"Lord save us all from a hope tree that has lost the faculty of putting out blossoms." – Mark Twain.
On Sunday morning even the most zealous Cheesehead had to admit the team’s playoff prospects were nominal. The Packers’ last win came in October, franchise star Aaron Rodgers was on the sidelines and fourth-stringer Matt Flynn was, well, playing like you’d expect a fourth-stringer to perform. With the rival Lions nursing a 7-5 record, Green Bay seemed destined to be watching January football from home.
Unlike their football brethren in Wisconsin, those in Big D were relatively buoyant on their team’s outlook. The Cowboys had won four of their last six, including a season sweep of rival New York and coming back from a 14-point deficit on Thanksgiving against the Raiders. Moreover, with DeMarco Murray seemingly healthy for the first time in 18 months, the Dallas offense appeared unstoppable.
How quickly the tables can turn. A 22-21 victory over the Falcons, coupled with a Detroit loss, has resuscitated a Packers season that was on life support. On the other end of that spectrum, a 45-28 beatdown by the Bears leaves the Cowboys on the outside looking in on the NFC East. However, both squads still harbor hope of January football, making this battle our FOX NFL Game of the Week.
Five Things to Watch: Dallas Cowboys
Click here for a preview on the Green Bay Packers.
Player Spotlight: DeMarco Murray
Struggling with various injuries in his first two seasons, many in the Dallas organization began to wonder if the third-year rusher Murray was the right man for the job after suffering further health woes in mid-October. In the face of this doubt, Murray has answered, and answered with vigor, racking up 384 yards in his last four games. Linking this effort with Tony Romo’s reduction in turnovers (just seven picks this season versus 19 interceptions in 2012), the Cowboys offense has been a nightmare for defensive coordinators. Green Bay’s front seven has not been much to write home about, allowing 122.6 rushing yards per game (25th in the NFL). Murray extending his prosperity for another week will go ways toward a Cowboys victory.
Matchup Watch: Packers rushing attack versus Dallas defense
No matter who is under center for the Green and Yellow, envision the Packers to rely heavily on the run. Since dealing with a concussion early in the fall, Eddie Lacy has lived up to his preeminent billing, averaging 83.6 yards per contest in his last 10 games. Even if Rodgers is able to go, it’s highly unlikely he’ll flaunt his celebrated aerial prowess off the bat, making the dependence on the rooking running back all the more imperative.
One problem: Lacy is dealing with an ankle injury, one that will keep him out of practice until Friday and places a questionable tag on his weekend availability. Enter James Starks, he of early September success before cut down by a knee malady. Starks does offer versatility out of the backfield, a threat the Packers will utilize to keep the Cowboys on their toes. Though Dallas’ struggles against the pass are well documented, the defensive unit has been just has bad versus the run, relinquishing 128.4 yards per game (fifth-highest in the league) and 4.8 yards per attempt (tied for second-most in the NFL). With the secondary in a hopeless state, the Cowboys’ only hope is halting Green Bay’s soil endeavors, heightening the magnitude of this engagement.
Speaking of the Dallas defense…
Are we sure Monte Kiffin is alive?
The Cowboys rank last in total defense, surrendering 426.8 yards per game, and its admission of 26.8 points is not much better (26th in the league). Worse, Jerry Jones’ decision to fire Rob Ryan and bring on Kiffin has been an absolute train wreck, as Ryan has rejuvenated a dormant Saints resistance while Kiffin seems utterly lost. In fact, there’s a 87 percent chance a cardboard cutout is coaching the defense, although that silhouette would likely have better ideas on stopping the pass than Kiffin’s current schemes.
Unless these leaky holes are fixed in a hurry, it’s hard to forecast the Cowboys holding strong against Rodgers/Flynn and Week 17 opponent Philadelphia’s high-flying attack.
Fantasy Impact: Terrance Williams
Don’t misconstrue this as endorsement of Williams, as this is anything but. Since a strong autumn stretch, the Baylor rookie has been a non-entity in the rotisserie realm, hauling in a meager nine passes since the beginning of November. The Packers secondary is exploitable, yet better options exist in fantasy than rolling the dice with Williams. Even in deeper leagues, keep the Dallas wideout on the pine.
The Cowboys win if…
Romo stays safe with the rock, Dallas employs a bend-but-don’t-break defensive approach, Matt Flynn’s Matt Flynn-ness emerges…
While the Cowboys are certainly vulnerable, unless Rodgers is able to return, I don’t envision the Pack leaving Jerry’s World victorious…
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Packers 23
Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall