There’s no way to quantify mental toughness.
“Our analytics department hasn’t given me a number on it yet,” Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
True, but there’s no doubt the Packers have it. In abundance.
They were 4-6 and had to, in the immortal words of Aaron Rodgers, “run the table.” In the immortal words of Davante Adams, they ran “that damn table.”
Against Chicago, they coughed up a 27-10 lead, needed a late stand to at least stay tied, then stunned the Bears with a last-minute bomb to Jordy Nelson and a game-winning field goal by Mason Crosby.
Against Detroit, they overcame a 14-10 halftime deficit despite losing two cornerbacks.
Against New York, they overcame a horrendous offensive start, the loss of Nelson, a 6-0 deficit and the fallout from McCarthy's doomed fourth-quarter decision in the third quarter.
Chances are, they’ll need that battle-tested toughness at some point at Dallas for Sunday’s NFC Divisional playoff game. The Cowboys are damned good. They finished 13-3 and finished in the top five in points for and points against. They’re rested and incredibly healthy, with all 53 players practicing this week. And most of the 93,000 fans at AT&T Stadium will be supporting the club that fancies itself as “America’s Team.”
The challenge will be huge. But the Packers overcame a number of challenges to earn this opportunity to advance to the NFC Championship Game.
“I think that’s one of our strengths right now, the way we stick together through adversity,” guard T.J. Lang said. “I think everybody understands that adversity is inevitable and it’s going to hit you every game. The good teams, you overcome it and use it as a tool. It’s definitely a great characteristic of a football team. You look back, even the Chicago game, blowing a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter, everybody is on the sideline wondering what the hell is going on. You have the strength to overcome that and go make the play and end up winning the play. That’s all we talk about is overcoming the negatives, staying positive and just going out there and doing whatever it takes to get a win. It’s something that’s definitely been a great characteristic for our team the last couple of weeks.”
It’s been a long road, obviously. There was one injury after another, including season-enders to top cornerback Sam Shields and star running back Eddie Lacy. They got crushed at home by Dallas. They couldn’t hold off the Falcons. They got knocked out by a kickoff-return touchdown to open the game against the Colts. They couldn’t keep pace at Tennessee or Washington.
And then Rodgers said the Packers could “run the table.”
And they did. In their seven-game winning streak, they beat five of the 12 teams that allowed less than 21 points per game. A defense that got massacred during a four-game losing streak has buckled down.
“It’s a 60-minute game,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “It’s going to be a rollercoaster. We have faced a lot of adversity throughout that year and that has definitely made us better.”
Where did that mental toughness come from?
“It came from inside everybody’s chest, I think,” Rodgers said. “Those are things you can’t measure, but adversity reveals character. I think it’s built on that adversity and us pushing through it and finally finding that mental toughness in the midst of some tough times during the season. So, I’m really proud of the guys, they stepped up. The young guys really grew up and the veterans started giving more of themselves and leading in a way that inspired guys to raise their level of play.”
DALLAS’ DYNAMIC DUO
When the Cowboys owned the Packers and the rest of the NFC a quarter-century ago, it was because of quarterback Troy Aikman’s lethal efficiency, running back Emmitt Smith’s record-setting dominance and the offensive line’s overwhelming power.
It’s back to the future for this version of the Cowboys. Dak Prescott played with remarkable efficiency for any quarterback, never mind a rookie. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott only won the NFL rushing total by 300 yards. And the offensive line is a juggernaut.
It’s that combination that has the Cowboys back among the NFC’s powerhouses. And it’s that combination that Green Bay’s defense must somehow stop on Sunday.
It all starts with Elliott, who would have blown past 2,000 total yards had he not been inactive for the regular-season finale. He is a powerful, instinctive, explosive workhorse. He had at least 20 carries in 12 of 15 games. He had seven 100-yard rushing games and four more games with at least 90 yards. He averaged 5.1 yards for the season.
The Packers’ game plan will focus on stopping Elliott. The problem? That was the Packers’ plan in Week 6 — and every other opponent’s plan this season — and it didn’t matter. After a so-so first two games, the closest any team got to “stopping” Elliott was Baltimore, which “held” him to 97 yards on 25 carries.
“Teams know that we’re going to run the ball and that’s that,” Elliott said in his conference call. “They’re going to take their chances and load the box at times. That’s when you see Dez (Bryant) make those big plays downfield — Dez and T-Dub (Terrance Williams) make those big plays downfield. They’ve got to pick their poison at the moment and maybe guess right.”
The Packers learned that first-hand in the earlier matchup. Not only didn’t they stop Elliott, who gained 157 yards on 28 carries, but they couldn’t stop Prescott. He played with Aikman-like efficiency, going 18-of-27 for 247 yards with three touchdowns, his first career interception and a 117.4 passer rating.
If the Packers can’t stop Elliott, then it’s going to have a hard time stopping Prescott. Or winning this game.
“That’s where everything starts — their ability to run the ball,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “First of all, they’ve got one of the very best offensive lines. They’ve made a big investment in the offensive line. They’ve got really good players on the offensive line and now with the addition of Elliott, he’s a difference-maker. He’s a guy that can hit the home run on you at any point time if you end up popping out of your gap. You put their ability to play-action and they’ve got some guys who they can get the ball to on the outside. So those things, that’s what their offense is built on. If you don’t take care of business, all of a sudden, they can come up with those big plays because they have big-play people. They get the ball in their hands in some space. Elliott’s a very physical runner. You’ve got to tackle him. He does a great job at the point of contact lowering his pads and getting the extra 2, 3, 4 yards. And their play-action pass game’s been good. I think they do a nice job of mixing things up and trying to keep you off-balance. We have to be on top of our game.”
Helped in large part of Elliott-centric defensive game plans, Prescott set NFL rookie records for passer rating (104.9), completion percentage (67.8), fewest interceptions thrown (four), most games with 70.0 completion percentage (nine) and most games with a 100.0 rating (11). Prescott has feasted on defenses hell-bent on stopping Elliott, making linebackers and defensive backs a bit too eager to get into run support pay a steep price.
According to data provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus, 24.2 percent of Prescott’s passes were on play-action. He went 84-of-111 (75.7 percent) for 1,115 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. His play-action passer rating was 119.0 (compared to 94.8 on standard passes) ranked third. It was even a bigger factor against Green Bay. One-third of his passes were on play-action, and he completed 8-of-9 for 121 yards and one touchdown for a near-perfect rating of 155.8 (compared to 91.4 on standard passes).
“They do a great job,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “As far as their running scheme, you know what they're going to run at you. But they do do a good job as far as offensively throwing new wrinkles in, being able to pass and the boots and everything, just kind of keep you on your heels a little bit. They do such a good job establishing the run, winning first down. Elliott's got great vision for a rookie and he makes you pay when you don't stay in your gap or do your job. He's done a tremendous job at that. If you look at the first game in which we played them, a few guys played outside of their assignment and that's ultimately what hurt us as far as giving up a few of those big runs.”
WINNING ONE FOR PEPPERS
There probably will not be impassioned speeches before Sunday’s playoff game about winning a Super Bowl for Julius Peppers. And “#WinOneForJulius” won’t be trending on Twitter.
But you don’t have to dig too deep to see that the Packers would love to get Peppers a Super Bowl ring.
“It’s just crazy,” rookie defensive tackle Kenny Clark said of Peppers’ production. “I’m happy for him. He’s one of the top sack leaders and he’s making history. We’re in the playoffs and we’re trying to win for him.”
Peppers, who will turn 37 on Wednesday, added another 7.5 sacks to his career count this season, moving him into fifth place on the NFL’s all-time list with 143.5. He’s been at his best when he’s been needed the most, with four sacks during the seven-game winning streak and a team-high five quarterback hits the past four games. Peppers had one sack, two hits and two passes defensed in last week’s playoff victory over the Giants.
“I just take pride in coming to work every day and being a professional,” Peppers said. “There’s a lot of things that get thrown out there as far as comparisons and reflections on different things. Right now, I’m just living in the moment and trying to take advantage of this opportunity that’s in front of me.”
Peppers doesn’t say a whole lot but this marks his third consecutive year as a playoff captain. Even at his age and with 14 seasons going through the rigors of the NFL, he seems impervious to injury. The only time he misses practice is when he’s told to, which has been every Wednesday for the past month or so in order to keep him fresh for Sundays.
That doesn’t go unnoticed, which is why his teammates would love to get Peppers a Super Bowl ring.
“Ever since he came to the team, it was something that I definitely emphasized to him,” Bakhtiari said. “I want to win one, of course, but I’ve always believed in respecting the guys who’ve come before you. That guy, you want to talk about a guy who deserves a Super Bowl, it’s Julius Peppers.”
Peppers got to one Super Bowl with Carolina way back in 2003, his second season in the NFL, but lost to New England. He’s gotten close to getting back, with NFC Championship Game losses to Green Bay while with Chicago in 2010 and to Seattle while with Green Bay in 2014. This could be his last chance at getting that elusive Super Bowl ring.
“As long as Julius has been playing and the level he’s been playing at for his entire career, to never have a ring is pretty incredible,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “He played in a Super Bowl in Carolina and that was it. Listen, everybody wants it at this point. But he’s in his 14th year. For guys like that, you definitely want to get those kind of Hall of Fame players that extra boost and get them a ring. I don’t think it’s talked about but it’s in the back of your mind. We all want a ring, don’t get me wrong. Everybody wants one. But, yeah, for those guys, you want to get the job done for those guys. It’s not something we openly talk about but everyone knows that. That’s part of the team deal. Everybody wants to help each other out and get success for everyone.”
When the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010, Rodgers said there was a sentiment for getting rings for longtime veterans Charles Woodson, Donald Driver, Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton. It’s no different for Peppers this year.
Peppers, as is his understated way, was humbled by it all.
“That’s good locker room talk and things of that sort but, at the end of the day, we’re all playing for each other,” he said. “I really don’t know what to say about it. I want these guys to play for themselves more than anything because that’s the goal for all of us. There’s only a few of us in here who have (Super Bowl rings), so we all should be playing for ourselves and each other. I don’t want them to get caught up in trying to do it for me because we all should want to do it for ourselves.”
INSIDE THE COWBOYS
— Dallas beat Green Bay 30-16 in Week 6. The Cowboys didn’t have star receiver Dez Bryant. The Packers did have star receiver Jordy Nelson.
Bryant is back for the Cowboys. He didn’t have a great season by anyone’s standards, let alone his. He ranked third on the team with 50 receptions, though those went for 796 yards (15.9-yard average) and eight touchdowns. He hasn’t had a 100-yard game since Week 10 and his catch percentage was just 52.1 percent.
“You can’t replace Dez when he’s not out there, so it’s certainly a benefit to have him back,” Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “What that is is the attention he gets is unique. Some other guys in this league get that, as well. It opens things up for the other guys. But it’s still it always gives us that guy you can count on when we’re throwing the football to win that one-on-one matchup when you get it. It’s huge to have him back.”
Nelson, of course, is out for the Packers with injured ribs. His absence hardly affected the Packers in last week’s Wild Card win over the Giants, with Randall Cobb and Davante Adams going over 100 receiving yards.
“Cobb, he’s always been a heck of a ballplayer and 17 (Adams) is really coming now,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “I mean, this guy’s got some juice. They’re big run after catch. They do a nice job of running after a catch. And that’s a big part of the quarterback laying it in exactly where it’s supposed to be so these guys can run. Everything that’s been written about them is true.”
Also working in Dallas’ favor is a healthy secondary. Slot cornerback Orlando Scandrick was inactive for the Week 6 game and No. 1 corner Morris Claiborne played only 25 of 70 snaps due to a concussion and is returning after missing the last nine games with a groin injury.
— The Cowboys finished second in the NFL in rushing and first in the NFL in rush defense. That made Dallas the first team since the 2007 Vikings to finish first or second in both categories.
The Cowboys outrushed their opponents by 1,060 yards, the 14th-biggest difference since 2000. Elliott, of course, contributed heavily to that. He ran for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. Opponents rushed for 1,336 yards and nine touchdowns.
Elliott runs behind an offensive line featuring three Pro Bowlers (left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick). But Elliott certainly carried his share of the load. Not only did he lead the NFL in rushing but he led the NFL with 938 yards after contact, according to data provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus. Of his 157 yards against Green Bay, 101 came after contact and he forced six missed tackles.
“You’ve got to stay in your gap until the guy is tackled,” slot cornerback Micah Hyde said. “He can sit back there and wait for it to open and somebody can get out of their gap and he can bust it for 75 yards. It’s tough. We understand that and it’s going to be a huge challenge for us.”
The Packers didn’t run it often this season and they didn’t run the ball consistently well when they tried. But it’s a focus for Marinelli, especially after his defense was “out of whack” against Detroit’s Zach Zenner during the first half of their Week 16 matchup. Marinelli praised McCarthy — “He knows how to run the football in every personnel group” — and receiver-turned-running back Ty Montgomery.
The Cowboys’ run defense starts with first-team All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee, who tallied 174 tackles and 12 tackles for losses. Safety Barry Church (109), linebacker Anthony Hitchens (104) and safety Byron Jones (102) also topped 100 tackles.
“Those guys are good,” Montgomery said. “They fly around, they’ve got high energy and they make plays. You don’t see them missing a lot of tackles and they go after the football and create turnovers.”
— Bryant is back but it’s unheralded Cole Beasley who is the team’s leading receiver. He caught 75 passes for 833 yards and five touchdowns, including six catches, 58 yards and two touchdowns vs. Green Bay. His catch rate of 76.5 percent ranked second in the NFL among receivers.
He’ll be a tough matchup for Hyde, who has done a remarkable job in seamlessly bouncing from safety to corner to slot when his name has been called.
“If you’re around Micah every day, you understand that this guy’s got a great aptitude for the game and he understands the defense,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “His versatility is very valuable to us because over the last two, three weeks, he’s played almost every position. Early in the season, we had him at safety. Two weeks ago (at Detroit), you saw him a lot at corner when we needed a corner and he made a big play at a critical time in the game down there with the red zone interception. We’ve worked him at the nickel, the dime position. So, he’s played every place and done a good job. And he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t have to take a ton of reps because he has a good feel of what’s required of him to play this position.”
— The talk in Dallas has revolved around Elliott and Prescott, and that’s meant Marinelli’s defense has flown under the radar. The Cowboys finished fifth in the league with 19.1 points allowed per game. How have they done it? It starts with that top-ranked run defense. Dallas was one of three teams to not allow a 100-yard rusher and it gave up the fourth-fewest 10-yard runs.
“We certainly make a commitment to stop the run,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said during his conference call. “We want to run the ball offensively; we want to stop the run defensively. When we’ve done a good job stopping the run, it’s just playing disciplined team defense. You want to be physical but you also need to be disciplined, you need to set edges, win in the gaps. You have to be a great tackling team. When we look back at our defense over the course of 16 games, when we’ve stopped the run and been effective against the run, we’ve been able to do those things.”
Otherwise, Dallas’ defense isn’t all that impressive. It wound up 14th in yards per game, 26th against the pass, 19th in sacks per attempt, 30th in interception percentage, 19th in takeaways, 15th on third down and 14th in the red zone.
But, really, nothing else matters than the scoreboard. They gave up 20 points or less in 10 games. How have they done it when they’re not great on third down, the red zone or takeaways?
“There’s never been a defense that has taken the field that hasn’t focused on stopping the run first,” McCarthy said. “I think the other important statistic is you look at the overall aspect of the football team is where they are in time of possession. (They finished second.) They’re not on the field as long as other defenses and they do a really good job stopping the run. So, they do a good job of making you one-dimensional. When you do that on your home turf, you definitely have a chance to play downhill.”
— The series is tied 17-17, with Green Bay leading 14-13 in the regular season and Dallas leading 4-3 in the postseason. The Packers had won five straight until losing to Dallas in October.
It was a much happier ending in the team’s last trip to Dallas. In 2013, with Rodgers out with a broken collarbone, Matt Flynn led the Packers back from a 26-3 halftime deficit to shock the Cowboys 37-36 in Dallas. Flynn threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns and Lacy ran for 141 yards — including a 60-yarder to jump-start the rally and the game-winning 1-yard touchdown.
— In the 2014 playoffs, the Packers beat the Cowboys 26-21 in a Divisional matchup at Lambeau Field. Just like last week against the Giants, Adams and Cobb topped 100 receiving yards. Perhaps most memorable? Julius Peppers’ strip of NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray and the infamous non-catch by Bryant. What Cowboys fans (and Bryant) forget about that play is it came with 4:42 remaining. Had Dallas scored the go-ahead touchdown, Rodgers would have had plenty of time to get the Packers the winning points. And second, the Cowboys had ample time — and two timeouts — to stop the Packers and get the ball back but couldn’t. Rodgers converted a third-and-3 with a 26-yard pass to Adams and, with 2 minutes left, a third-and-11 with a 12-yard pass to Cobb.
— History is not on the Packers’ side in this regard: Since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, the No. 1 seed in the NFC has gone 22-4 in the divisional round. The Packers were involved in two of the upsets. In 2010, they routed the top-seeded Falcons. In 2011, they were routed by the Giants.
It's not quite so lopsided when you include the AFC, with the top seed going 16-10 in the divisional round. That adds up to 38-14, or a .731 winning percentage.
— Will the lack of big-game experience mean anything to Prescott? Every player is different and every circumstance is different, of course, so historical perspective isn’t especially relevant. Nonetheless, since 1950, there have been 22 rookie quarterbacks to throw at least 15 passes in a playoff game. The rookies are 9-13, according to Pro Football Reference. All of those games have come since 2000. The last rookie winner? Seattle’s Russell Wilson beat Washington, which was quarterbacked by fellow rookie Robert Griffin III, in 2012. The last time a rookie beat a veteran was in 2010, when the Mark Sanchez-led Jets beat the Bengals and Chargers.
“He has handled everything really well,” Garrett said. “And those were the reports we got from his coaches and the people around him at Mississippi State, and that’s been our experience with him. He’s a very poised guy, he’s a composed and mature guy, and he works very hard at the game. He works very hard to be his best every day. He’s done that since we got him, all the way back to the first rookie minicamp. That’s how he’s handled everything.”
STATS THAT AREN’T FOR LOSERS
— The situational stats are in Dallas’ favor. Green Bay was excellent on offense, ranking second on third down (46.7 percent conversions) and 10th in the red zone (60.6 percent touchdowns), but terrible on defense, checking in at No. 24 on third down (41.2 percent) and No. 28 in the red zone (62.2 percent). The Cowboys did well in all four areas. On offense, they were 10th on third down (42.3 percent) and third in the red zone (66.7 percent); on defense, they finished 15th on third down (39.1 percent) and 14th in the red zone (53.7 percent).
However, it’s worth noting Green Bay’s defensive improvement during the winning streak. That’s especially evident on third down, where the Packers allowed a conversion rate of only 37.6 percent over the past seven games. Over the course of a full season, that figure would have ranked 10th. The red-zone touchdown rate is a too-high 60 percent but they’ve allowed only 17 red-zone possessions during the past seven games. The Giants were 0-for-2 last week.
“You go back and look at the first half of the Giants game this past weekend and, even though we were down 6-0, with those (red-zone) stops, it’s only a matter of time before our offense gets rolling,” Matthews said. “Three points is a lot different than seven, not only from a point standpoint but as well as momentum.”
— Much of the focus on Green Bay’s seven-game winning streak has been on the play of Rodgers. And there’s no doubt he’s been exceptional. But the defense has done its job, too, by helping the team jump out to quick leads. Over the last seven games, the Packers have given up only 16 first-quarter points and 56 first-half points.
For an apples-to-apples comparison, over the final six games of the regular season, the Packers yielded 13 points in the first quarter. New England (six), Jacksonville (six) and Houston (10) are the only teams that were better. It’s worth noting that Dallas gave up only 16 points in the first quarter during that span. Taking it out to the first half, the top five in points allowed during the final six regular-season games were New England (23), Cincinnati (28), Jacksonville (40), Dallas (46) and Green Bay (50).
“That’s the most important thing is starting fast and finding ways to finish,” safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. “We want to get the ball back in Aaron’s hands as soon as possible, so the more three-and-outs we can get, the more chances we have of winning this ballgame.”
— Dallas had the fourth overall pick necessary to draft Elliott because it was terrible last season. The Cowboys were a woeful 4-12. How did they increase their win total by nine? Certainly, the play of Elliott and Prescott have contributed. Prescott, in particular. Last season, Tony Romo (seven), Matt Cassel (seven), Kellen Moore (six) and Brandon Weeden (two) combined to throw 22 interceptions. This year, Prescott threw just four, with his 0.9 percent interception rate trailing only New England’s Tom Brady.
What does 18 fewer interceptions mean? That stat goes a long way toward swinging a minus-22 turnover differential, which was the worst in the league, to plus-five this season, which ranks ninth. The Cowboys’ 15 giveaways were the fifth-fewest in the league.
So, what gives? Dallas’ careful handle on the football? Or the Packers’ turnover-producing ways? They’ve forced a league-high 17 turnovers the past seven games.
“Just get to the rock,” Clinton-Dix said. “You never know what’s going to happen during a play so, as long as you’re playing full-speed through the entire play, you’re going to make plays. When the ball touches your hands, you’ve got to make sure you catch it.”
Green Bay has just one giveaway during the seven-game winning streak — a goal-line fumbled snap against Houston by Rodgers. While there’s been plenty of talk about his 285-pass interception-free streak, he’s also shown greatly improved ball security. He fumbled six times in the first six games and seven times in the first 10 games, with three in the loss to Minnesota, two in the loss to Dallas and one in the loss to Washington. During the seven-game winning streak, he’s got just the one fumble against Houston.
“That was definitely a conscious effort,” Rodgers said. “You guys saw me at practice in some of those middle weeks. I was going through the gauntlet (machine) because I was working on my ball security. I’ve always been fairly conscious in the pocket of really trying to keep two hands on the ball. There’s some that are kind of out of your control — if a blind rusher hits you. But the ones that were disappointing were when I was running with the football — and I had one against Dallas — and you lose the football. That’s just uncalled for. So, I’ve been really harping on that on myself and (offensive coordinator) Edgar Bennett does a great job of really preaching that ball security all the time.”
— With a big game last week against the Giants, Rodgers’ career postseason passer rating is up to 100.3. That’s the fourth-best in NFL history. The all-time leader? Bart Starr at 104.8. Rodgers has made 14 career postseason stats. He has five games with a passer rating of at least 120. That’s tied with Joe Montana for the most all-time. It took Montana 23 starts.
“I love the guy. He’s such a competitor, man,” Marinelli said. “He has rare talent, but there’s a lot of people who have great talent but doesn’t have that will, that fight. It’s every down. You’ve seen it. That makes it really exciting to play.”
— When Rodgers threw a touchdown pass to Adams against the Giants, he had, unofficially, 8.15 seconds from the snap of the ball to his firing the football. He had about a half-second longer on his touchdown pass to Geronimo Allison at Detroit.
Rodgers’ ability to extend plays is on the forefront of Marinelli’s list of worries.
Combating Rodgers requires effort. “Discipline with loafing, not good,” Marinelli told reporters in Dallas this week.
And it requires discipline. “Great effort with lack of discipline, not good,” he added.
His defense played with those elements in Week 6, when Rodgers averaged 9.47 yards per completion with a long gain of only 25 yards.
“You’ve got to be in great shape, great condition, great discipline to play a guy like him because every play — every play — you cannot let up on a play,” Marinelli said. “This guy is so special. You’re all looking at a first-ballot Hall of Famer. We know what’s in store for us.”
Turning extended plays into big plays is a staple of Green Bay’s offense. Rodgers detailed the touchdown to Adams to a handful of reporters on Wednesday. He looked first to Richard Rodgers. Then Cobb. Then Adams. A quick glimpse told him his protection was fine. He stepped up in the pocket and to the left “to kind of bait” defensive back Coty Sensabaugh, then fired the pass to Adams for the touchdown.
To make all of that work, it’s up to the offensive line, which doesn’t have the luxury of knowing where their quarterback is at any given moment.
“That’s the reward,” Lang said of a touchdown or big play. “When you block for that long, you start getting tired after 6, 7 seconds. You’ve just got to keep pushing yourself to stay in front of the guy, no matter what it takes. The more reps you get at it, you understand, you read the defense, you read the defensive linemen’s body language, follow his eyes to get a feel for where Aaron’s moving back there.”
The challenge is particularly acute for the offensive tackles. Imagine being right tackle Bryan Bulaga. When Rodgers is stationed in the pocket, Bulaga essentially is trying to push the defender to the right and away from Rodgers. That’s obviously an issue for Bulaga if Rodgers escapes to the right. So then what?
“It’s really just anticipating the defensive lineman’s movement,” Bulaga said. “You get a feel when you’ve got a guy locked up which way he’s trying to release based on what Aaron’s doing. When you feel that release, it’s run down the line with him and maybe get one last punch to try to turn his body one way so you can get in front of him. Once Aaron does break that pocket and he gets out, he knows a lot of the time he could be on his own quite a bit. He knows that. As a line, we’ve done a good job of staying in front of that guy and giving him that last half-second to set his feet and throw that ball.”
— How about special teams? Dallas has an edge, based on the final numbers in the Packer Report Special Teams Rankings. Dallas finished eighth while Green Bay finished 17th. The Packers, however, have been trending the right direction. Through Week 11, Dallas was fourth and Green Bay was 22nd.
“I think we’re doing what we’re supposed to do,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “Obviously, it’s about field position and, I think, if you look at Dallas, they’ve done a great job, as well. I think probably our teams in a lot of ways are very, very similar. They have good returners, they cover the ball well, they have good kickers. Their punter is very athletic. He can run and (is) left-footed. Obviously, the kicker is (good). It’ll be a game of field position, which all games are. Obviously, special teams will have a whole lot to do with it.”
Dallas’ punter is Chris Jones, who ranked 13th in gross average (45.9) and net average (40.5). He did have one blocked. Kicker Dan Bailey was 27-of-32 (84.4 percent) with a long of 56 yards. Three of his five misses were from 50-plus yards. Returner Lucky Whitehead averaged 23.2 yards per kickoff return (but 28.3 last year) and 7.8 yards per punt return.
“He’s not a real big guy but, if you watch, people miss him,” Zook said. “He’s unbelievably quick, strong, strong with the ball. I’ve been showing all week clips of people missing him. They try to hit him — you’ve got to get him on the ground. It’s unbelievable how he’s able to make people miss and how strong he is with the ball in his hands.”
— At age 34, Cowboys tight end Jason Witten is a marvel. With 69 receptions for 673 yards and three touchdowns this season, he pushed his career totals to 1,089 receptions for 11,888 yards and 63 touchdowns. He passed such luminaries as Isaac Bruce (1,024 receptions), Andrew Johnson (1,062), Reggie Wayne (1,070) and Terrell Owens (1,078) to move into seventh place all-time for career receptions. He also ranks 27th in career receiving yards and fourth among tight ends with touchdown catches. He’s started 163 consecutive games.
“Witten’s a great player,” McCarthy said. “He’s not only a great player but he’s done it all the right way. I remember when he came in the league out of the University of Tennessee. (When McCarthy was an assistant with the Saints), we had a receiver, Donte Stallworth, that was a teammate of his and Jason came out the next year. I watched a lot of film of him playing in college as we drafted Donte when I was down there in New Orleans. He’s done it so long. He’s fundamentally sound. I have a great appreciation because, when you think of Jason, obviously, the attention that he gets for the number of receptions and the production that he has in the passing game, but when you turn the tape on, he’s still blocking. He does an excellent job of disguising. He’s very fundamentally sound. He’s just a complete football player and even a better person off the field, just having the opportunity to be around him at a couple Pro Bowls. I think he’s a real class act.”
The Packers limited Witten to four catches (eight targets) for 42 yards in the Week 6 game.
— Rest vs. rust.
Garrett faced one of the more difficult dilemmas a coach guiding a powerhouse team can face. Do you play your starters in Week 17 at risk of injury? Or do you treat Week 17 as a bye — even with the playoff bye on the horizon — to insure health but risk ruining momentum?
Garrett sort of split the difference. On offense, for instance, Prescott played 15 snaps and threw eight passes. Witten played 22 snaps, Bryant played 18 and Elliott didn’t play at all.
The Packers certainly aren’t rested. Their bye was in Week 4. But they’ve got momentum — something the Cowboys may or may not have after their extended layoff.
“We've won seven in a row (and) we come in with a lot of confidence,” Rodgers said. “They didn't play a lot of starters in the finale against Philadelphia, they were off this last week and they're hosting the game, so there's extra pressure on them as the No. 1 see to win. And we're coming in with a lot of confidence and riding the streak. We're feeling good about the way we've been playing.”
Packers LB Julius Peppers, on what stands out about Dallas’ offense:
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