When the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers met in the 1967 NFL championship game, it was epic. They call it the Ice Bowl. When they met again 46 years later in the 2014 divisional playoffs, it was again epic. Even though Dez did not catch it.
Now two of the most storied franchises in football history meet again in the playoffs, but this time the top-seeded Cowboys are the favorite and the home team.
The circumstances are just beautiful, really: Surprise rookie sensation at quarterback for the Cowboys, starting in place of an expensive star and complemented by another rookie sensation at running back. Going up against the highest-rated passer in NFL history, in his prime, and as hot as he’s ever been.
Either Dallas’ storybook season comes to an abrupt end or the Cowboys move a game away from the Super Bowl despite being led by two rookies. Either Green Bay’s unbelievable hot streak ends suddenly or the Packers win an eighth straight game en route to Super Bowl LI.
It’s the matchup of the week, maybe the year.
Four things you need to know
1. A rookie quarterback has never led his team to the Super Bowl, so fourth-round rookie Cowboys signal caller Dak Prescott has his work cut out for him in a loaded NFC playoff field. Prescott did, however, post the highest single-season rookie passer rating in NFL history, and it might be time a rookie quarterback gets over that hurdle. It helps that he has arguably the best offensive line in football, and a running back (Ezekiel Elliott) who led the league in rushing by a 318-yard margin. It won’t be easy, because the Green Bay defense has registered 15 takeaways and 12 sacks in the last five weeks. That front seven, led by studs Nick Perry, Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels and Jake Ryan, has been superb, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett make up a hell of a duo at safety. The Packers remain vulnerable at cornerback due to injuries, but Prescott could have a tough time taking advantage of that.
2. It’s encouraging for the Cowboys that they beat the Packers 30-16 on the road, and they did that without top receiver Dez Bryant or much of a pass rush. Bryant is healthy now, and he started to heat up late in the season. And the pass rush has come around, too. In their last game that mattered, they sacked Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions four times while applying pressure on 34 percent of his dropbacks. And one week earlier, they did the same thing to Jameis Winston of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers while applying pressure on 38 percent of his dropbacks. The Cowboys have 14 sacks and consistently high pressure rates in their last four meaningful games, with freak-of-nature edge rusher David Irving emerging as a star-in-the-making. Rodgers is often a magician with his feet and has some solid pass protectors, but he was still sacked five times in the wild-card round and has been taken down 14 times in his last four games. He was sacked on nearly 40 percent of his dropbacks during the final four weeks of the year.
3. But the Packers have also changed a whole lot since that Week 6 meeting. For instance, quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw an interception that day. That’s something he’s done just three times on 469 pass attempts since. In the same time frame, he’s thrown 34 touchdown passes. Exclude the first month of the year and Rodgers was the best quarterback in football this season by a huge margin. And he’s getting better as the season progresses. Dude has a 129.3 passer rating in his last three games, and the Packers have become only the second team in NFL history to score 30-plus points and commit zero turnovers in five straight games (2010 Pats). During that stretch, they have a ridiculous 15 takeaways.
4. The only major concern for the Packers is they’re still facing a healthy, rested team on the road, and they’re neither healthy nor rested. They might again be without starting cornerback Quinten Rollins (concussion), and there’s a strong chance top receiver Jordy Nelson (ribs) will join him as a scratch. Rodgers didn’t miss a beat without Nelson in the second half Sunday against the New York Giants, with Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Jared Cook all stepping up. Still, Rodgers was at his worst last year without Nelson, and the two were hitting their stride together late this year. If he’s not able to go or is severely limited, it could hurt the Packers in a major way.
Prediction: With the rookies in Dallas and injuries to key Packers and Rodgers’ hot streak, there are a lot of tough-to-predict variables here. It’s hard to imagine this being a blowout for either team, but I’m still siding with the team that has the playoff pedigree and the seemingly unstoppable veteran quarterback. Packers 24, Cowboys 23