The December Difference

The Packers know that some December magic can turn around a season (see Super Bowl XLV). Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones knows December can ruin a team's reputation. The final stretch of the regular season has yielded much different results for the Packers and Cowboys in recent years.

Like a two-minute drive to decide a close game, seasons are often defined by what happens during the last month of the schedule.

Three years ago, the Green Bay Packers found themselves in a familiar situation. Aaron Rodgers was out. The team's playoff chances were on life support. And there was even some chatter on the streets and in chat rooms online of a coach being fired.

Then Rodgers returned. The Packers won the last two regular-season games and got some help from other teams around the league. And the coach that was the subject of dismissal talk became a Titletown hero by season's end.

December can make all the wrongs of a season right. Dallas Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones understands this.

"We've always known that what they remember is what you do in December," Jones said last week. "We need to change that. That was our goal this year. And we've got a chance to do something about it this year."

Over the past four seasons, the Cowboys are 10-11 in the final month (including regular-season games played in January). The Packers, by the same measure, are 16-5. That .762 winning percentage is second- best in the league. Only the New England Patriots (.864) are better.

Being told that the Packers have one of the best records in the league in December since 2009 was news to one longtime Packers veteran.

"I didn't know that. That's a stat I had no idea about," said defensive lineman Ryan Pickett. "I don't know. It's kind of just focusing. It's drawing to the end and you can either do it or not. We've got guys that love to win in this locker room and compete."

Even with an 11-0 start in 2011, the Packers are better in the last month of the season than they are in the first three months combined (.733) since 2009. The Cowboys, on the other hand, are 30-26 over the first three months, which includes a 1-7 start in 2010 that got coach Wade Phillips fired.

Fair or not, quarterback Tony Romo receives some of the criticism for the Cowboys' late-season slides. Though he has led Dallas to the playoffs three times in seven seasons while establishing himself as one of the game's top passers, collapses down the stretch in 2008 (1-3) and 2011 (1-4), and losing the last two games in 2012, have cost the talented Cowboys three postseason appearances.

"Well, we actually won three of our first four last year in December, so I don't know that… if you want to take just four years or a year or whatever, usually we have a lot of division games in December, we've been on the road, there's different things that come into play upon that," said Romo in a conference call with Green Bay media on Wednesday. "Each year is separate and different. You go back three years ago, we weren't very good in December. You go back to last year, we were pretty good. This year we're 0-1. That's a thing that obviously is something good to write about. It makes it an enjoyable thing for people to read. That's part of the greatness of the game, but we just look at each game separately, individually and go out and try to win that game."

Last season, with the NFC East title on the line, the Cowboys lost 28-18 at Washington in the regular-season finale. The Packers missed out on a bye for the playoffs when they lost at Minnesota on Dec. 30. But by then, the Packers had a playoff spot locked up with four straight December wins, including an NFC North Division clincher at Chicago on Dec 16. Every time the Packers have been in playoff contention headed into December with Rodgers as the starter, the Packers have finished strong.

On Sunday, when they take on the Cowboys, the Packers (6-6-1) will likely have Matt Flynn at quarterback again as Rodgers waits for medical clearance from a fractured collarbone. They will again be in survival mode, looking to stay a half-game back in the division if the Chicago Bears win at Cleveland and the Detroit Lions win Monday night against the Baltimore Ravens.

The Cowboys (7-6) will be in survival mode, too. They stand a full game back of the Philadelphia Eagles, whom they host in the regular-season finale on Dec. 29. The Eagles play at Minnesota this Sunday.

But for now, a pivotal game awaits the Cowboys and Packers at AT&T Stadium.

The fate for both teams, once again, comes down to December.


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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


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