Series: In a series pitting arguably the NFL’s two premier franchises, the Packers lead 13-12. Dallas leads 4-3 in the playoffs, making the overall series tied at 16. Green Bay won the first six meetings. Dallas won eight in a row in the 1990s to continually thwart the rising Packers. Green Bay has won the last four matchups, including wins at Lambeau in 2009 (17-7), 2010 (45-7) and 2014 (26-21). The other game was in 2013, when Matt Flynn led a historic comeback as Green Bay won 37-36.
Last time: This is a rematch of last year’s NFC Divisional playoff game, won by the Packers, who rallied from a 21-13 third-quarter deficit. Julius Peppers had a key strip of DeMarco Murray and Aaron Rodgers completed 24 of 35 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns.
Noteworthy: Dallas lost some key pieces to last year’s playoff team, including runaway NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray. The Cowboys didn’t draft a replacement — Raiders castoff Darren McFadden and twice-arrested Joseph Randle top the depth chart — but the O-line is a juggernaut. Among backs with at least 50 carries, Randle led the NFL with 6.7 yards per carry though he fumbled twice on those 51 attempts.
Tony Romo turned 35 in April but continues to get better with age. Even while battling a back injury that sidelined him for the Arizona game — a 6-3 loss that cost the Cowboys homefield advantage in the NFC — he beat out Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers for the passer rating title with a mark of 113.2 (vs. Rodgers’ 112.2). Romo led the NFL in completion percentage (69.9), touchdown percentage (7.8), yards per attempt (8.5) and game-winning drives (five).
Dallas used the franchise tag on receiver Dez Bryant, then signed him to a five-year deal worth about $70 million last week. He has averaged 91 receptions for 1,312 yards and 14 touchdowns the past three seasons. The Cowboys made a splash on defense by taking a chance on troubled pass rusher Greg Hardy. He’ll miss the first four games of the season for domestic violence, with an arbitrator recently reducing that from a 10-game suspension. For the Cowboys to match their success, they’ll have to replicate last year’s second-ranked 31 takeaways. If he can return to form after playing in only one game last season, Hardy, an elite pass rusher and sturdy run defender should help. He was ProFootballFocus.com’s second-ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013.
12-4, first place, NFC East.
Offensive rankings: 5th in points (29.2 per game). 7th in yards (383.6 per game). 16th in passing (236.5 per game). 2nd in rushing (147.1 per game).
Defensive rankings: 15th in points (22.0 per game). 19th in yards (355.1 per game). 26th in passing (251.9 per game). 8th in rushing (103.1 per game).
2015 Comings and Goings
Hello: DE Greg Hardy, RB Darren McFadden, LB Jasper Brinkley.
Goodbye: RB DeMarco Murray, LB Bruce Carter, LB Justin Durant, WR Dwayne Harris, DT Henry Melton, DE Anthony Spencer, OT Jeremy Parnell.
Draft: Dallas took cornerback Byron Jones in the first round with the 27th overall pick. Had he lasted until No. 30, he might have been a strong consideration for the Packers. He has excellent size and athleticism, as evidenced by his world-record broad jump at the Scouting Combine. Dallas took advantage of off-the-field questions to get Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory in the second around and LSU guard La’el Collins as an undrafted free agent. Both projected as first-round picks but Gregory failed a drug test at the Scouting Combine and Collins was linked to a double homicide in which police determined he was not a suspect. None of the other picks (third-round tackle Chaz Green, fourth-round linebacker Damien Wilson, fifth-round defensive end Ryan Russell, seventh-round linebacker Mark Nzeocha, seventh-round tackle Laurence Gibson or seventh-round tight end Geoff Swaim) figure to earn serious snaps as rookies.
2015 Personnel in Focus
Pro Football Focus, that is. PFF has a color-coded rankings system for each team’s 24 “starters,” with the extra player to account for a key substitution package such as a third cornerback or third wide receiver. Green Bay has four blue/elite starters (Rodgers, Cobb, Nelson and Sitton), six dark green/high-quality starters (Lang, Lacy, Hayward, Peppers, Daniels and Matthews), four green/good starters (Linsley, Bulaga, Shields and Burnett), six yellow/average starters (Bakhtiari, Quarless, Kuhn, Hyde, Perry and Clinton-Dix) and four orange/below-average starters (Adams, Guion, Raji and Barrington). The Packers don’t have any starters rated poor and they don’t have any rookies projected to be starters.
The Cowboys have ...
Blue/elite (2): WR Dez Bryant, DE Greg Hardy
Dark green/high quality (8): QB Tony Romo, LT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, TE Jason Witten, MLB Rolando McClain, OLB Sean Lee, CB Orlando Scandrick.
Green/good (2): RT Doug Free, DT Tyrone Crawford.
Yellow/average (5): WR Cole Beasley, LG Ronald Leary, DE Jerome Mincey, CB Brandon Carr, S Barry Church.
Orange/below average (6): WR Terrance Williams, RB Joseph Randle, FB Tyler Clutts, CB Morris Claiborne, OLB Anthony Hitchens, S J.J. Wilcox.
Red/Poor (1): DT Nick Hayden.
Silver/Not enough information (0): None.
Purple/Rookie (0): None.
Coach Jason Garrett, at the Scouting Combine, on the diminishing value of the running back position and how that’s balanced with RB DeMarco Murray winning the NFL rushing title: “DeMarco’s a heck of a football player and has been since we drafted him a few years back. I think you’ll probably find if you really look at it, that running the football is an important part of all championship-type teams. The runner isn’t the only one who is part of running the football. Controlling the line of scrimmage is big. We’ve made a lot of organizational emphasis over the last few years to use our resources to shore up that offensive line. I think that’s paid dividends for us. But the runner does matter. I think we’ve all seen that running backs don’t seem to be drafted quite as high as they used to. I think that has a lot to do with the longevity of the player. But I do think the value of the running back is really, really critical to having a great running football team. I think the history in the NFL proves that. Recent history proves that. He certainly had a big impact on our team.”
RB Joseph Randle, on replacing DeMarco Murray: “He had a good year last year, and I got to sit back and watch a lot and I felt like there was a lot of meat left on the bone.”
Garrett, on the Cowboys using virtual reality for the quarterbacks to work against “live” action: “You always want to be innovative in everything that you're doing, you want to be on the cutting edge, particularly in how you teach players and hopefully how they learn. In the last few years, iPads have taken the place of playbooks, so there are some pros and cons to that. You have to understand how each player learns, what's the most effective way to get the information across to them so they can play.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.