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NFL playoffs: Three things to watch for in Packers-Cowboys on Super Wild Card Weekend

Green Bay Packers
2023 · 9-8-0
Dallas Cowboys
2023 · 12-5-0

From the Ice Bowl to the "Dez caught it" game to a 2016 divisional-round thriller in Dallas, the Cowboys and Packers have a long, storied postseason history.

They've met in the playoffs eight times. Each team has won four.

Now the two titanic franchises will meet Sunday in a legacy game for Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy. He's led Dallas to three straight 12-5 finishes, but this is arguably the best team he's had since taking the Cowboys' job in 2020.

McCarthy's teams have gone 1-2 in the playoffs since, with their only win on the road. McCarthy's two playoff victories in Dallas came when he was the Packers' head coach. The first was Super Bowl XLV in early 2011. The second was the 34-31 classic seven years ago when Green Bay coughed up an 18-point lead but won it with two 50-plus-yard field goals in the final two minutes.

History doesn't interest McCarthy, who said he "won't participate" in a him-versus-his-former team narrative leading up to the game, even though there's a street named after him adjacent to Lambeau Field.

Only a handful of current Packers even played for McCarthy, who was fired midseason in 2019. But in his first game against them last season, the Packers wiped out a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat the Cowboys in overtime at Lambeau.

McCarthy knows the pressure is on his team to produce. The Cowboys are favored for a reason, but the Packers look like a scary opponent.

The Cowboys have won every game at home this season, scoring 30 or more in all but one of those eight games, and they've run their win streak at AT&T Stadium to 16, dating back to last season. The Packers were only 4-5 on the road but won three of their final four away from Lambeau.

Dak Prescott has been terrific this season, leading the league in touchdowns passes with 36. No. 2? None other than Jordan Love (32).

This one has a chance to be another classic in the teams' histories. But if the Cowboys can't defend home turf, it could be a massive blow for a franchise that hasn't had much playoff success in recent years.

Here are three things to watch for when the Packers visit the Cowboys in Sunday's wild-card game:

1) Packers could have hands full trying to slow down Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb. One of McCarthy's best cap feathers since seizing play-calling on offense has been to get the ball into Lamb's hands more. He's averaging nearly nine touches per game, and the Cowboys' offense has reached a new level. It's been hugely beneficial for Prescott in his best season to date, as he's cut down on turnovers (five interceptions in his past 12 games) and kept his other top targets -- wide receiver Brandin Cooks and tight end Jake Ferguson -- busy while still feeding Lamb regularly. Getting picks could be tough for Green Bay, which had the second-fewest (seven) in the league, although pressuring Prescott could be easier. The Packers have been remarkably middle of the pack in a lot of defensive rankings but are ninth in sack percentage (7.4%, just behind Dallas). The Cowboys haven't pass blocked for Prescott as well as you might think. He took 39 sacks, including 17 during their toughest five-game stretch of the season in November and December. Especially watch the Packers' Kenny Clark when he's matched with Cowboys right Terence Steele -- a potential mismatch. But can the Packers cover well enough if the pass rush isn't thriving? Fair question. Since trading Rasul Douglas, Green Bay's secondary has been taxed, with Keisean Nixon and Carrington Valentine on trial by fire, but even Jaire Alexander has had something of a lost season, marred by injuries and suspension. Baker Mayfield and Bryce Young both threw for 300-plus yards down the stretch on this defense. If it had trouble stopping D.J. Chark, what might Lamb and Cooks do to this unit?

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2) Who means more for Green Bay: Jordan Love or Aaron Jones? The obvious and easy answer is, of course, Love, who capped a first season that ended up pretty brilliant, even with some speed bumps along the way in his initial year starting. Notice how he finished, though: 18 TDs and one INT in his final eight games. And he's done it during a stretch when several of his pass catchers, including Jones, have been in and out of the lineup. Love has adjusted to the rotating personnel -- while the team had its back against the wall -- and somehow thrived. Led by Micah Parsons and DaRon Bland, Dallas' defense has been good this season, no doubt, even if it's not sacking quarterbacks or taking the ball away at quite the same level as last season. Offensive tackles Rasheed Walker and Zach Tom surely will have their hands full with Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence. But a few bigger-bodied receivers, such as DK Metcalf and A.J. Brown, have given Dallas some trouble, too, which is good news for Green Bay's long, athletic group of pass catchers. But the most exploitable area might be the Cowboys' run defense. In their 11 victories, the Cowboys haven't allowed more than 125 rushing yards. In five losses, though, they allowed an average of 171.6 yards rushing. That's why Jones' reemergence following injury, which helped Green Bay make the playoffs, could be a massive factor Sunday. We've never seen Love's poise tested in a raucous playoff atmosphere before, and six of his 11 INTs came in the fourth quarter. But Jones, who leads the NFL in rushing yards (411) since Week 15, can help keep Dallas' defense honest. He also caught five passes last week, his busiest receiving game this season. Love is squarely in the Cowboys' crosshairs Sunday, but they'd better keep close tabs on Jones, who lifted the Packers tremendously in the three straight victories down the stretch.

3) Kicking game could decide the winner. If you were picking this game strictly off special teams, the Cowboys might be favored to win going away. Their units have been mostly very good, with kicker Brandon Aubrey turning in a stunningly good first season (36 of 38 on field goal tries, including 10 of 10 from 50-plus yards), punter Bryan Anger leading the NFL in net punting (45.3-yard average) and KaVontae Turpin a threat on returns. Dallas' punt and kickoff coverage groups have been below-average, but neither has been glaringly bad. Green Bay, on the other hand, has struggled roundly across those units. Rookie kicker Anders Carlson missed six kicks -- including some big ones this season -- and five extra-point tries and has one of the lower touchback percentages in the NFL (43.0%). In a big game against the Bears last week, Carlson missed a 41-yarder and the Packers botched their final possession of the first half, perhaps because head coach Matt LaFleur couldn't trust his kicker and felt they had to go for six. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Anger is Packers punter Daniel Whelan, whose 39.4-yard net ranked 31st best in the league. He didn't have any blocked punts as a rookie this season, but the Cowboys had two of the NFL's six blocked punts this season. Does this change Green Bay's calculus on fourth downs? Perhaps. But either way, if Green Bay wants to pull the road upset it must be a lot sharper in these areas than it has been this season, and especially in recent games.

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