Opponent preview: Cowboys expect to contend in 2015

Ryan Wood
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The catch that wasn’t a catch — but sure looked like a catch, depending on perspective — won’t be forgotten when the Dallas Cowboys arrive in December.

The Green Bay Packers will host the Cowboys on Dec. 13 at Lambeau Field for the first time since last season’s NFC divisional playoff game. The one the Packers won after Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant appeared to make a spectacular, fourth-down catch over cornerback Sam Shields, only to have it ruled incomplete after Bryant lost control of the football stretching for the goal line.

The 2015 rematch won’t have the same stakes, but it could be one of the more important games of the season. The Packers and Cowboys are expected to be two chief contenders in the NFC. Playoff implications could be on the line when they meet in December.

Three things to know about the Cowboys

» How ’bout an encore: After three straight 8-8 seasons to start Jason Garrett’s tenure, the Cowboys finally emerged as something other than mediocre last season. Their 12-4 record and division title were bolstered by a balanced offense reminiscent of the 1990s “triplets,” and an improved defense. The question is whether Dallas can prove 2014 wasn’t a fluke. There are plenty of factors riding on the Cowboys’ continued success, but it all falls back on Garrett. They expect championships in Jerry’s World, and not just divisional. If Garrett can’t deliver a Super Bowl, owner Jerry Jones will find someone he believes will.

» No Murray, no problem: Great offensive lines make great running backs. It’s not the other way around. So while two-time Pro Bowler DeMarco Murray’s departure in free agency — and the loss of his single-season franchise-record 1,845 rushing yards — could dent the Cowboys’ offense, it shouldn’t wreck their chance to contend. For one, the Cowboys could have done worse than Darren McFadden as Murray’s replacement. More importantly, they have the NFL’s best offensive line, complete with three All-Pro selections last season. The Cowboys’ O-line should open running lanes no matter who’s carrying the football.

» Greg and Gregory: Even with improvement last season, the Cowboys’ defense needed all the talent it could get. They added two potentially big-time players this offseason in defensive end Greg Hardy and outside linebacker Randy Gregory. Both come with baggage. For Hardy, it’s a four-game suspension — which was reduced from 10 games — for his role in a domestic violence incident last year. Gregory failed a drug test at the NFL combine in February, resulting in his slip to the draft’s second round. Hardy and Gregory represent two significant risks, but if they prevent repeating their off-field problems, both could be major upgrades.

Packers schedule glimpse

Week before: at Detroit, Dec. 3.

Week after: at Oakland, Dec. 20.

On the horizon: at Arizona, Dec. 27.

— and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.

Dallas Cowboys

Coach: Jason Garrett (41-31, sixth season).

2014 record: 12-4, 1st NFC East.

Scoring offense: 29.2 points per game (5th in NFL).

Total offense: 383.6 yards per game (7th).

Scoring defense: 22 points allowed per game (15th).

Total defense: 355.1 yards allowed per game (19th).

Series: Packers lead 13-12 (3-4 postseason).

Last meeting: There’s no shortage of history between the Packers and Cowboys, and last year’s meeting only added to it. The Packers beat the Cowboys 26-21 at Lambeau Field on Jan. 11, advancing to the NFC title game. It was the first time the Packers hosted the Cowboys in a playoff game since the famed 1967 Ice Bowl. The Packers trailed 21-20 entering the fourth quarter, but Aaron Rodgers threaded a pass through a narrow opening to rookie tight end Richard Rodgers for a 13-yard touchdown with 9 minutes left. An injured left calf limited Rodgers’ mobility, relegating him to a pocket passer, but the MVP completed 24 of 35 passes for 316 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

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