Keidel: Can Packers Overcome Injuries Against Cowboys?

By Jason Keidel

The Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers have felt historically fused for about 60 years. And, oddly enough, it started in New York City.

For those who don’t obsess over NFL history, Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi were once assistant coaches for the New York Giants. And, through some act of epic ineptitude, the Giants hired neither as its head coach.

Landry became the Cowboys’ patriarch, while Lombardi became a football deity in Green Bay. Both clubs flourished while the Giants sunk into a 20-year funk. Ever since then, the Cowboys and Packers have played some of the most iconic games in NFL history, from the Ice Bowl to the spellbinding playoff game in Dallas last January, which the Packers won on a last-second field goal.

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The Cowboys and Packers have given the NFL a sprawling reel of essential highlights and a roll call of Hall-of-Famers. And so it’s no wonder that their meeting in Dallas on Sunday is all but the stand-alone game of the week.

The Packers (3-1) are pretty much where we expect them, around the rungs of contention, sure to either win the NFC North or at least make the playoffs as a wild card. The Cowboys (2-2) shocked the football world last year, with their breakout rookie tandem of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, going 13-3 in 2016. And though they were expected to be much the same this year, it hasn’t stuck to script just yet.

With all due respect to Clay Mathews, Jordy Nelson, and the few stars who freckle the roster, the Packers are a bunch of guys and Aaron Rodgers. Injuries have so plagued the Packers that they have lost their top five offensive tackles, have a revolving door at running back and, more than ever, are relying on Rodgers’ singular wizardry to win them games.

And it’s becoming more common to echo what I’ve asserted for a few years — Tom Brady, great as he is and clearly the most accomplished QB of all time, is not the best QB of all time. That would be Aaron Rodgers. Even Shannon Sharpe recently joined the growing chorus, declaring that No. 12 is the best thrower of the football who has ever lived.

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But since we assign championships — the ultimate team accomplishment — to individual players, we see Super Bowls as the only metric for QB merit. Give Aaron Rodgers the Cowboys’ offensive line and Zeke Elliott, and watch what happens.

If the Cowboys had the identical offensive line, of course. They still have a plethora of Pro Bowl linemen. But the injury, free agent, and retirement bugs have wide wings, from Wisconsin and Texas. The Cowboys aren’t quite the same dominant club without two linemen — Ronald Leary, who signed with the Denver Broncos, and Doug Free, who retired.

Indeed, the Cowboys were the emblem of offensive balance last year. Though they led the league in rushing last year, it was flawlessly blended, running the ball on 48.7 percent of their snaps. They were sixth in yards per drive in 2016, as well as fourth in points per drive, But in 2017, they are 15th and 17th, respectively. Considering they have the same skill-position players, the answers or explanations can directly be derived from the line.

And it speaks to a staggering difference in scoring differential. Last year, the Cowboys outscored their opponents by 115 points, third-best in the NFL, behind only the two Super Bowl clubs (Patriots, Falcons). This year, they’ve scored 94 points while surrendering 97.

On defense, the Cowboys rank 20th against the pass — surrendering 231.6 yards per game — which doesn’t bode well with Mr. Rodgers strolling into town, injuries or not. So Dallas must rely on their two strengths. First, feed the ball incessantly to Elliott, and then get to Rodgers. Despite their poor pass defense, Dallas does have 12 sacks, tied for third most in the NFL.

And they should be fueled by two emotional factors. They are at home, before their frothing fans. And considering their loss at home to the Packers in the playoffs last year, they should play with a serious sense of payback.

Defense travels well, and the Packers are fifth against the pass (188.5 yards per game), though only 14th against the run (111.1 yards per game). So the Cowboys should find some space on the ground. What also travels well is having a quarterback with the best arm, feet, and awareness on the planet. If this game feels like it’s framed as the Cowboys vs Aaron Rodgers, it’s not exactly fair or right. But it’s not unreasonable. Feels like last year, when Aaron Rodgers pretty much beat the ‘Boys by himself, with a few boots from Mason Crosby.

Either way, while it’s not the only game this week, it is the game of the week.

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

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