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Game Preview: Dallas Cowboys visit Green Bay Packers

The Dallas Cowboys travel to Lambeau Field to play the Green Bay Packers this Sunday in the marquee matchup of the NFL’s divisional playoff round.  These teams have a long and storied history, including 31 total games played, six of which occurred in the playoffs.  The Cowboys lead the all-time series 16-15.  More importantly, though the Packers will always have the famous Ice Bowl and those great Packers teams of the 1960s won their first two playoff matches against Dallas, the Cowboys have won the last four playoff contests between these two iconic NFL franchises.

The last such win came following the 1995 season, when the juggernaut Cowboys of the early 1990’s beat Green Bay 38-27 in the annual “real super bowl” between the two best teams in the NFC (in prior years, that de facto championship game had been played between the Cowboys and their true rivals of the time, the San Francisco 49ers).  Dallas would go on to easily beat the Pittsburgh Steelers for their third title in four years, and their fifth over-all Lombardi trophy.  Meanwhile, the Packers would re-group, and win the title the following season.  Dallas has not returned to the Super Bowl since, while Green Bay has been back twice, losing following the 1997 season, and then beating the Steelers for their fourth championship in 2010.

With nine total Super Bowl victories between them and a host of iconic NFL moments, we can only hope that these two terrific franchises continue to add to their lore with a great game on Sunday.  Here are some key players and matchups to watch.

A Tale of Two Lines

The Packers had the top scoring offense in the NFL this year.  The Cowboys ranked fifth.  While each team has a number of excellent skill-position players that deserve a fair portion of the credit for that output, each also features an excellent offensive line.

For the Packers, the front five started opening running lanes for Eddie Lacy down the stretch, even helping him reach 100 yards against the Detroit Lions.  Lacy was the only back to reach that mark this season.  That remains true though the Cowboy’s DeMarco Murray, who led the NFL in rushing this season by a wide margin, just faced the Lions at home.  However, the real strength for Green Bay is their pass blocking.  Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has always been prone to holding the ball while trying to make plays down field, and historically has been sacked at a high rate (including twice leading the league in that category).  Last season he was sacked 21 times in 8 games.  This year he was sacked 28 in 16.

The Cowboys’ line, on the other hand, is a bruising bunch best at helping the team run the football.  Tony Romo was well-protected on the season, which shows in his very efficient numbers.  However, he attempted just 435 passes, his fewest in a full season since 2006.  That is because the Cowboys were able to run the ball as well as any team in the league, and relied heavily on Murray to carry a significant portion of their offensive load.  They would not have been able to do so without their front five.

Of course, that means that each team will have a difficult time pressuring the opposing quarterback or squeezing running lanes.  It may well turn out that whichever defensive front can more successfully disrupt its opponent’s game plan will swing this game.  If Murray and Lacy are allowed to run free, and Romo and Rodgers have time in the pocket, these teams will put up serious points.

Jordy Nelson and Dez Bryant

Jordy Nelson’s 2014 statistics: 98 catches on 151 targets, 1,519 yards (15.5 YPC), 13 TDs.

Dez Bryant’s 2014 statistics: 88 catches on 138 targets, 1,320 yards (15.0 YPC), 16 TDs.

Just as it will feature two of the best offensive lines in the league, Sunday’s game will also feature two of the best receivers in football.  Both Nelson and Bryant are true “number 1” receiving threats, and each recently was rewarded by being voted to the AP NFL All-Pro team (Bryant to the first team, Nelson the second).  While Dallas’s Brandon Carr is a solid cornerback, and the Packer’s secondary is collectively more than adequate (the Packers have the 10th rated passing defense in the league) these two could each have monster games.

DeMarco Murray

There isn’t much to say.  Murray just had one of the best rushing seasons in NFL history.  The Packers’ biggest weakness as a team is rushing defense (ranked 23rd in opponent’s rushing yards against).  The version of this game in which the Cowboys win involves Murray chewing up yards, and the Cowboys chewing up clock.  The Packers cannot allow that to happen.

Aaron Rodgers

As big as a weapon as Murray is, Rodgers is even more imposing.  The likely NFL MVP has been absolutely magnificent at home, where he has completed over 67 percent of his passes at a clip of over 9.5 yards per pass, all while throwing 25 touchdowns and no interceptions.  Rodgers’s home rating is 133.2.  The Packers have averaged 39.8 points per game in Lambeau Field.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys are ranked just 26th in opponents passing yards against.  As with the Packers’ defense, the Cowboys face their stiffest test where they are the weakest.  Although Rodgers will likely be slowed by a calf injury that was recently revealed to include a minor tear, he is more than capable of passive from the pocket.  If his performance against the more-stout Lions defense is any indicator, the Cowboys have a tall task before them.

Prediction

The weather will not be all that frightful (anywhere from 15 to 20 degrees at kickoff, depending on the source).  Each team’s defense faces a difficult opponent with a good line and the ability to both pass and run.   Each offense has the fortune of facing a defense not particularly suited to prevent them from taking advantage of their greatest strength.  I expect a lot of points from each side, but there is no way I am picking against the Packers in Lambeau Field this season.  Packers 37, Cowboys 31.