The Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys were trendy preseason Super Bowl picks. While the Packers are overcoming injuries and starting to play like a championship-caliber team, the Cowboys are struggling mightily and look like they could have the first pick in the draft.
Green Bay hopes to build on a big road victory and win its third in a row Sunday night when it hosts Dallas, which is trying to avoid losing five straight in a season for the first time since 1997.
The Packers (5-3) and Cowboys (1-6) finished with 11-5 records in 2009 and were expected to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy this season. While Green Bay is the front-runner in the NFC North with a half-game lead, Dallas is tied for the second-worst record in the NFL.
The Packers have experienced some problems of their own, losing three times in a four-week span, but they've since won back-to-back games - the most recent being Sunday's 9-0 win over the New York Jets, who entered tied for the league's best record.
"It's important to stack success," Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. "The hardest thing to handle in my opinion in the NFL is handling success, and by no means do I think winning two games is a success, but it's definitely in the right direction.
"We need to get this one here at home Sunday night and get to the bye. That's our focus.''
The Cowboys' focus is simply on the fundamentals.
After reviewing film of Sunday's 35-17 loss to Jacksonville, Dallas coach Wade Phillips said he's making basic drills a higher priority than game planning for the Packers.
"Running, blocking, tackling, catching, covering, throwing - we're not as good as we were,'' Phillips said. "Every detail has to be covered. We have to be more precise in some of these things."
The Phillips-run defense, which has 10 returning starters from last year, has allowed an average of 33.5 points during a four-game losing streak. The Cowboys, off to their worst start since going 1-15 in 1989, haven't dropped five in a row since finishing 6-10 in '97.
"Same guys, same defense, and we're not getting it done,'' end Marcus Spears said.
Backup Jon Kitna played relatively well against the Jaguars in his first start since 2008, going 34 of 49 for 379 yards with a touchdown. He threw three interceptions, but all three balls bounced off the hands of receivers.
"I think they'll be ready to play the next game, but I thought they would be ready last game so I've got to do a better job there and they've got to do a better job,'' Phillips said.
Kitna and the offense could have a tougher time against Green Bay, which is fourth in scoring defense at 17.0 points a contest and registered the NFL's first shutout of the year last weekend.
The Packers' defense is a bit banged-up, as injuries have forced McCarthy to start a third-string safety and two reserve linebackers, but it hasn't seemed to matter much. Green Bay is third in the league in sacks with 24 and interceptions with 12.
Against the Jets, the patchwork defense picked off two Mark Sanchez passes by ripping the ball away from the intended receivers.
"The guys we got, man, you can't say enough about those guys stepping in, especially guys that haven't been here too often for stepping in and playing the way they did,'' quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.
Rodgers and the offense didn't have much success against a formidable New York defense, finishing with season lows in points and yards (237), but they should get better results against Dallas even with Donald Driver out with a quadriceps injury.
Driver is second on the Packers in receptions (28), receiving yards (307) and receiving TDs (three), but Rodgers' favorite target is still Greg Jennings, who has caught 18 passes for 288 yards and two touchdowns in the last three games.
This is the fourth straight season these two storied franchises will square off and the third straight meeting at Lambeau Field. The Packers won 17-7 in November as Rodgers had a TD run and pass in the fourth quarter.