5 things to watch: Packers vs. Cowboys
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Five things to watch for in the Sunday afternoon NFC divisional-round matchup when the Green Bay Packers (12-4; No. 2 seed) face the Dallas Cowboys (13-4; No. 3 seed) at Lambeau Field:
Since the Packers’ Week 17 victory over Detroit, Aaron Rodgers has officially practiced only once. Rodgers’ practice participation Thursday was in a limited role in which he took between 50-to-60 percent of the team-period snaps.
With an injury to two different spots of his left calf, Rodgers could be forced to be more of a pocket passer, rather than the quarterback who does so well in extending plays with his legs. But as head coach Mike McCarthy assessed the situation Friday, there was confidence that Rodgers wouldn’t be too limited in the game.
"He looks like he’s moving fine to me right now," McCarthy said. "We’re not going to change anything or our approach of how we want to attack Dallas’ defense."
Rodgers completed 11 of 13 passes in the second half of Green Bay’s regular-season finale, less than an hour after he fell untouched to the ground and was carted to the locker room. But while successful in the passing game and even running in a one-yard touchdown himself, Rodgers had to play knowing he couldn’t quite be his normal self on the field.
It will have been two weeks since that game, which certainly helps recovery time. But Rodgers’ calf injury and mobility will be a very important factor from the first snap of the game until the very end.
There were the consecutive 50-plus point games in Weeks 10 and 11. There was the 42-0 third-quarter lead in Week 5. There was the 38-3 lead with more than 15 minutes left to play in Week 7. So many of Green Bay’s home games this season became blowouts so early that Rodgers got to rest in the fourth quarter on multiple occasions.
The Packers went 8-0 at home, scoring an NFL-best 39.8 points per game in the process. Green Bay also led the league by winning its eight home games by an average of 19.4 points. That margin would have been even greater if Rodgers and many other starters had continued to play.
Rodgers’ individual statistics at Lambeau Field were remarkable. He threw 25 touchdown passes and no interceptions, which led to an NFL-leading 133.2 passer rating. Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception at home since Dec. 2, 2012.
On the other side of the field, though, is a Cowboys team that went undefeated on the road. That includes a win at Seattle. Tony Romo was fantastic in games played outside of Dallas, finishing the year with a road passer rating of 121.8 after throwing 20 touchdowns and two interceptions.
When a player finishes with 484 more rushing yards than any other running back, it requires a bit of nitpicking to find holes. That’s the case with DeMarco Murray. After beginning the season with eight consecutive games — and 10 of the first 11 games — with 100-plus rushing yards, Murray has been slowed from that pace recently.
In the past four games (including the Dallas wild-card win), Murray has 314 rushing yards on 92 carries, which is an average of 3.4 yards per rush. That’s quite a ways off from his overall season average of 4.7 yards per carry.
Some of that likely has to do with the broken left hand that Murray suffered in mid-December. However, Murray was a full practice participant all week.
Only one team rushed for more yards than the Cowboys this season: the Seahawks. And when the Packers were in Seattle back in Week 1, Marshawn Lynch & Co. ran for 207 yards with a 5.6 average.
Green Bay climbed out of the bottom of the league rankings in run defense to finish the regular season ranked 23rd. But Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers noted this week that Murray and Dallas would provide "the best test" Green Bay has had.
Like Rodgers, Romo was actually better in 2014 when opposing defenses sent a blitz. According to data from ProFootballFocus, Romo had a 120.4 passer rating when blitzed and a 110.4 passer rating when not blitzed.
"His decision-making has been very good," Capers said. "He’s not taken the chances, I don’t think. Their approach, their style has enabled him to do that because any quarterback would like to be in the favorable down-and-distance situations. It doesn’t put the pressure on you to where you feel like you have to make a play every down. I think when you take that approach you have less errors. His quarterback rating certainly bears that out."
While Romo did throw five of his nine interceptions when blitzed, his yards per pass attempt was 9.4 in those dropbacks compared to 8.2. when not blitzed. That means Romo was often able to escape pressure and turn it into an explosive passing play. Though it was also when he was more likely to give the ball away.
So, as Capers evaluates this information for his game-planning Sunday, it could be hit or miss if the Packers send five or more players after Romo. Maybe it forces an interception, but maybe it gives the Cowboys a big play. A quarterback like that makes the job of any defensive coordinator very difficult. It’s the same type of problem that Rodgers presents to opposing defenses on a weekly basis.
When Romo and the Dallas offense needed a big passing play, Dez Bryant was often the guy on the receiving end.
Bryant led the NFL in touchdown receptions with 16, which was three more than any other wide receiver in the league. He also had 22 catches that went for at least 20 yards and averaged 15.0 yards per reception.
As Packers cornerback Casey Hayward watched film on Bryant, he saw a lot Atlanta’s Julio Jones in the Cowboys star.
"When he catches the ball, he fronts you up, he can get a stiff-arm in," Hayward said. "Like with Julio, he reminds me of him because he breaks a lot of tackles and he just goes when he catches it. . . . He’s a great player. We just have to limit him."
Of course, it was Jones who had a record-breaking 259 yards against Green Bay late in the regular season.
Bryant broke four tackles in Dallas’ wild-card round win, bringing his total for the season to 20. That’s the second most broken tackles among NFL wide receivers.
"He’s a big strong guy, very strong hands, very good with the ball after the catch," Capers said. "He’s a guy you have to account for because he breaks tackles. You can’t arm-tackle this guy."
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