NFL

AUTHOR: Star Sports Content

STAR NFL PREVIEW Sun: Green Bay Packers @ Dallas Cowboys

A contest that sees former Super Bowl Green Bay winning head coach Mike McCarthy face the Packers with his new team the Cowboys who are unbeaten at home this season and that’s a big factor in their favour.

During the regular season, the Cowboys went 8-0 with a plus-172 point differential at home. That’s the best home point differential for any team in the past 10 seasons. In home games this season, Dallas (12-5) led the NFL in points scored (299), points margin (plus-172), total offence per game (425.8) and turnover margin (plus 1.25 per game).

Unlike some of the other Wild Card contests this weekend this one is fresh out of the box this season, in fact, the Cowboys and Packers have only met once since McCarthy took the Dallas job in 2020. That was last year at Lambeau Field, and the Packers came back from a 28-14 deficit in the fourth quarter with the now departed Packers QB Aaron Rodgers engineering a win 31-28 in overtime.

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Although the Cowboys are strong home favourites with Star Sports to the tune of -6.5 points (4-5) there is a feeling that this young Packers team is playing with “house money” as this year was supposed to be a transition year, but they improved faster than anyone could’ve expected especially with one of the youngest rosters ever to make the playoffs. Green Bay rallied from a 3-6 start, winning six of their final eight games to lock up the No. 7 seed. They beat two playoff teams (the Lions and Chiefs) as part of that push over the back half of the season.

Dallas are in the playoffs for the third consecutive season, which the franchise hasn’t done since a run of six straight from 1991-96 that included three of its five Super Bowl titles. The Cowboys were knocked out by San Francisco in each of the past two postseasons, first in a wild-card game at home, then the divisional round on the road. This time, Dallas wouldn’t see the top seeded Niners until the NFC title game and if they win this they will be guaranteed another home game in next week’s Divisional Round.

The obvious narrative around the game is Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy going up against his old team who he won a Super Bowl with in this very building, defeating the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV 31-25. In fact, the Packers have never lost at Cowboys Stadium/AT&T Stadium, going 5-0 in their visits here. One of the underlying storylines though must be the form of the two quarterbacks Dak Prescott and Jordan Love. Prescott threw an NFL-leading 36 touchdown passes during the regular season, while Love was second with 32 and with both offences firing on all cylinders we should be expecting a game with plenty of offensive action and points on the board – the over with Star Sports is a lofty +51.5 (Evens) and is now highest totalled game of the Wild Card weekend edging out the Rams/Lions clash later tonight.

Playoff games between these two sides have been memorable and notable ranging from the Ice Bowl (better known as the 1967 NFL Championship) in Green Bay to the controversial Packers win in the 2014 Divisional Round, when Cowboys WR Dez Bryant had what looked to be a possible TD catch ruled out by the officials.

Those games are too long ago now for this to count as a revenge game but Prescott and the Cowboys could not asked for things to go any better than they did the last two weeks of the regular season.

Make no mistake Prescott has this Cowboys offence humming this season and they have been held under 30 points at home only once all season (Week 17 against the Lions) and the offence as a whole has taken on a very aggressive mindset since their bye week.

Prescott is coming off an incredible regular season and he led the NFL in completions (410) and touchdown passes (36). His 6.1% touchdown rate was the second-highest mark of his career and here he faces a defence that has on occasions this season been taken apart by potent quality quarterbacks and offences.

This season, Prescott has averaged 34.7 pass attempts and 2.1 passing touchdowns per game, and the Cowboys have scored most of their touchdowns via the passing game and he’s also played much better at home. Prescott has averaged 2.7 passing touchdowns per game played at home. Dak has at least 2 passing TDs in 10 of his past 11 games and it won’t be a big surprise to see him match that record again and pass for around 300 yards – Prescott’s pass yards line with Star Sports at +279.5 (10-11) looks an attractive one to back the over on.

While the Dallas offence has been dominating this season primarily through the air, they have been most potent in games where they are able to run

the ball effectively as well. This week, the Cowboys are gifted a matchup with the Packers and their 26th ranked run defence. This is a unit that has struggled to contain opponents on the ground for years under defensive coordinator Joe Barry, and this season has been no exception. Although it has to be said that overall Cowboys main running back Tony Pollard has despite going over 1,000 yards for the season on the ground been below-par and he’s certainly less explosive that he was last season. On the year, just six of Pollard’s 252 carries gained 20 or more yards, and only two of Pollard’s 55 catches went for 20+. His backup Rico Dowdle is actually a better runner inside the tackles in short yardage situation plus he is also functional in the pass game.

The pass offence via Prescott runs mainly through wide receiver CeeDee Lamb who will move all over the field and is a hard man to stop. Lamb finished the regular season leading the NFL in catches (135), finishing 50 receiving yards behind Tyreek Hill for the league lead, and tying Hill for the NFL’s most 20+ yard receptions (29). Prescott to Lamb is a call you will certainly hear especially when the Cowboys are in the red zone, Lamb’s 20 end-zone targets ranked No. 2 in the NFL and he could well go over 100 yards plus receiving here. Lamb has a touchdown in nine straight games so is understandably odds-on with Star Sports at 4-6 to score once again and keep that streak going.
Lamb isn’t the only target that Prescott has though as he has another deep ball threat in Brandin Cooks whose last six receiving lines in home games read as follows – 5/60/1, 2/37/0, 4/45/1, 4/72/1, 9/173/1, and 3/49/1. Five of those six performances would see Cooks go over his receiving yards line which is set at +41.5 (10-11) by Star Sports.

At tight end Jake Ferguson hasn’t scored a TD since Week 13 but he is still a valuable part of the Cowboys offence with six or more targets in six straight games. Ferguson was the second leading receiver for Dallas with 71 catches and 761 yards. He did a very good job of replacing the loss of Dalton Schultz, who joined the Texans in the offseason. Ferguson looks as though he could be set for some positive TD regression as he had the fifth-most red-zone targets in the NFL with 23. The Green Bay defence can also be susceptible to tight ends in the red zone. The Packers have allowed tight ends to catch seven touchdowns this year and only five defences have allowed more such scores and it’s hard to believe that Prescott won’t target him a few times in the end-zone when given a chance.

Green Bay have won six of their last eight games to sneak into the playoffs and arrive in Dallas full of confidence and with an offence that is full of young playmakers and has played aggressively in the last few weeks and will need to play that way again if they are to keep pace with the Cowboys offence. Much of the credit to how the Packers have come through in the second half of the season has to be given to QB Jordan Love. Of late Love has been really looking like a franchise quarterback finishing the season ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in several key passing statistics, including yards, touchdowns, QB rating, and adjusted yards per attempt. Love has not only had to deal with his own development but that of his young receiving group who he has really trusted in recent weeks as the Packers have developed a fairly pass heavy offence.

Love has grown into the season and since Week 9 he’s averaging 271 passing yards per game. Love threw for 316 yards last week in a must-win game against Chicago despite the Packers only having 7 possessions in the game. How Love plays will be a big key to what Green Bay can do on offence they have the ability to be competitive but they know that they have defensive limitations and will have to be mindful of the firepower of Dallas on offence.

Love will have to deal with the pressure that the Cowboys are sure to bring but the Packers offensive line has done a good job of protecting Love and he has been very successful in getting the ball out early. That gives Love a real shot at exceeding his passing yards line which is set at +248.5 (10-11) by Star Sports. A young quarterback making his 1st road playoff start is always a concern, but Love is not a rookie, and this isn’t even his 1st elimination game this month after what happened last week, when the Pack had to beat the Bears to even get this far.

Keeping the chains moving will be vital for the Packers and they won’t want to be in long down-and-distance situations given the fierce Dallas pass rush. To that end they will be looking to get running back Aaron Jones involved in a variety of ways. Jones is easily the most experienced skill player on the Green Bay offence and after a season blighted by injury Jones has returned with vengeance in the past few weeks. Jones leads the NFL in rushing yards (411) since returning from injury in Week 15, and with A.J. Dillon (neck) listed as doubtful he’s sure to see 20 plus touches of the ball.

Jones is averaging 23.3 touches for 135.3 yards over his last three games. It is the first time that Jones has rushed for 100 yards in three straight games and the first Green Bay back to do so since Ahman Green in 2006. The past two 100-yard games came against Minnesota and Chicago, two defences that were top-five against the run this season. In two career games in Dallas, he has posted 134 yards and a touchdown and 182 yards and four touchdowns. When healthy, Jones is one of the NFL’s top all-purpose backs and he’ll be a danger in the run and passing game.

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The young receiving Packers corps has had a lot of injuries to deal with this year and virtually every one of the group has an injury concern of some sort or another and it’s hard to know which of them will be the fittest and who Love will be going to the most. Dontayvion Wicks and Jayden Reed are if healthy a dangerous duo for Love to target especially if Love takes some early shots downfield which would be one way of putting the Cowboys on the backfoot and is a tactic the Packers have used before. Reed finished fifth among rookie wide receivers in receiving yards (793), sixth in receptions (64), and second in receiving touchdowns (eight). Catching 6-of-7 targets for 61 yards and two touchdowns last Sunday, Wicks is second on the team in receiving yards (341) and touchdowns (three) since Week 11. The running game will have to be effective for the Packers but an early lead via some successful deep shots would keep the Cowboys a little off balance.

Everything points to this game being a fun one and whilst Dallas hold most of the aces they don’t hold them all and we have seen them disappoint in the playoffs before and this time all the pressure is on them. They are at home where they are 8-0 and over the season the only home game in which Dallas failed to score 30 points this season was Week 17 against the Lions – a game they won 20-19 with the help of some late game miscues by Detroit.

The Packers have the ability and the skill position players to go head-to-head with Packers on offence the question must be can they play good enough defence. Green Bay need to be aggressive early and to take some chances but they have the licence to play “fast and loose” in a game where we should see plenty of back-and-forth and although Dallas should win out in the end it may not be without a scare or two along the way.

ANDY RICHMOND


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