NFL Playoff Preview - Dallas (13-4) at Green Bay (12-4)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Queue the classic soundtracks and highlights from NFL Films with Sunday's NFC divisional round playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys.
Any number from Sam Spence would suffice for this anticipated matchup at Lambeau Field, where the storied Packers and Cowboys will meet in the playoffs for the first time since the 1967 NFL championship, which is more commonly dubbed as the "Ice Bowl."
Green Bay won that contest on the frozen tundra and is back in the playoffs for a sixth straight season. The Packers captured an NFC North title for a fourth straight season with a 12-4 record and went 8-0 at home. Packers quarterback and NFL MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers threw 25 touchdown passes to no interceptions at Lambeau Field.
Rodgers led the Packers to seven wins in the last eight weeks of the regular season and will go toe-to-toe with Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. Romo led Dallas to an 8-0 road ledger, throwing for 20 touchdowns to just two interceptions away from home.
Sunday's playoff game marks the first time a team that finished 8-0 at home during the regular season hosting a team that was 8-0 on the road during the regular season. Green Bay is well aware of Dallas' success outside Big D.
"This will be a big challenge. It's definitely something that jumps off the stat sheet when you see eight wins on the road," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said.
McCarthy has led the Packers to the playoffs in seven of his nine seasons at the helm.
Packers defensive back Micah Hyde isn't as impressed with the road success.
"We don't pay attention to them being 8-0 on the road because they haven't come here and beaten us here at Lambeau, but it's going to be a tough matchup and we understand that."
Nobody entered Lambeau Field and escaped with a win this season. Whether it was at Lambeau Field or elsewhere around the league, Rodgers played as well as any quarterback in the NFL. He threw for 4,381 yards with 38 TDs to just five INTs. There was a five-game stretch from Nov. 9 - Dec. 8 in which he recorded 16 touchdown strikes to zero interceptions.
Rodgers, who set an NFL single-season record with a 133.2 passer rating at home, is dealing with a calf injury and is not concerned about it.
"The rhythm is established, the play style is established," Rodgers said. "It's really working on the checks and kind of going through the plan. That's why you need to practice."
He has 477 straight pass attempts and 38 touchdown passes in a row without an interception at home, including the postseason.
Rodgers doesn't get enough credit for extending plays and has two 1,000-yard receivers in Jordy Nelson (1,519) and Randall Cobb (1,287). With his calf ailment, movement may be limited for Rodgers Sunday.
Running back Eddie Lacy ran for 1,139 yards this season and takes pressure off of the QB. Nelson had 13 touchdown catches, Cobb recorded 12 and Lacy combined for 13 (9 rushing, 4 receiving).
Meanwhile, the Cowboys edged the Detroit Lions, 24-20, last Sunday in a Wild Card matchup at AT&T Stadium. They got some favorable calls from the officials and erased an early 14-0 hole to move on to the divisional round for the first time since 2009.
"It's how we've responded all year long," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said afterward.
Romo threw for 292 yards with a pair of touchdown passes, none bigger than his eight-yard strike to Terrence Williams with 2:32 left in the game. Williams caught both of Romo's touchdown passes. Dez Bryant, who led the team with 88 catches for 1,320 yards and a franchise-best 16 TDs in the regular season, was limited to 48 yards and three catches against Detroit's tough defense.
Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray was at it again versus the Lions with 75 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. Murray is deserving of an MVP nod and led the NFL in rushing with a team-record 1,845 yards and 12 100-yard games. Murray was tied for the league lead in rushing scores with 13 and opened the season with eight straight 100-yard games for Dallas, which was second overall with 147.1 rushing yards per game.
Sunday's expected frigid conditions will either bring out the best in Murray, who is still dealing with a broken hand, or humble the tough runner. Either way, the Packers will be tested early on.
"The Dallas Cowboys' run game is excellent," McCarthy said. "Murray is a big- time back. He's definitely a difference-maker. He'll definitely be a focal point for us."
McCarthy's Packers defeated the Cowboys, 37-36, on Dec. 15, 2013, as Lacy scored the go-ahead touchdown on a one-yard plunge with 1:31 remaining in the fourth quarter. Lacy had 141 yards on 21 carries, while Murray ran for 134 yards and a score on 18 touches.
Romo threw for 358 yards to go along with two TDs and two INTs. Bryant caught 11 passes for 153 yards and a score. Rodgers did not play in that one because of a fractured collarbone.
Dallas and Green Bay will meet for the seventh time in the postseason, where the Cowboys have won the last four matchups. The Cowboys lead the all-time series by a 16-15 count, including the playoffs. The Packers are 9-4 versus the Cowboys at home, including postseason play.
Green Bay, which has won 13 NFL titles, is 16-5 all-time at home during the postseason, while Dallas has a 34-25 mark overall in the playoffs.
The Cowboys last reached the NFC title game in the 1995 season, when they defeated the Packers and topped Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XXX. Green Bay last played on Championship Sunday in the 2010 campaign, beating Chicago before outlasting Pittsburgh to win Super Bowl XLV.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The weather conditions should have zero effect on the outcome of this game, unless it's a blizzard. Still, players will be out on the field in short sleeves braving the cold, mostly the offensive and defensive linemen.
"It's probably going to be cold there. I have a pretty good feeling about that," Garrett said. "Whatever the numbers say, we have to deal with those elements. That's what happens when you go up to Green Bay this time of year."
Keeping warm is key and both offenses have the talent and speed to break a sweat. Both secondaries will be tested, none more than the Cowboys' defensive backfield. Cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick, and safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox have to slow down Nelson and Cobb.
The Cowboys did a nice job on Detroit star wideout Calvin Johnson, who had 85 yards on five catches and no touchdowns. Now they have their hands full with Nelson and Cobb. The duo became the first teammates in league lore to post at least 1,200 yards and 12 receiving TDs in the same season.
"This is a fun team to be on and the guys believe in each other, fight for each other and we stick together," Rodgers said. "Winning the division was important as was getting that home playoff game. We're 8-0 at home so we want to keep that streak alive. This is what we love to do. I love the competition. We're all passionate about this game."
The Cowboys have to pressure Rodgers and keep Lacy from setting the tempo. Rodgers can do that on his own and it will be lights out if he has the time to sit back and pick apart the defense (just ask Philadelphia). The Cowboys sacked Matthew Stafford three times last week. Jeremy Mincey had a sack and led the team with six.
Mincey and linebacker Rolando McClain are nursing head injuries, while linebacker Anthony Hitchens is dealing with an ankle injury. All three are expected to be ready for this crucial playoff matchup.
Green Bay is in the same shoes defensively facing a tough runner and a dynamic wide receiver. The Cowboys proved they can strike when Bryant is having trouble getting open, as Williams burned the Lions twice. Even tight end Jason Witten wasn't a factor.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has plenty of respect for Dallas.
"It starts with their running game. You've got to be able to play both (run and pass) against these guys. They're not a one-dimensional team," Capers said. "This is the best test we've had. This will be a challenge."
Packers linebacker Clay Matthews led the team with 11 sacks, safety Morgan Burnett had 129 tackles and cornerbacks Sam Shields and Casey Hayward each had three interceptions. Green Bay's 3-4 defensive scheme could struggle against Murray, and rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix must be ready for Bryant.
Veteran linebacker Julius Peppers plays on the outside and can still wreak havoc in the twilight of his career. He had seven sacks across 16 games.
Dallas owner Jerry Jones said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a rabid Cowboys fan, is a part of the team's mojo. Christie was in the owners' box in a huge win against Philadelphia and also last week versus Detroit.
"He's part of our mojo," Jones said on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas. "I want him there all the way. I'll tell you, if he's got enough mojo to pull this thing out, he ought to be looked at as President of the United States."
The Cowboys have been perfect on the road, but the Packers are unbeaten at home. A black cat, lucky rabbit's foot, knocking on wood, crossing fingers or perhaps a wishbone can't save the Cowboys now, and neither will the presence of Christie, who has drawn the ire of the Tri-State area for his rooting interest.
May the best team win ... and the Packers will.
"It's great to be playing at home, we prefer to play here," McCarthy said "This is playoff football and everything changes. But this is definitely where we want to play."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 31, Cowboys 23
01/11 11:50:02 ET