Each week, Press-Gazette Media will get the lowdown on the Green Bay Packers’ next opponent from a beat writer who covers that team.
When the Dallas Cowboys last were seen at Lambeau Field, Dez Bryant was making a spectacular catch near the Green Bay goal line late in an NFC divisional playoff game, only to have it ruled a no-catch by officials. The Packers held on to win 26-21 on Jan. 11, and it has been all downhill for the Cowboys since.
Star quarterback Tony Romo twice has suffered a broken clavicle. Bryant has missed much of the season with a foot injury. Workhorse tailback DeMarco Murray left via free agency and has been sorely missed. Defensive end Greg Hardy, signed despite a history of domestic abuse incidents with Carolina, has made little impact. The Cowboys lost seven straight games after a 2-0 start and are 4-8, yet somehow remain in playoff contention thanks to the abysmal NFC East, where the Eagles, Giants and Redskins share the lead at 5-7.
We asked NFL columnist Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News to answer a few questions about what the Packers can expect Sunday when the Cowboys visit Lambeau Field:
How on earth are the Cowboys still alive in the playoff race at 4-8?
RG: “The division is waiting on the Cowboys. The three teams ahead of them are all 5-7. By all rights, the Cowboys lose Tony Romo and win once in a span of 10 weeks, they should’ve been long gone. But nobody seems to want to win this division. And now they’ve lost Romo again. The division was there for the taking for the Redskins if they beat the Cowboys and a backup quarterback on Monday night, and they didn’t.”
The Cowboys finally won a game without Tony Romo. What is the outlook with Matt Cassel going forward?
RG: “The difference is he didn’t turn the ball over on Monday night. He has thrown some interceptions that have put this team in a hole. They’re not asking Cassel to win the game; they’re asking Cassel not to lose the game. He had three interceptions in a (33-27) loss to Philadelphia; he had one against the Giants in that debacle (a 27-20 loss). If he doesn’t turn the ball over, they believe they’ve got the defense and the running game to stay in games. They’re not asking Cassel to win games late like they did against Washington, they’re not asking Cassel to make the plays Romo makes. They're just asking him to avoid mistakes, don’t put us in bad situation, make a handful of plays.”
How does Dez Bryant feel about that?
RG: “He wants the ball and the owner wants him to get the ball. I would expect the Cowboys to go to Bryant early and often. They believe if they throw the ball to Dez, he’s going to get it or no one’s going to get it. He will knock the ball down rather than allow interceptions. So the high-percentage throw is to Bryant because there’s a good chance it’s not going to get picked off. My guess is unlike last week when he didn’t see the ball in the first half, the Cowboys will go to him early and often when they do throw.”
And will Bryant make the catch this time, in the eyes of the officials?
RG: “They claim he made the catch, and that it was a legal catch. It’s still a topic of conversation around here. Any time there’s a controversial catch in a Cowboys game or even on TV, it’s ‘Well, it wasn’t a catch for Dez Bryant, so how could that be catch for this guy?’ In their minds, they all believe that was a legitimate catch and they got robbed.”
How’s the running game with Darren McFadden and the offensive line?
RG: “The offensive line is not having the year it had last year and Darren McFadden is not DeMarco Murray. He was a beast last year … and took the pressure off of Romo. Romo for the longest time felt he had to make every play for the Cowboys to win. And they took 100 passes off his plate and said, ‘Look, hand the ball off to DeMarco Murray.’ And Murray was as big a part of their success last year as Romo. But at his age (27), the Cowboys felt he was approaching the wall for running backs and didn’t want to give him a long-term deal. They let him go and they thought they could plug in anybody behind that line and have success, but that’s not been the case. Murray was a special fit in this offense and the offensive line has not had the same season it had a year ago. And this offensive line failed to protect Tony Romo.”
How will the defense try to contain Aaron Rodgers?
RG: “They have to get a pass rush. That second half (of the playoff game) last year was painful to watch, they couldn’t put any pressure on Rodgers. He had all the time in the world to pick them apart and bring them back. They’ve got to find a way to put pressure on him. Last week against Washington they blitzed a whole lot more than I’ve seen from a Rod Marinelli defense. He likes the pressure to come from the front four and to have seven guys in coverage. Well, they’re not getting there with their front four and they need to blitz. (Linebacker) Sean Lee, the cornerbacks, the safeties – they’re sending more people and leaving themselves at risk at times in coverage. My guess is, it worked against the Redskins and they’ll continue blitzing because you can’t let Rodgers stand back there all day like you did in the second half last season.”
There’s never any shortage of drama surrounding the Cowboys. How do you see it playing out?
RG: “Going to Green Bay will be tough. They’ve got a journeyman quarterback, now with his fifth team, and they’re asking him to go beat Aaron Rodgers. It’s a quarterback game and you can’t like that matchup. …. I think 7-9 can win the division, but the Cowboys would have to win three of their last four games just to get there. I’d be surprised if they did.”