The last time the Dallas Cowboys’ path to the Super Bowl seemed this unobstructed was in 2007. That year they rode a fantastic offense and vastly underrated defense to 13 wins and the NFC’s top seed. Sound familiar?
This season, again running coach Jason Garrett’s offense, the Cowboys boast the same 13-3 record, the same top spot in the conference and an offense and defense that both finished fifth in scoring. Yet once again a familiar and dangerous foe rests on the horizon, the same one who ruined Dallas’ return to Super Bowl glory in 2007 … as well as the New England Patriots’ dream of a perfect season.
Of the two possible opponents the Cowboys will draw next Sunday in Arlington, Texas, one is a nightmare and one is somewhere in the middle.
Best-case scenario: Green Bay Packers
The 8-point favorite Seahawks took care of business on Saturday night, meaning the Cowboys will host the winner of the Packers-New York Giants showdown next Sunday at Lambeau Field.
From an overly superficial and simplistic viewpoint, it’s clear the Cowboys would rather play Green Bay instead of the Giants. Dallas defeated the Packers in Week 6, and they were beaten not once, but twice by the Giants, in Weeks 4 and 14. But that alone isn’t enough to suggest the Packers are a favorable matchup for Dallas.
First, the Cowboys offense is a fine matchup for Green Bay. Yes, the Packers finished the regular season with fairly impressive stats against the run, but the Cowboys offensive line manhandled Green Bay in Week 6 for a season-high 191 rushing yards. And had it not been for two turnovers by quarterback Dak Prescott (including one in the red zone, his first of the year), the Cowboys likely would have put the Packers away much sooner in their 30-16 victory. And since the Packers have the second-worst pass defense — and a tragically banged up secondary — Prescott’s first playoff test would be a very accommodating unit.
But as much damage as Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant and Prescott could do to the Packers, the matchup on the other side of the ball is far more inviting.
There’s no indication that anyone can “stop” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He’s playing as well as any quarterback has for an extended period of time in recent memory. With Jordy Nelson and a resurgent Davante Adams, Rodgers is going to rack up chunks of yards, and maybe a few touchdowns. Look what he did to three of the best pass defenses (Minnesota, Seattle, Houston) in the month of December: 802 yards, 72.5 completion percentage, 9 touchdowns, no interceptions.
And the Cowboys didn’t exactly contain Rodgers in their showdown in Week 6. He had 294 yards, completed 31 passes and tossed a fourth-quarter touchdown that brought Green Bay within 11 points. But they did pick Rodgers off, and more importantly, clamped down on him when it mattered most. Six times the Packers drove inside the Dallas 30 and only once did they surrender a touchdown.
That’s no coincidence. Rodgers’ mobility and penchant for escaping late pressure to make huge plays downfield is perhaps his greatest talent. But because the Cowboys blitz so infrequently and flood the passing lanes with bodies, those plays are (ever so slightly) more difficult to make. Even one such stop — Green Bay settling for a field goal instead of a touchdown, an interception in the red zone — might make the difference between victory and defeat.
Worst-case scenario: New York Giants
It’s not so much the Cowboys lost both games against the Giants, but rather how they lost them that should scare Dallas fans. In both of those losses, the Cowboys’ fantastic offense disappeared throughout the second half. In Week 1, they managed one long field goal on the final four drives of a perpetual one-score game. And in Week 14 during the second half, the Cowboys managed zero points, failing to get a first down on five of their eight drives and turning the ball over on two other possessions.
That alone shouldn’t scare Dallas, but there’s more.
The Cowboys’ strength on defense is stopping the run, finishing first in the NFL, never once allowing an opposing back to gain even 90 yards in a single game. But that very impressive stat is of little value against the Giants, who have one of the worst rushing attacks in football. Not only were they 29th in total yards and 30th in yards per carry, but the longest run of the season by a member of the Giants went for just 25 yards. Essentially, what the Cowboys do best will be pitted against what the Giants do worst, so don’t expect Giants coach Ben McAdoo to hitch his team’s playoff fate to the running game.
Quarterback Eli Manning will do what he does best in the postseason: throw the ball. Five times in the postseason, Manning has attempted a minimum of 30 passes, and he’s won each of those games. By comparison, he’s 2-3 when he doesn’t attempt 30 passes or more in a playoff game. Often times, the more a quarterback throws, the more likely a team is to lose, but not in the case of Manning. For example, Ben Roethlisberger is 3-5 in playoff games in which he attempted more than 30 passes, Brett Favre was 3-10, and Manning’s brother, Peyton, had a 10-12 record in playoff games with that pass-heavy standard.
Manning throwing the ball more means more opportunities for Odell Beckham Jr., who has been waiting nearly three years to display his skills on the grander playoff stage. Make no mistake about it, Beckham’s ability to get underneath a secondary and then outrun defenders is a dangerous proposition to Dallas, and any defense. And in a matchup that has twice proven to be both unexpectedly low scoring and close (the average score between these two clubs this season is 15-13), one such play by Beckham can also make the difference between victory and defeat.