There’s something very soothing as a fan about preparing for the NFL playoffs as the bottom seed. There are zero expectations. You’ll find very little belief outside of 1265 Lombardi Avenue that this team has a Super Bowl run in them this season.
For the first time in forever, this is not a Packers team whose Super Bowl window is closing, it’s a window that likely is open just a sliver for now, with the potential to open further in the coming years, welcoming some fresh air into an exciting new era in Green Bay.
This feels like if your boss were to hand you an envelope and say, ‘you’ve worked real hard lately and it’s paying off, so we want to give you a little token of our appreciation.’ It’s an unexpected bonus that the Packers punched their playoff ticket and they will reap the rewards win or lose on Sunday.
This is the youngest team to reach the playoffs in 50 years and they get a taste of it on a stage like this: at AT&T Stadium against Mike McCarthy’s team that fraudulently bills itself as America’s Team? That will benefit the vast majority of the roster that has no idea what playoff football looks and feels like.
There are plenty of reasons to believe the Cowboys will be too much for the Pack. It begins with their 16-game winning streak at home. Then there’s the lethal Dak Prescott to CeeDee Lamb combination that nobody was able to stop this season: 135 catches for over 1,700 yards and 12 TDs. And Lamb plays primarily out of the slot, where Keisean Nixon will be completely overmatched: covering the middle of the field is the defense’s Achilles heel.
The key unknown: will Jaire Alexander play and if he does, will he shadow Lamb all over the field (he asked, hopefully). By now you know, the always unpredictable #23 managed to roll his ankle in a walk through on Wednesday and Matt LaFleur says he’s a true game time decision for Sunday. They may already know if he’ll be able to suit up; if not, Joe Barry will need to concoct two game plans. We all know he can barely handle concocting one game plan, let alone two.
The Cowboys’ defense isn’t as stout as it was earlier in the season, but they can still get after the quarterback, led by maybe the best defensive player in the world right now, Micah Parsons. The Pack is a top ten pass blocking unit, but Parsons will move around to find the matchup he likes.
If their aggressive corners wreak havoc with the timing of the passing game, Jordan Love could force the ball into some tight spots and risk a pick or two. No team collected more interceptions than the Cowboys this season, led by DaRon Bland’s nine, with an incredible five pick sixes. Interesting note: the Cowboys are 0-4 when they don’t get a turnover and the Pack has been stingy with them lately.
The ’Boys, like virtually every team the Packers play, have the edge in special teams, which could easily decide this game. With rookies at kicker and punter, the Pack knows nothing is guaranteed when they step on the field. It seems like Anders Carlson misses one kick every game. Dallas hit one out of the park with rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey, who was working on a perfect season, until he got one blocked last week.
There are lots of things working against the Pack here including this dreaded trend: QBs starting their first playoff game against QBs with playoff experience are 17-36 since 2002. The last time these teams met in the playoffs, the roles were reversed, with Aaron Rodgers squaring off against rookie Dak Prescott in an instant classic, punctuated by a Mason Crosby walk off.
But there are some things working in Green Bay’s favor, too. It starts with a healthy Aaron Jones, whose three straight 100 yard games have not coincidentally coincided with the three game winning streak that brought us here. Dallas is very vulnerable against the run and Jones, a Texas native, has had outstanding games in all three of his games against the Cowboys. He needs 25 touches in this game. With AJ Dillon doubtful with that stinger, it has to be an Aaron Jones game.
The passing game is almost completely intact, except for Christian Watson, of course, who’s listed as questionable with the hamstring. While Dallas is better against the pass, they play mostly man coverage, where Love has been demonstrably better this season, as opposed to facing zone coverage. The Pack’s offense has also been more dynamic on turf. If they can strike an offensive balance they should be able to keep up on the scoreboard.
I don’t see any positives when the defense is on the field this week. Gone are the days of facing Jaren Hall, Nick Mullens and Justin Fields. Dak is the only QB who threw more touchdown passes than Love this season and if the Pack can’t disrupt him, he’ll pick them apart.
If Green Bay has a chance at an upset, we need to see a monster game from Rashan Gary. He has a big edge over right tackle Terence Steele and if he can give us another Thanksgiving Day performance, things could get interesting. Lukas Van Ness can take advantage of the fast track too.
Ultimately, there’s probably a bit too much working in the Cowboys’ favor here to expect the upset. Have to hope the young team isn’t jittery, that they don’t let Lamb destroy them, that they don’t turn the ball over, that they commit to the run, convert consistently in the red zone and not screw up on special teams. That’s a lot that needs to go right.
The Cowboys will be the team facing the pressure of expectations and maybe that gets the best of them in the end. I see a high scoring game, a back and forth affair, with Dak and the Cowboys doing just enough to get past the young, ascending, but not quite ready for prime time Packers.