Here’s a preview of what to watch for when the Green Bay Packers visit the Dallas Cowboys for a 3:40 p.m. kickoff Sunday.
1. Overcoming the likely loss of Jordy Nelson
While Mike McCarthy left open the possibility of Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson being able to play in the Packers’ divisional-round showdown with the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, the news that Nelson is dealing with multiple broken ribs makes that seem pretty unlikely.
Much was made of Nelson’s absence from the offense last year when he went down with an ACL injury in the preseason, and for good reason. The Packers simply never truly adjusted to losing their No. 1 target and struggled to have other receivers step up in his absence.
This time, however, the Packers seem much better equipped to handle the loss of a premiere playmaker. The emergence of tight end Jared Cook and undrafted rookie receiver Geronimo Allison, along with a breakout year from Davante Adams, have the Packers' offense looking much more able to keep things moving.
Throw in a rejuvenated Randall Cobb, who looked positively reborn against the New York Giants after missing two games with an ankle injury, and the Packers' offense still should provide the Cowboys' defense with plenty of problems.
2. Stopping, or at least slowing down, Ezekiel Elliott
When these two teams met back in October, it was billed as a heavyweight fight, with the Cowboys’ No. 1 rushing offense facing off against what was then the Packers’ No. 1 rushing defense.
The much-ballyhooed showdown turned out to be a pretty one-sided affair, with Cowboys rookie phenom Ezekiel Elliott shredding the Packers’ defense to the tune of 28 carries for 157 yards. The Packers looked overmatched as the game went on and the contest never seriously looked to be in doubt for Dallas.
Both teams have evolved since that meeting and the Cowboys will be coming into Sunday’s game with a week of rest. They undoubtedly will follow the formula that secured the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs: run the ball, keep the opposing offense (and in this case, Aaron Rodgers) off the field and wear down their opponent.
The Packers will need to commit bodies to truly have a chance at stopping the Cowboys’ ground game, which will leave their secondary vulnerable. But slowing down Elliott has to be priority No. 1 for Dom Capers and company.
3. Aaron Rodgers and the offense need a fast start
One of the things the Packers had done so well during their winning streak was build early leads that allowed the defense to pin its ears back and get after the quarterback and take the threat of the opposing running game away.
However, the last two weeks have seen Rodgers and the offense sputter out of the gate. McCarthy spoke after the Giants game and again on Monday about needing to do a better job of getting Rodgers into a rhythm early.
McCarthy tried pushing the ball downfield early in Detroit and again against the Giants, and both times his quarterback was hesitant to pull the trigger on some throws and sailed some others that he normally makes in his sleep. Look for McCarthy to start the game in Dallas with the quick passing game that enables Rodgers to get into rhythm. The Packers can not afford another slow start in Dallas.