The postseason is here. The Dallas Cowboys face the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium in the wild card round on Sunday. Hopes are high after Dallas, with some strong play much of the season, earned the number two seed in the NFC. Well, and with a little luck, mostly involving a late season collapse by the Philadelphia Eagles.
You are to be forgiven if the aspect of facing Green Bay in the playoffs causes a bit of PTSD. Most of us remember all too well how they bounced the Cowboys from the playoffs twice. However, those defeats were in 2014 and 2016. That is a generation ago in NFL terms and much has changed. No longer does Dallas have to worry about Aaron Rodgers making nearly impossible throws to take the game, and the rules have been tweaked to hopefully avoid another event like the Dez Bryant catch that was ruled incomplete. These are mostly completely different rosters and the head coach for the Packers in those games now is calling plays for the Cowboys. One of the few constants from the 2016 game is Dak Prescott, and his stellar 2023 campaign is a strong argument for him being better than he was when they lost by a field goal.
So put those ugly memories aside. Let’s look at the teams this year and see how they stack up. Spoiler alert: Almost every number you can consider favors the home team this year. (All stats taken from ESPN.)
We’ll start with one of the best predictors for success, points differential. Dallas leads the NFC with +194, just one better than the number one seed San Francisco 49ers. As you might expect for the number seven seed, Green Bay has a much narrower margin at +33. That clearly favors the Cowboys. (For no particular reason, we’ll note that the Eagles were +5.)
Breaking it down, Dallas averaged a league-best 29.9 points per game vs 22.5. To get there, the Cowboys relied heavily on throwing the ball. They averaged 258.6 yards per game passing, third best overall. Green Bay was twelfth in the NFL with 233.4. We have worried all season about the running game for Dallas, but a bit surprisingly perhaps this is nearly a wash, as the Cowboys averaged exactly 0.8 yards per game more than the Packers. Given how Mike McCarthy has leaned more into the passing attack in the latter stages of the season, this bodes well.
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It is worth a moment to look at some key positions in evaluating these numbers. Prescott has inserted himself into the MVP beauty contest with his performance. He has been outstanding for most of the year, with just a few blemishes. He is third in yards per game and leads the league in the most important category, touchdowns. He has thrown for 36 while only getting picked off nine times. Jordan Love has not been a slouch. He is seventh in yards, a pretty impressive second in TDs, and has limited his own interceptions to eleven. Still, the edge here goes to Dallas again.
Of course, the quarterback can’t complete passes without receivers, and in that aspect, the two teams are very different. CeeDee Lamb has become one of the elite wideouts in the NFL, second only to Tyreek Hill of the Miami Dolphins in yards with 102.9 yards per game and is third in the league with twelve touchdown catches. He is just getting stronger there, as he has now caught a score in nine consecutive games to finish out the regular season.
Green Bay has had much more of a receiver by committee approach, as their leading pass catcher Jayden Reed is way down the list at 43 with almost 1,000 fewer yards, and just three spots ahead of Prescott’s number two target, TE Jake Ferguson. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the Packers, though, as it presents a very different puzzle for Dan Quinn to try and solve without any clear receiver to make the emphasis.
At running back, it is a similar story. Tony Pollard is the leading back for Dallas, with just over 1,000 yards, while Rico Dowdle has been strictly in a relief role and contributed 361. Green Bay’s two leading runners, Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon. split things much more evenly, with 656 and 613 respectively. However, sometimes you have to look for context beyond the raw numbers, and there may be a bit of a flaw in the Packers’ running game.
True: The Packers are damn good at running the ball and have a dynamic tandem at RB.
Also true: That’s *typically* only the case between the 20s.
Red zone runs-
Yards per carry: 3.2
Rushing yards over expectation: -58
Rush EPA: -9.0
Success %: 33.8
— Patrik [No C] Walker (@VoiceOfTheStar) January 10, 2024
On defense, the Cowboys yielded 18.5 points per game to the Packers’ 20.6. Dallas was fifth best in total yards allowed, but Green Bay was down at 17. Run defense is the weaker suit for both teams, but in both pass and rush defense the Cowboys again have the advantage. In particular, the matchup between the pass rushes is one to watch. Both teams get good pressure on quarterbacks, but if you take time to throw into account, Prescott is better at getting the ball away than Love, and he tends to do so just a tick earlier than the Packers’ pass rush gets home, while Love is just a bit slower than the time Dallas’ Micah Parsons and company tend to get home. However, pressure percentage is one place where Green Bay has an advantage, with a 24.3% pressure rate versus a somewhat surprisingly low 21.3% for the Cowboys. This is a very interesting matchup to watch to see if Prescott’s experience will be the difference or not, as he is excellent at avoiding pressure and creating on the move.
Another big edge Dallas holds is in turnovers. They are tied for the fifth best turnover margin with +10, while the Packers are dead even for the year. On the surface, that looks like a big advantage, but takeaways are also one of the hardest things to replicate game to game. There is too much chance involved in them. We can hope this goes the Cowboys’ way, but it can’t be relied on.
There is another number that also seems very important, although it is harder than anything else to explain. The Cowboys are 8-0 when playing at home this season, and the stretch of victories at AT&T Stadium is up to 16. This is why so many feel getting the number two seed was so important for their playoff chances.
This seems like something that may be significant, but you have to be careful how much importance you give it. There is a benefit from not having to deal with an airline flight and hotel rooms, and most NFL teams do better at home, although it is not always the case. The Minnesota Vikings were noticeably more successful in away games this year, and it was not that long ago that Dallas also seemed to win more games as the visiting team. That has clearly changed, with them going 4-5 this year on the road. It is not unreasonable to think this is a psychological factor. Those are always hard to evaluate, but for whatever reason the Cowboys just find ways to win at home – usually by a big margin – while they struggle a lot when they aren’t playing in Arlington.
Just add that to the plus column for Dallas, and that has a lot more entries than that of Green Bay. It may make many feel really confident about this game. Others are in the glass-half-empty mindset and are seeing the words “TRAP GAME” in big, flashing letters. Since we mentioned the history with the Packers, we can also point to a game where they had to call on backup quarterback Matt Flynn against the Cowboys, at AT&T Stadium. If you don’t remember that one, I suggest you look it up. I’ll just say that game is the only reason anyone remembers Flynn at all.
Dallas either has a statistical advantage over Green Bay or is basically in a dead heat in almost every facet of this game, and playing at home. Still, it ultimately comes down to how the players perform. The Cowboys still have struggled against good teams all year. That is the one big concern, with those difficulties weighed against having the home field advantage. There seems no doubt this should be a win for Dallas, but that all depends on them taking care of business and playing like they are deserving of the two seed this year.