Packers' playoff path feels familiar

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY – There’s nothing easy about the Green Bay Packers going on the road against the NFC’s No. 1 seed in a divisional playoff game that will be a rematch of a humbling midseason defeat.

In this Jan. 15, 2011, file photo, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers  scrambles past Atlanta Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton on a 7-yard touchdown run during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game in Atlanta.

But at least it’s familiar.

Coach Mike McCarthy, his star quarterback and eight other veterans – most of them starters -- on the Packers’ 53-man roster, are reliving the 2010 season.

Get hot at the end of the year? Check. Win your playoff opener against an NFC East opponent? Check. Have to play in front of hostile crowds in order to make it all the way through the playoffs? Check.

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Beat the best team in the NFC during the regular season?

We’ll have to wait until Sunday to see whether one more check mark is in order, but without question the Packers have been through this before. They beat the Philadelphia Eagles on the road in a wild-card game and then marched into Atlanta the following week and knocked off the No. 1-seeded Falcons, a team that had beaten them 20-17 earlier in the 2010 season.

Few can forget that the Falcons were the unfortunate souls on the losing end of arguably quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ finest professional performance. They never had a chance against Rodgers, who completed 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns in a 48-21 victory.

The Falcons were two-point favorites going into the game.

DOUGHERTYPack potent even without Nelson

INSIDERThumbs up to Davante Adams

PLAYOFFSSchedule, times

Six years later, the Cowboys are four-point favorites over the Packers for their playoff opener at AT&T Stadium on Sunday. Dallas is 13-3 (Atlanta also was 13-3) and lost only one game at home all season, its opener against the New York Giants.

For the Packers to win this game, they’re going to have to treat the Cowboys the way they did the 2010 Falcons, which is to view them as nothing more than their next opponent on the way to the Super Bowl.

“We’re going to line up and we’re going to play Green Bay Packer football,” McCarthy said a day after his team dispatched the Giants, 38-13, in a wild-card game at Lambeau Field. “We understand what they’ve accomplished, we know what number they’re going to be wearing in the game. And that’s about as far as it goes.

“They’re an outstanding team. They’ve put together a great regular season. But this is about the playoffs. We’re fully focused to do everything we need to do to go to Dallas and win the game.”

The Packers have a long, storied history with the Cowboys, dating to the 1966 NFL championship game at the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1967. The Ice Bowl came the following season, officially christening them as NFL rivals.

The Cowboys would meet the Packers again in the strike-shortened 1982 season (a 37-26 Dallas victory) and exact some revenge against Bart Starr, who was then the Packers’ coach.

The Cowboys went on to beat coach Mike Holmgren and quarterback Brett Favre three straight times (1993-95) at Texas Stadium, twice on their way to Super Bowl victories.

It wasn’t until the 2014 season that the Packers and Cowboys met again in the playoffs, this time at Lambeau Field. The Packers won, but it always will be remembered as the Dez Bryant game, when the definition of what is and what isn’t a catch finally was deemed impossible to describe in exact terms.

The storyline this time around will be whether the Packers can flip the outcome of a 30-16 defeat to the Cowboys at Lambeau Field on Oct. 16. The margin of defeat wasn’t the worst the Packers suffered this season, but the loss was humbling and it began a stretch in which the Packers lost five of six games to fall to an embarrassing 4-6.

Since that time, the Packers have won seven straight games. Rodgers has gone from mediocre to almost invincible, throwing 19 touchdown passes with no interceptions during that stretch. Even Sunday when he started out 4 for 11 for 32 yards against the Giants, he finished 25 for 40 for 362 yards and four touchdowns.

“I said it yesterday and it’s probably as accurate a statement as I can make: He has spoiled us with his level of play around here for so long,” McCarthy said. “So, I think particularly once we got on our run in ’09, there was a great stretch there, I think that’s when he came into his own to a different level.

“Obviously the Super Bowl game jumps out, and 2011 I thought was an incredible stretch. That’s probably as good of football I’ve seen from that position personally. But this definitely ranks up there.”

The fact McCarthy thinks Rodgers has played better in his career means there may be more he can get out of his quarterback than a passer rating of only 125.2. But to beat the Cowboys on Sunday he’s going to need more from everyone on his team, especially if receiver Jordy Nelson (broken ribs) can’t play.

When the Packers lost to the Cowboys in October, they didn’t have tight end Jared Cook and cornerback Quinten Rollins, they were an offense still centered on running back Eddie Lacy and were minus-3 in turnover margin.

Now, Cook is central to their offensive success, they are getting healthier in the secondary and they are plus-10 in turnover margin.

“We’re more experienced, clearly, we’ve played a lot of people,” McCarthy said. “I think that hopefully will benefit us this week as we navigate, as you always do coming off of a tough, physical game and getting ready.

“So we’re definitely more prepared to go into an opposing stadium to win the game -- crowd noise and Detroit and some of these big games we’ve had. We’re definitely battle-tested. We’re a better football team today than we obviously were then.”

Whether they are better than the Cowboys on their home field after a week of rest will be determined on the field. If Dak Prescott throws for 247 yards and three touchdowns and Ezekiel Elliott runs for 157 yards again, the Packers probably will be headed home for the season.

Their goal is to prove they’re the better team now.

“Dallas is a great football team,” Rodgers said Sunday. “Dak and Zeke have been playing great all season. They are tremendous players; they’re not playing like rookies. They’re both in the MVP conversation. We can’t let them run behind that big offensive line. We’ve got to start fast and make them as one-dimensional as possible.”

Just like they did in Atlanta six years ago.

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