3 things to watch Sunday vs. Dallas
Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is a firm believer the outcome of a game can be correlated to which team wins the differential in passer rating. Coincidentally, the Packers (plus-27.9) and Cowboys (plus-22.4) finished the regular season first and second in differential.
Aaron Rodgers (112.2) finished only one point behind Tony Romo (113.2), but the jury is still out on how mobile the Packers' quarterback will be after straining his left calf muscle in each of the last two games. Rodgers, who is listed as probable, returned to practice Thursday.
The Cowboys aren't known for their pressure packages, but the injury could entice defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to amplify his pass rush. Green Bay's coaching staff reiterated throughout the week that adjustments can be made to the game plan if needed.
Romo has an 89.9 passer rating in five previous meetings with the Packers. The statistics reflect how efficient he's been this season, but the Packers feel they'll have opportunities for turnovers.
There's a lot of similarities between the teams, including their defenses' ability to turn the ball over. For that reason, winning the situational battles will be of the utmost importance. A win or loss could come down to whichever quarterback is able to hold onto the ball and get his respective No. 1 receiver going.
Dez Bryant (16) and Jordy Nelson (13) finished first and second in touchdown catches this season.
"When you look at it, the final four teams over those years normally had the highest differential," said Capers of the differential in passer rating. "It just tells you about their team. They have a good football team. There's a reason why they're here and we're playing."
WINNING THE TRENCHES
The Packers and Cowboys constructed their offensive lines in much different ways, but both approaches have proven effective.
Dallas has three first-round picks — left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin — but balances its line with undrafted free agents like left guard Ronald Leary and right tackle Jeremy Parnell, who likely will start Sunday with Manitowoc's Doug Free doubtful with an ankle injury. The line cleared the way for the NFL's rushing champion, DeMarco Murray, during an 1,845-yard season.
The Packers utilized one first-rounder, right tackle Bryan Bulaga, and four mid-round draft choices to keep Rodgers clean this season. His 1.75 sacks per game were the lowest of his seven years as a starting quarterback and slightly better than Romo's 1.93. The same line paved the way for running back Eddie Lacy (1,139 rushing yards, nine touchdowns) to finish seventh in NFL rushing yards.
Packers right guard T.J. Lang said it's not a competition, but Green Bay understands how important it will be to set the tone early like it did in the regular-season finale against Detroit. Capers' biggest decision will be where to line up Clay Matthews. Smith, Matthews' former USC teammate, is considered the best in the NFL at his position.
Whoever draws that assignment will have his work cut out for him. In the run game, Murray has been held under 100 yards on only five occasions this year. The good news for Green Bay is three of those performances came in the last four weeks.
The Packers struggled to contain Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant in last year's 37-36 win at Cowboys Stadium, catching 11 passes for a season-high 153 yards and a touchdown. However, late interceptions from Tramon Williams and Sam Shields provided the spark Green Bay needed to pull of the comeback.
The recent play of the cornerbacks has given Capers the freedom to mix his coverages without having to give them extra help over the top despite facing the likes of Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and Sammy Watkins over the past month. Bryant has distinguished himself with his third consecutive 1,200-yard season.
His combination of athleticism and strength has made him one of the league's most feared receivers before and after the catch. Still, Green Bay is confident in either Williams or Shields to battle him. If needed, the improved back end of Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is also available to help over the top.
Reserve Davon House could provide a change-of-pace. He's probable after missing the last three games with a shoulder injury. The Packers have identified Williams and Shields as their top two corners for a reason. It's game like this they'll be leaning on them to silence a stud receiver like Bryant.
"Those two men have given us the ability to do whatever we wanted to do defensively without having to protect them," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "I would venture to say they're not many teams that play as much man outside as we do and they give Dom the flexibility to say, 'I don't have to protect these guys. They can hold their own.'"