In an all-around frustrating 37-27 loss to the Cowboys on Thursday night, the Packers were just plain out of sorts. A loss is understandable, coming to a 10-1 team that now can boast they are the NFC's best, but the manner in which it happened had to be a surprise to Packers' fans and players alike.
The Packers deviated from their style on both sides of the ball. They were beaten soundly at the line of scrimmage. And the absence of two key defensive players from their lineup due to injury - cornerback Charles Woodson (toe) and defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (ankle) – was even more devastating than expected.
To add insult to injury, ironman quarterback Brett Favre was forced out of the game in the second quarter with an injured elbow and an apparent separated left shoulder. As bad as the injuries were, they were nothing next to the pain he endured watching the Packers lose their ninth straight game in Dallas from the sideline.
Unlike what the Packers had done for much of the year on offense with the short passing game, they came out attempting several deep throws down the field in the first half. Favre was intercepted by safety Ken Hamlin on one of them and others failed to reach their intended targets.
"We wanted to play aggressive on offense," said head coach Mike McCarthy. "We felt that we had some opportunities based on personnel coverage, our perimeter vs. their perimeter. We knew pass protection was going to be a challenge and thought Dallas did a good job with their pass rush."
As a result of getting out of their normal offensive game plan and trying to attack the Cowboys' secondary, Favre was unlike the quarterback he had been all year. Before leaving the game, his 5-for-14, two-interception stat line was a flashback of his old self at Texas Stadium, where even in some of the best years of his career, Packers' fans knew disaster was right around the corner.
On Favre's second interception, a helmet-to-elbow hit by Nathan Jones on a blitz caused Favre to lose feeling in his hand. Aaron Rodgers replaced Favre early in the second quarter, and after a shaky start, he settled down and was one of the few bright spots. The Packers got back into the game with short passing, and Rodgers nearly led a big comeback. He finished 18 of 26 for 201 yards and one touchdown.
Perhaps most unusual on the night was the play of the defensive line, which has produced consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks all season. As the strength of the team and the deepest position on the team, the unit was not able to overcome the absence of Gbaja-Biamila. For the first time all season, the Packers failed to record a sack all season and struggled to get to Romo.
Without Woodson in the secondary, the Packers had their worst game of the season in pass coverage. Though the unit has established itself with a man-to-man philosophy, the coaching staff might have been worried about backups Jarrett Bush and Tramon Williams, who moved up on the depth chart. The Packers were lost in coverage more than at any time this year and were burned by it. Of course even when they went man-to-man, both Bush and Williams had their problems with big pass interference penalties.
The Cowboys' biggest stars, Tony Romo (309 yards passing and four TD's) and Terrell Owens (seven catches for 156 yard and one TD) found the holes and shined the brightest. The Packers could do little to stop them. The Cowboys scored on their first five drives on the game.
Even team leader and one of the league's top corners, Al Harris, was a mess. After saying that he needed to control his emotions against Owens (he let them get the best of him last time they squared off when Owens was in Philadelphia), he drew a silly delay of game penalty in the first quarter for spiking the football. For some of the night he was off Owens, and even when he was, he had trouble trying to locate the ball when it came his way.
While tackle Mark Tauscher gutted out the game on a sore ankle, the offensive line got unexpected poor performances from Chad Clifton and Daryn Colledge. Colledge gave way to backup Junius Coston. The Cowboys had three sacks and nine quarterback hits.
The Packers are far from the team they resembled on Thursday night which is, unfortunately, closer to what they usually are when they go to Dallas. The bad news is they might just have to make another visit there in late January and can only hope the result will be different.