Five things to watch for in the Week 15 matchup between the Green Bay Packers (6-6-1) and Dallas Cowboys (7-6) at AT&T Stadium:
1. Scoring against a very poor Dallas defense
Just how bad is the Cowboys’ defense? Well, on Monday night against Chicago, Dallas didn’t force the Bears to punt at all. All eight of Chicago’s drives resulted in points. Sure, that’s just one game, but look at where the Cowboys rank defensively across the NFL after 13 games: last (yes, last — 32nd overall out of 32 teams) in passing yards allowed, 28th in rushing yards allowed and 26th in points allowed.
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There’s no arguing that the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints are high-powered offenses, but Dallas gave up a combined 100 points to those two teams. Add in the 45 points that the Bears scored on them Monday, and, in just three games this season, the Cowboys allowed 145 points. Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers have allowed 188 points all season, in 13 games. So, yes, Dallas’ defense is as bad as it gets.
The Cowboys will also be without one of their best defensive players, linebacker Sean Lee, who’s out with a neck injury.
2. Flynn’s delicate balance of efficiency vs. taking shots downfield
Matt Flynn threw 32 passes in the Packers’ win last weekend over Atlanta, and 24 of them were caught for a very impressive 75 percent completion rate. But of those 32 throws, only one traveled more than 20 yards downfield. That one deep pass was a 46-yard completion to Jordy Nelson. Then, add in that just seven of Flynn’s passes were thrown between 10 and 19 yards, which means that he threw 75 percent of his passes shorter than 10 yards. That’s about as conservative as a quarterback can be. It worked for the most part, so it’s difficult to fault Flynn at all, but Dallas has now seen that film. And, as bad as the Cowboys defense is (see topic No. 1 above), they’ve certainly analyzed the way in which Flynn found success: short, underneath routes. Over and over and over.
Flynn’s arm strength has been a concern all season. It concerned the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills, two teams that released him. The Packers claimed that it’s not an issue, but while Flynn had plenty of zip on his short throws against the Falcons, stretching the field with deep passes has been a much different story for him in his two starts. Assuming Dallas adjusts its defense in a way to prevent Flynn from having the same short, open looks that were available a week ago, what is Green Bay’s counter move? Will Flynn be able to exploit one-on-one matchups beyond 20 yards?
Those factors, plus Eddie Lacy’s sprained right ankle likely to slow him, and the Cowboys’ defense has very little breakaway, game-changing type moments to worry about from the Packers’ offense. Lacy’s ability to break tackles will be hindered and he’ll be easier to catch in the open field. Add that to the evidence of Flynn not looking to throw deep and Dallas will likely spend much of the game with a lot of its defensive players close to the line of scrimmage being aggressive.
3. Matching up against ‘elite’ WR Bryant
Multiple times throughout this season, Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt has casually mentioned Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant. And this was weeks and months before Green Bay actually had to game plan to get ready to face Bryant. Now, this test has arrived.
“Well, he’s not Calvin Johnson, but he’s an elite player,” Whitt said of Bryant.
The Packers are ranked 21st in the NFL in passing yards allowed and only have seven interceptions (ranking them 30th in the league). However, cornerback Sam Shields has had a very good season and has done well in being the primary defender against a few other top-tier receivers (Josh Gordon, A.J. Green, Torrey Smith) earlier in the year. Bryant, with 70 receptions for 908 yards and 10 touchdowns, will play a major role in the outcome of this game.
“The thing that Dez really shows up (in) is in the red area,” Whitt said. “He’s a big-body guy. You definitely have to understand how to play him down there. He’s a guy that when he gets the ball in his hands, he’s really explosive. He has a devastating stiff arm; he tries to face you up and stiff arm you with it. You better have a plan with that. He’s explosive and breaks tackles. He’s going to be a handful.”
4. Stopping the run for a second consecutive game
It’s not easy for a team to go from being ranked third in the NFL in rushing defense to 26th in the span of just over a month. However, Green Bay earned that unwanted distinction this season. But, even though the Falcons are among the worst rushing teams in the league, the Packers did a good job of keeping them held to 83 total yards last weekend. That will need to happen again for Green Bay to have a shot at winning this game.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers often says that everything starts with stopping the run. When the Packers are able to stop the run, everything else falls into place. When they’re not able to stop the run, everything else easily falls apart. Green Bay needs to show in back-to-back weeks that it can stop the run at least somewhat consistently.
Dallas hasn’t been a good running team by basic statistics, ranking 24th in the NFL in rushing yards. But DeMarco Murray’s 5.3 yards per carry average is the best in the league for any running back with at least 100 carries (Murray has well over that with 160 carries). The reason the Cowboys rank so low is because they haven’t run the ball very often this season. Only Atlanta has run it fewer times. Also, according to the ratings system at ProFootballFocus, Dallas has been the NFL’s fifth-best run blocking team.
The Packers’ defense will need to control the line of scrimmage and not let Murray rack up a lot of touches. However, that responsibility also falls on Flynn and the offense to stay on the field long enough so that time of possession doesn’t favor the Cowboys, because if it does, Green Bay could be in trouble.
5. Scoreboard watching
Before the Packers take the field Sunday, they’ll already know how the Chicago Bears (7-6) did on the road against the Cleveland Browns. For Green Bay’s postseason chances, it’s just as important how the Bears and Detroit Lions (7-6) do. Right now, the Packers trail both of them in the NFC North race, and winning that division is their only way into the playoffs. The Lions don’t play until Monday night when they host the Baltimore Ravens.
When the final quarter of the season began, Green Bay knew it had to win its final four games and have Detroit lose two of its last four games. So far, so good for the Packers, who won last weekend and watched the Lions lose.
So, just as Green Bay’s players and coaches will be doing, keep an eye on Chicago and Detroit’s scores, because the Packers don’t control their own postseason destiny. They still need help to get in.