Dallas’ Passing Offense
There was a great deal of uncertainty heading into this season after Tony Romo was injured against the Seattle Seahawks during the preseason. Despite the great performances from Dak Prescott in the preseason, many were understandably skeptical about his ability to lead the Cowboys’ offense.
Those concerns were quickly put to bed, as Prescott emerged as one of the most efficient passers in the NFL. In the face of endless squabbling from national pundits on the quarterback situation, Prescott established himself as the unquestioned starter. He finished the season throwing for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns with just four interceptions. He ranked third in completion percentage at 67.8 and fourth in quarterback rating with an NFL rookie record of 104.9. Prescott also tied the rookie record for wins as a starting quarterback, going 13-3.
In his previous matchup with the Packers, Prescott went 18-of-27 for 247 yards and three touchdowns without Dez Bryant in the lineup. He did throw his first interception of the season but finished the game with a passer rating 117.4.
While he doesn’t have the same natural passing talent as Romo, he has the arm strength and accuracy to make all of the throws he needs within the offense. From Week 1, Prescott has been calm in the pocket and had great trust and rapport with just about all of his receivers
Speaking of receivers, the Cowboys have one of the most productive and reliable groups in the NFL. We all know what Bryant is capable of, his relatively quiet season of 50 catches for 796 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games notwithstanding. But it has been the supporting guys that have been really impressive this season.
Cole Beasley, for example, has been one Prescott’s favorite targets, catching 75 balls for 833 yards and five touchdowns. He is dangerous over the middle and in the flat, and has had a propensity of making the big-time catch in big-time situations. It has been by far the most productive year of his career, almost equaling his output in the previous two seasons combined.
Tight end Jason Witten has been, as usual, a mainstay in the passing game, with 69 catches on 95 targets for 673 yards and three touchdowns. Terrance Williams has emerged as a reliable target as of late, with 44 catches for 594 yards and four touchdowns.
The Cowboys will remain balanced and committed to running the football, but thanks to the success and rapport between Prescott and his receivers, look for the Cowboys to throw early and often on the banged-up Packers secondary.
Green Bay’s Pass Defense
For all the focus that will be on Green Bay’s run defense against Ezekiel Elliott, the Packers’ secondary will be in for a big challenge against quarterback Dak Prescott. Green Bay knows first-hand the challenge Prescott presents.
The Packers, however, did an excellent job against the Giants last week, in general, and against Odell Beckham, in particular. But that was against a pass-first offense, so Green Bay could keep safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix back in coverage. They won’t have that luxury against the Cowboys, with one of the safeties having to hang out at the line of scrimmage to contend with Elliott.
Green Bay’s cornerback group has been a mess throughout the season, as evidenced by an opponent passer rating of 95.9 that ranks among the 10 worst for any playoff team in NFL history. The preferred starting trio of Sam Shields (15 missed games), Damarious Randall (six) and Quinten Rollins (three) combined to play in 24 of 48 regular-season games. Shields, the lone veteran and the team’s top cornerback, suffered a concussion in Week 1 and might never play again. Randall, last year’s first-round pick, and Rollins, last year’s second-round pick, haven’t played to expectations, with injuries probably playing the biggest role in their inconsistencies.
The top corner is a second-year player, but it’s neither Randall nor Rollins. It’s LaDarius Gunter, an undrafted free agent from a year ago. The Cowboys beat up on him in Week 6, with Terrance Williams and Brice Butler getting back-to-back big gains on that critical 97-yard touchdown drive at the end of the first half. Gunter’s played better and better as the season has progressed, though, and he basically shadowed Beckham last week. Beckham’s biggest impact was the hole he punched in the visiting locker room. Randall might have played his best game of the season against the Giants. Rollins might be back from a concussion suffered in the season finale at Detroit but, chances are, it will be versatile Micah Hyde in the slot to contend with Cole Beasley.
At safety, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a second-team All-Pro after intercepting five passes. Morgan Burnett is having his best season and has been used frequently with success against top tight ends.
The pass rush has run hot and cold. Nick Perry had a team-high 11 sacks but is playing one-handed due to a broken hand. Veteran Julius Peppers picks his spots and had 7.5 sacks during the regular season and one more against the Giants. Clay Matthews had five sacks and will draw the tough matchup against left tackle Tyron Smith.