Breaking down the Packers’ 3 possible playoff opponents
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Not until the conclusion of the final game on the NFL’s wild-card weekend schedule will the Green Bay Packers know which team they’ll be facing Sunday, Jan. 11.
When a winner emerges Saturday between the fifth-seeded Arizona Cardinals and the fourth-seeded Carolina Panthers, the NFC’s divisional-round matchups won’t be set. The Packers, as well as the Seattle Seahawks, have to wait for the outcome of the Detroit Lions vs. Dallas Cowboys game.
As the NFC’s top seed, Seattle will host the team with the lowest remaining seed. If No. 6 seed Detroit wins at Dallas, that would set up Lions-Seahawks in the divisional round. It would then send the winner of Cardinals-Panthers to Lambeau Field. However, if the No. 3 seed Cowboys beat the Lions, Green Bay and Dallas would be squaring off the following weekend.
Basically, if Packers fans want their team to avoid the Cowboys, get ready to cheer for Ndamukong Suh, Dominic Raiola and the rest of your favorite Detroit players. It’d be a difficult — perhaps impossible — argument to make that a potential Green Bay run to the NFC Championship Game wouldn’t be significantly easier if it was Arizona or Carolina in town Jan. 11.
Let’s break down all three possible Packers divisional-round opponents:
The Cowboys have two players that could finish in the top five of this year’s Most Valuable Player voting: quarterback Tony Romo and running back DeMarco Murray. Romo is the only quarterback this season with a better passer rating (113.2) than Aaron Rodgers (112.2). Murray led the league in rushing by such a wide margin that second-place Le’Veon Bell would’ve needed 485 more rushing yards to pass him.
Dallas challenges every secondary it faces because of wide receiver Dez Bryant, who led the NFL in touchdown receptions with 16. Jordy Nelson and Antonio Brown tied for second in touchdown catches with 13. So, like Murray in the running game, it was a substantial first-place nod for Bryant in that category. Romo can also throw to Jason Witten, who was 10th among tight ends this season in receiving yards.
The Cowboys also have one of the league’s best offensive lines. Based on the ProFootballFocus ratings system, it was the best offensive line in the regular season. Left tackle Tyron Smith hasn’t allowed a sack since Week 6. Rookie right guard Zack Martin became so highly respected so quickly that he was named to the Pro Bowl. Former Wisconsin Badger Travis Frederick was the second-best center in the NFL, based on the ProFootballFocus ratings. Frederick, as well as Smith, is also a Pro Bowl selection this year.
Defensively, Dallas is a lot better at stopping the run (ranked 8th) than it is against the pass (26th). The Cowboys are 15th in scoring defense (22 points allowed per game), 28th in sacks and seventh in interceptions. One of Dallas’ best defensive players, defensive tackle Henry Melton, was placed on injured reserve this week.
The Panthers finished the regular season on a four-game winning streak to come back and win the lackluster NFC South with a 7-8-1 record. When Green Bay beat Carolina in Week 7, it was the first of what became six consecutive Panthers losses.
Cam Newton had a season at quarterback that led to some wondering whether he was becoming a bust of a No. 1 overall pick. Newton was 26th in the NFL in passer rating and 29th in completion percentage. He also had a career low in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and passing touchdowns. However, aside from a car accident that sidelined him for one game, Newton ended the season on a high note with wins over New Orleans, Cleveland and Atlanta.
Newton has two good receiving options to throw to. Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin has a huge catch radius with his 6-foot-5 frame and finished the year with more than 1,000 yards. Greg Olsen was one of the league’s best tight ends in 2014. Olsen trailed only Rob Gronkowski in receiving yards among tight ends and actually had two more catches than the Patriots star.
Carolina’s defense responded after a very slow start to get back to a respectable level by season’s end. The Panthers finished 11th in passing defense, 16th against the run, 13th in sacks and 14th in interceptions.
Without Carson Palmer, the Cardinals had their 8-1 record fall apart, losing four of their last six games. It certainly didn’t help that backup Drew Stanton was injured in Week 15. Stanton’s status remains in doubt for the playoffs, leaving third-stringer Ryan Lindley in command of the NFL’s 24th-ranked scoring offense.
Arizona hasn’t run the ball well all season, and that situation was made worse when starting running back Andre Ellington was placed on injured reserve in early December. Ellington’s backups, Kerwynn Williams and Stepfan Taylor, have performed fine in relief, but the two of them combined to play only 304 snaps all season.
Larry Fitzgerald would benefit if he had a top quarterback throwing him the ball, but the eight-time Pro Bowl selection is still not what he used to be. At age 31, Fitzgerald had the fewest receiving yards of his career (784) since his rookie season in 2004. Michael Floyd, a first-round pick in 2012, led the Cardinals in receiving yards and touchdowns. Their best overall offensive player is left tackle Jared Veldheer, who proved to be well worth the five-year, $35 million contract ($10.5 million guaranteed) Arizona gave him this past offseason to snag him away from Oakland.
The Cardinals finished the season ranked 29th in passing defense, 13th against the run, 24th in sacks and seventh in interceptions. Defensive end Calais Campbell had a terrific season, getting pressure on quarterbacks and stuffing the run. Among defenses that play a 3-4 base, ProFootballFocus rated only J.J. Watt and the Jets two-headed monster of Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson better than Campbell.
Of Green Bay’s three possible divisional-round opponents, Dallas has the best quarterback, running back, wide receiver and offensive line. Both the Panthers and Cowboys boast great tight ends with Olsen and Witten. Olsen was the better pass-catcher this season, but Witten is stronger as a blocker. None of the defenses are spectacular, but Carolina would get the slight edge, thanks in large part to linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
Overall, there’s little question that the Cowboys would present the biggest challenge to the Packers. But in order for Dallas to reach Green Bay, it first has to get past the Lions this weekend.
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