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Game Preview: Packers vs. Cowboys, NFL Playoff Divisional Round

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Game Preview: Packers vs. Cowboys, NFL Playoff Divisional Round

The Green Bay Packers (12-4) host the Dallas Cowboys (13-4) at Lambeau Field on Sunday Jan. 11 at 12:05 p.m. CT in a game televised on Fox.

 

The Big Picture: What's at Stake?

Following a come-from-behind 24-20 victory over the Detroit Lions in the wildcard round of the playoffs, the Cowboys earned the right to play Green Bay in the divisional round.

It's the Cowboys' first visit to Green Bay since the 1967 NFL Championship game, known as the Ice Bowl.

The Cowboys are 8-0 on the road this season, but the Packers are 8-0 at home.

Will the Cowboys be able to adjust to the sub-freezing temperatures? They didn't played a game below 35 degrees in 2014.

The winner advances to the NFC Championship game.

 

What to Watch When the Packers Have the Ball

A) Aaron Rodgers' Calf Strain: It's the overwhelming storyline this week, the strained muscle in Rodgers' calf. The word "tear" appeared in the media this week, sending some into a frenzy. It's nothing new, however. A strain is a tear, so Rodgers' injury hasn't changed or gotten worse.

If anything, Rodgers has probably only gotten healthier. It will be two weeks since he aggravated his calf injury in the regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions, the game in which he exited and then returned.

Rodgers' did not participate in practice on Wednesday but made enough progress to take part in a limited basis the rest of the week, taking an estimated 50 to 60 percent of the snaps in the team portion of practice on Thursday. He'll play on Sunday. It's just a matter of how agile he'll be.

B) Protecting Rodgers in the Pocket: When Rodgers was severely limited by his calf injury after returning to the Lions game, and it was absolutely, positively necessary to protect him, the offensive line did its job. The Packers allowed only one sack in that contest, and that was when Matt Flynn was in the game.

The Packers ranked 10th in the NFL, allowing 30 sacks on the season—the fewest since 2007—and they'll be looking to cede as few as possible on Sunday.

To a man, every starter on the offensive line holds up their end of the bargain. In just the past few weeks, Josh Sitton was selected to the Pro Bowl, T.J. Lang and David Bakhtiari were named as alternates, while Bryan Bulaga and Corey Linsley received votes in balloting for the league's All-Pro team.

C) Taking Pressure off Rodgers with the Ground Game: There weren't many people that believed the Packers could run the football against Detroit's No. 1 ranked run defense going into Week 17, but they did. Eddie Lacy and company ran for 152 hard-fought yards.

The challenge extends to Sunday, especially if Rodgers is limited due to injury. Lacy figures to be up to the challenge. First of all, he's healthy. A conscious effort has been made to keep him fresh late in the season, unlike last year when he was battling an ankle injury.

Lacy has more than 100 yards from scrimmage in nine consecutive games. He also became the first player in team history to rush for 1,000 yards and score at least 10 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Statistics such as these are a testament to Lacy's effectiveness, but now it must extend to the postseason.

 

What to Watch When the Cowboys Have the Ball

A) Morgan Burnett Committing to the Box: The Cowboys have the No. 2 rushing offense in the NFL and the No. 1 rusher with DeMarco Murray gaining 1,845 yards during the regular season.

The Packers have improved significantly in stopping the run. At the time of the bye week, they ranked dead last in the NFL, allowing 153.5 yards per game. They've cut that total to 119.9 yards per game, ranking 23rd in the league.

A big part of the reason the Packers have gotten better has been the job of Burnett, frequently coming up into the box to help stuff the run. If the Packers want to limit the damage done by Murray, Burnett will be key to doing so.

B) Pressure on the Rest of the Secondary: If Burnett is committed to stopping the run and coming up into the box, pressure only increases on the rest of the secondary to stop the Cowboys' other weapons, namely Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.

The burden falls heavily on the shoulders of Sam Shields and Tramon Williams, each of whom had an interception of Tony Romo in last season's win at Dallas. Both Packers cornerbacks have been extremely successful in the postseason, each of them with four career interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, in the playoffs.

The starting cornerbacks aren't the only that must step up. Rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, along with slot cornerbacks Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward, will be tasked with stopping Witten, the longtime NFL veteran that had the critcal fourth-down conversion in the Cowboys' win last week over the Lions.

C) Stars Emerging in the Front Seven: As much pressure as there is on the Packers secondary, the Packers need a playmaker to emerge in the front seven, whether it's sacking the quarterback, grabbing an interception or forcing a fumble, someone has to stand out.

There are no shortage of candidates. Clay Matthews is the biggest name, a linebacker just named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl, coming off the fourth season of his career with double-digit sacks. And many will point to this moment as the reason why Julius Peppers was signed, a veteran intended to come up big when the stakes are at their highest.

Matthews and Peppers might provide the star power, but the defender on the Packers that graded out the highest in the 2014 season, according to ProFootballFocus.com? Mike Daniels. The tough-as-nails defensive lineman has become a true three-down defender for the Packers, making an impact against both the run and the pass.

 

What to Watch on Special Teams

Packers' Struggles in Several Phases: There's been no shortage of problems for the Packers special teams this season, starting with seven blocks allowed by the protection units—three field goals, two extra points and two punts.

Unfortunately, the struggles don't end there. Punter Tim Masthay had arguably his worst season as a pro with his shortest net punting average (37.0 yards) and fewest punts downed inside the 20 (14) of his five-year career.

The Packers were also among the league's worst on kick returns. At least they've attempted to upgrade, however, making the change from DuJuan Harris to a rotation between Micah Hyde and Randall Cobb.

 

Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor at Cheesehead TV and its "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email carriveau@uwalumni.com.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (8) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

joe packer's picture

the most threatening scenario is the pack dominate on most fronts, but the cowboys just hang in close and then at key moments Witten and / or Murray come up big.

This is a winnable game, but we'll have to win all four quarters. There's little margin.

jeremyjjbrown's picture

There isn't going to be margin again until August. This is the playoffs.

DrealynWilliams's picture

Yes.

Otto's picture

Editing note: What to Watch When the Lions Have the Ball - header

Lions not in this one.

TommyG's picture

I'm pretty sure the pack is 12-4 and the boys are 13-4 as well. Hey, details, this is the playoffs.

Mario Willis's picture

Special Teams Coach Slocum's job ought to be on the line. We can not afford to give up POINTS on SPECIAL TEAMS...

DraftHobbyist's picture

We just have to keep the lead and let Romo hang the Cowboys with turnovers.

4thand1's picture

The line has dropped to 5.5, Packers

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