay-up lines for opposing wide receivers all season (credit to Bomani Jones for the basketball analogy).
David Irving, Still a beast
The regular season match up with Green Bay was actually the first David Irving breakout game of the season. He simply could not be blocked, tallying 4 tackles, 1 sack, and 3 forced fumbles. It was the first taste of the beast we now know as David Irving, and it was amazing to see.
After a few weeks without much playing time, Irving finally got another shot against Tampa Bay, and since that game, he has been playing out of his mind.
The Packers offensive line is actually very good, especially their tackles, Bryan Bulaga and David Bakhtiari. Against the vaunted Giants pass rush on Sunday, Bakhtiari held their highest paid pass rusher Oliver Vernon to just two quarterback pressures. According to Pro Football Focus, it was the first time Vernon has had less than three pressures in 25 games.
Most of the havoc Irving caused in the week 6 meeting came from the interior of the line, but now that he has moved out to defensive end full time, he will need to get the best of some of the better tackles in football on Sunday.
We all know why the Packers are here
Without any bias I can say definitively that the Dallas Cowboys are a better football team than the Green Bay Packers. Seriously, I can say that.
But the Packers have a guy at quarterback who is unlike anything most of us has ever seen. The way Aaron Rodgers can buy time in the pocket, slide around, and throw receivers open time and time again is incredible. To be honest, he's got a little bit of Tony Romo in him, just a little more risk averse than old-school Romo. (No, I'm not saying Romo is better than Rodgers put down the pitch forks).
Back in October, Rodgers was not on his game. He completed 31 passes and threw for a touchdown, but he only threw for 294 yards on those 31 completions. He also fumbled twice, lost it once, and threw a key interception early in the second half.
The Cowboys must create pressure on Rodgers, make him uncomfortable, and make him throw the ball before he is ready to do so. They did a decent job of this in the second half earlier this year once they grabbed the lead, even getting some hits and sacks on him, but they must be better all around this week.
Getting Morris Claiborne back will help, as this secondary handled the Packers wide receivers rather easily in the first match up with Mo in the line-up.
The Packers have improved, but so have the Cowboys
Yes, the Packers are playing much better team football at this point than they have all season. But so are the Cowboys.
Since Thanksgiving, the Cowboys defense has been downright incredible, holding their final four opponents under 21 points (before the meaningless Philly game). Offensively, Dak Prescott has shown improvement every week, Zeke still looks fresh and ready to go, and Dez Bryant is back in a big way. Oh, and that offensive line still exists.
Both the national media and fans of other teams are acting as if Rodgers is whistling his way through town like Omar Little ready to bring the Cowboys their death wish already. These Cowboys are still damn good, don't forget it.
The Cowboys have improved since the first game just like the Packers have. And to be honest, Dallas has no reason to fear Green Bay or anyone else in the league.