It will be just like old times when the Green Bay Packers take on the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC wild-card round at AT&T Stadium.

The matchup will be their ninth in the NFL playoffs, tying for the most between any pair of teams in league history. 

Will the No. 7-seeded Packers – whose 9-8 record tied for the worst among playoff qualifiers with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – be able to upset the No. 2-seeded, NFC East champion Cowboys (12-5) and end their 16-game home winning streak?

Based on fun facts and advanced metrics, here’s what to look out for in the NFL wild-card showdown in Arlington, Texas, (on FOX):

The Rivalry

Fittingly, the eight playoff meetings between the Packers and Cowboys are split at four wins apiece. The two most-recent meetings were instant classics.

In the 2014 NFC divisional round, the Cowboys had an opportunity to earn their first conference championship appearance since 1995, but they fell 26-21 at Lambeau Field. This was the infamous “Dez caught it!” game, as what was originally ruled as wide receiver Dez Bryant making a late-game, fourth-and-2 conversion near the Packers’ end zone was overturned as an incompletion. It ended up being the final playoff snap of quarterback Tony Romo’s career.

Two years later, the rivals met on the same stage, this time in Dallas, with the Cowboys as the No. 1 seed in the rookie season of QB Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. But again, the Packers pulled out the win thanks to Aaron Rodgers throwing for a third-and-20 completion in the final seconds as Green Bay took home a 34-31 win.

Even incorporating the regular season, this series has tilted in Green Bay’s favor recently with nine wins in the last 10 matchups. However, it hasn’t been quite as lopsided as the results would suggest – five of the Packers’ seven wins since 2013 have come by five or fewer points. 

One of the tight games occurred late in the 2013 regular season, and it’s the most-recent Packers-Cowboys game that didn’t see Rodgers make the start. The Pack overcame a 26-3 halftime deficit as Matt Flynn threw four second-half touchdowns for a 37-36 win on the road

In a 2022 regular-season matchup, head coach Matt LeFleur’s team trailed 28-14 entering the fourth quarter, but the Packers tied the game with two Rodgers-to-Christian Watson scores before winning it in OT.

Speaking of the 2022 game, there’s no discussing the Cowboys-Packers history without touching on the head coach who has been on both sides: Mike McCarthy.

McCarthy, of course, led the Packers from 2006-18, collecting 125 wins to rank second in franchise history behind Hall of Famer (and Packers stadium namesake) Curly Lambeau. He’s in his fourth season with Dallas, and the 2022 contest was his only one against the Packers, so Sunday’s matchup will be his first playoff contest against his old team.

McCarthy downplayed the significance of that aspect of this playoff game, but it nevertheless adds another interesting storyline to a playoff rivalry full of them.

A Whole Lot of Love

As it stands now, there have been two Packers quarterbacks to beat the Cowboys in the playoffs: Bart Starr and Rodgers.

Is first-year starter Jordan Love capable of being the third? If he continues to play the way he has in the second half of the season, there’s a shot.

This season, the Packers have gone wherever Love has gone. Thanks to a stellar conclusion to the regular season, their destination was the playoffs.

After starting 3-6, the Packers surged to a 6-2 finish, including impressive wins over the Detroit Lions and Kansas City Chiefs, who both made the playoffs. The Pack averaged 25.5 points during that closing eight-game stretch (compared to 19.9 before that).

Over his last eight games, Love has a 70.3 completion percentage while passing for 18 touchdowns against one interception, with a stellar 112.7 passer rating. During the first nine games, those numbers were in a different (and worse) stratosphere: 58.7 completion%, 14 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions, and an 80.5 passer rating.

NFL Leaders in Passer Rating Since Week 11

  1. Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers (117.0)
  2. Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers (112.7)
  3. Derek Carr, New Orleans Saints (110.1)
  4. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens (109.8)
  5. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (106.7)
  6. Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams (104.5)
  7. C.J. Stroud, Houston Texans (100.7)
  8. Jake Browning, Cincinnati Bengals (98.8)
  9. Jared Goff, Detroit Lions (96.6)
  10. Geno Smith, Seattle Seahawks (96.6)

What has changed? The steep jump in completion percentage suggests Love is simply throwing the ball more accurately, but it isn’t that simple. In fact, his well-thrown percentage since Week 10 (76.8%) is actually lower than it was from Weeks 1-9 (81.1%). This has come despite a slight decrease in his average depth of target (8.4 yards since Week 10 and 9.2 before that).

If it hasn’t been a sudden increase in arm talent that’s turned Love’s season around, what’s the secret? Just about everything else.

Twenty-three quarterbacks had at least 100 “true” pass attempts (no spikes/throwaways) in both the spans of Weeks 1-9 and Weeks 10-18. Among them, Love handily had the largest jump in “true” completion percentage, surging from 61.0% (lowest among those 23 from Weeks 1-9) to 70.9%. 

The largest ingredient to the turnaround has simply been seeing the field better. From Weeks 1-9, Love targeted an open receiver on only 72.1% of his true attempts – the lowest rate among the aforementioned 23 QBs. Remarkably, he has jumped to 83.3% since Week 10, which represents by far the highest leap between the first and second halves of the season.

Yet another bonus factor for Love is that he’s received slightly more help. From Weeks 1-9, 4.7% of his catchable passes resulted in drops. Since then, it’s nearly been halved to 2.4%.

If Watson, who had three TD catches in the Packers’ 2022 win over Dallas, returns to action – which is still up in the air – that would provide even more ammo for Love.

However, a good sign for the Cowboys is that, even without cornerback Trevon Diggs (ACL surgery), their pass defense has been among the NFL’s better groups. Dallas ranked in the top 12 in both yards per play (6.0) and success rate (39.1%) allowed on drop backs during the regular season. (“Success” is defined as getting 50% of the needed yardage on first down, 70% on second down, or all of it on third or fourth down.) 

Furthermore, the strong pass rush could force Love into making some of the poor decisions that were characteristic of his first half of the season. Dallas ranked eighth in the NFL with a 39.1% QB pressure rate, with the dominant Micah Parsons and his career-high 14.0 sacks leading the way.

Is This Dak’s Year?

The playoff jokes about Prescott and the Cowboys are a broken record by now. But the eighth-year veteran’s breakout performance this season – he will likely gain NFL MVP votes – suggests this postseason could finally be different for the franchise.

Partially due to Elliott’s departure and an organization-wide effort to build an elite analytics staff this past offseason, Prescott has put up some career numbers in a pass-heavy attack. 

He led the NFL in completions (410) and passing touchdowns (36), while also securing career highs in completion percentage (69.5%) and passer rating (105.9). Brock Purdy is the only qualified QB to rank ahead of Prescott in either traditional passer rating and in our total EVE (efficiency vs. expected) metric, he ranked fifth in the NFL.

Rather than having one specific trait that’s propelled him to this career season, Prescott’s improvement has instead been driven by a little bit of everything.

He is one of three qualified QBs who finished the regular season with at least 8.0 air yards per attempt and a well-thrown percentage of at least 80%, while also throwing a pickable pass on fewer than 3.0% of his attempts (Derek Carr and Jalen Hurts were the others). 

Prescott’s top target has been CeeDee Lamb, which emphatically put doubts to bed about his ability to be a No. 1 receiver. In his fourth season, he led the NFL with 135 receptions, ranked second with 1,749 receiving yards, and was third with 12 TD catches.

Unsurprisingly, the analytics also support Lamb’s prowess, as his league-leading 122 “burns” (a metric for when a receiver “wins” his matchup against a defender on a play that he is targeted), and impressive 0.938 catch rating (a metric that indicates how well a receiver successfully catches throws that are considered catchable) attest below.

A notable wrinkle to the Packers’ approach to defending Lamb is the health of cornerback Jaire Alexander, who, beyond being an elite on-camera personality, is also a two-time Pro Bowler.

Due to various injuries, Alexander only played in seven games during the regular season. Though not quite in top form, he was still arguably the team’s top corner when healthy, as his 50.0% burn-allowed rate was the lowest among four Packers corners with at least 100 coverage snaps.

Reports indicate Alexander should play on Sunday – good news for the Packers. But just because Alexander is on the field doesn’t mean Lamb will be slowed down. The cornerback had issues with Lamb during last year’s matchup, when the Cowboy collected 11 receptions for 150 yards and two touchdowns on 15 targets. 

For the Packers to have a chance of better containing Lamb, Alexander will need to be at his best.

Which Run Game is Best-Suited For Success?

While Lamb and Watson put up big numbers as receivers in last year’s OT thriller, a pertinent theme throughout the game was successful run games. 

Both teams rushed for more than 150 yards and 5.0 yards per carry. Tony Pollard and Aaron Jones both finished with more than 100 rushing yards and a touchdown. Green Bay’s run game with Jones and AJ Dillon (13 carries, 65 yards) was so strong that Rodgers only needed to throw 20 passes despite the team trailing for most of the second half.

This season, the teams have been eerily evenly matched in the run game. Both have a 36.0% success rate on designed runs and are averaging 4.2 yards per carry on such plays. They ranked in the top 15 during the regular season.

However, on defense, it’s a different story. The Cowboys have allowed a 40.6% success rate on the ground, the second-worst rate in the league behind the Bengals’ 40.7% . The Packers aren’t elite in this regard either, as their 36.8% success rate allowed on designed runs is the 14th-highest in the league. 

Further exacerbating this potential issue for Dallas is that Jones appears to be back to form. The seventh-year running back has been in and out of the lineup with hamstring issues, and he did not reach 75 rushing yards or 5.0 yards per carry in any of his eight games from Weeks 1-15. 

In the final three weeks, though, Jones rushed for at least 110 yards and 5.0 yards per carry in each outing for a combined 358 yards and 5.7 average.

If Jones’ production is anything resembling what he put up in last year’s win against Dallas, the Packers just might have a shot at the major upset.

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