The Cowboys are back in the playoff for the first time since 2014 -- before #DezCaughtIt was a thing.
Dallas rolled through the 2016 regular season, plowing over opponents with a rookie battery of Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott to an NFC-best 13-3 season. One of those convincing wins came Week 6 versus the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
Zeke ran all over the Packers defense in the first meeting. The All-Pro running back blasted Green Bay for 157 yards on 28 carries, the most rushing yards Dom Capers' defense gave up this season. At the time the Packers were ranked No. 1 in rush yards allowed, thanks mostly to facing inept rushing attacks. Elliott undressed the Packers, darting through open holes and barreling past arm tackles.
Packers defenders admitted this week they lacked gap discipline in Week 6 and believe they will have a better shot of slowing Zeke in Round 2. That's easier said than done. Elliott led the NFL with 1,631 rushing yards, compiling seven games of more than 100 yards on the ground. The Cowboys' earth-moving offensive line opens holes, but Elliott's vision and power allow him to turn a five-yard gain into a 15-yard one in the blink of an eye.
Not to be outdone by his rookie counterpart, Prescott has been magical this season, earning 11 games with a 100-plus passer rating (second most in the NFL). One of those was in that Week 6 matchup against Green Bay. Prescott displayed his poise in a harsh environment, ripping off a three-touchdown game, including a mesmerizing 5-play, 97-yard drive in 33 seconds to close the half with a dagger TD that put Dallas up double digits. That sequence will be highlighted in every Cowboys year-end-review piece this season.
While Dallas boasts the head-to-head win, no one can rival Aaron Rodgers' play down the stretch.
During the Packers seven-game winning streak, Rodgers has a 19-0 TD-INT ratio, completing 69.6 percent of his passes for 289.9 yards per game, a 121.7 QB rating and hasn't thrown an interception in his last 285 pass attempts. Holy Moses, he's been on fire.
Rodgers' sublime play has motored the Packers. Green Bay has scored 30-plus points in five straight games -- including last week's dissection of a heretofore stout Giants defense -- the longest streak by the Packers in the Aaron Rodgers era. The last time Green Bay scored 30-plus points in five straight contests was 2003. The last time the Packers made it six straight games with 30-plus points was 1996. What happened that year? Brett Favre led Green Bay to the Super Bowl XXXI win.
Much of the quarterback's problems over the early stretch of the season were a lack of trust in his receivers, causing slight delays in anticipation, leading to throws that were a tick behind. While Nelson's absence takes away a big chunk of the ad-lib plays, it's not like the pantry is empty for Rodgers. Randall Cobb proved last week he can still be a factor from the slot when healthy -- he had seven catches and a TD in Week 6. Davante Adams earned the quarterback's trust and can be a dynamic weapon on the outside.
We should also note that Jared Cook didn't play in Week 6. The previously maligned tight end is Rodgers' most consistent deep threat with Jordy out. It's no coincidence the Packers are 9-2 and a more diverse, dynamic offense with Cook on the field.
Packers defensive front: The Green Bay secondary has been picked apart this season (31st in yards allowed), but Sunday the pressure is on the front seven to slow Elliott. The Packers finished the season ranked eighth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed, giving up 94.7 yards per game, but had the luxury of facing anemic run offenses like Detroit and Minnesota twice. Going up against the best offensive line in the NFL, Dom Capers needs his D-line to plug holes and his linebackers to make sure tackles. Elliott's vision seeing the hole and speed beyond the first level allows him to blast off big runs. Green Bay's front seven can't allow a 3-yard gain to become a 30-yard gallop with undisciplined play.
Dak Prescott, Cowboys quarterback: (Sidebar with Cowboys fans -- before you go haywire on me: Just because a player is under pressure doesn't mean we think he'll succumb to said pressure.) Prescott has taken on all challenges in Dallas this season and flicked them away like a bull bats a gnat off his backside. The 23-year-old quarterback set Cowboys rookie records this season for QB wins (13), pass yards (3,667), pass TD (23) and passer rating (104.9). The playoffs represent the next monumental hurdle. Dak said this week it's "been a while since I've truly been just nervous," displaying the steely mettle that allowed him to navigate his rookie campaign both on and off the field. If Aaron Rodgers is lighting up the scoreboard early, it will fall to Prescott to answer on the biggest stage of his life so far.
Matchups to watch
Cowboys defensive line vs. Packers o-line: Rod Marinelli has proven one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL, taking a Cowboys defense with little game-changing talent in the front seven and making them formidable. Sunday's task against a very good Packers offensive line is a different beast. Having DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford healthy will be huge tracking a white-hot Aaron Rodgers. It's a catch-22 when rushing Rodgers. Charge too hard and 12 will slither out of the pocket, destroying your defensive continuity. Contain too softly and he'll sit in the pocket with the patience of a Buddhist monk waiting for a receiver to come open. The Cowboys allowed a 94.1 passer rating this season (24th in NFL). Dallas must push the pocket and discombobulate Rodgers in some fashion so he can't pick apart Marinelli's back end.
Packers secondary vs. Dez Bryant: Finally, we get back to Dez. The Cowboys proved they could win without the touchdown machine, as they did against the Packers in Week 6. His presence in the playoff tilt, however, brings a bigger bonus, especially in the red zone. The Packers put all their effort in stopping Odell Beckham last week, but won't be able to do likewise against Bryant with Zeke's running ability. That should give Dez plenty of one-on-one opportunities on the outside against Green Bay corners that have struggled all season. Prescott's picked on LaDarius Gunter in the last meeting, earning big plays against the Packers' corner. Look for the Cowboys to exploit that matchup with Bryant this time around.
The Packers must come out of the gate swinging to put pressure on the Cowboys rookie. Prescott has thrown 16 passes all season when trailing by nine or more points, per CBS. As he has all season, Dak won't wilt under the pressure as the Cowboys go blow for blow with Rodgers. He'll exploit an overmatched Green Bay defense in a shootout. The Packers quarterback will keep the game close, but Dallas breadth of dominance will win out. The Cowboys are one of two teams that rank in the top 5 in scoring offense (26.3 PPG) and top 5 in scoring defense (19.1 PPG) this season (the other such team: Patriots). One man -- even one as great as Rodgers -- won't be able to overcome the better team.