Beating NFC's top seed tough task for Packers

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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The play of quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Dez Bryant is a big reason the Dallas Cowboys are playing at a high level this season.

GREEN BAY – If history is any indicator, the Green Bay Packers’ chances of beating the No. 1-seeded Dallas Cowboys Sunday at AT&T Stadium are slightly better than Jerry Jones moving his team to Fort Worth.

Since 1990, when the NFL went to the 12-team playoff format, the NFC's top seed has lost only four times in the divisional round.

There is one caveat, however.

The Packers have been involved in the last two in which the No. 1 seed lost its playoff opener. They've seen it done.

During the 2010 season, the No. 6-seeded Packers went to the Georgia Dome and knocked off the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons, 48-21. A year later, the No. 4-seeded New York Giants came into Lambeau Field and beat the top-seeded Packers, 37-20.

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Since then four straight No. 1 seeds have won in the divisional round: Carolina, Seattle, Seattle and Atlanta. It’s the resumption of a trend that saw the No. 1 seed win in the divisional round for 17 straight seasons (‘90-’06).

Ask any head coach and almost all will take the bye week and home-field advantage every time, even if it might interrupt a long winning streak to end the regular season. The Packers are one such team, having won seven straight, but if you think coach Mike McCarthy wouldn't have minded a week off to rest his players, you’d be wrong.

“Obviously scratching and clawing for the last seven weeks to get there, I mean that's obviously the way you want to do it, the most popular way,” he said this week with heavy sarcasm. “It's the NFL, I think just the fact that you walk in here for a press conference and you answer so many questions about the health of your football team, I mean that tells you where it (the bye) is priority-wise.”

The Cowboys have a pronounced physical advantage over the Packers when you consider they have had two byes in their last 12 weeks and were able to rest key starters like quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott in Week 17.

By comparison, Green Bay has had one bye in the last 14 weeks and has been essentially playing elimination football the past seven weeks.

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Of the 53 players still available, the Packers will be without receiver Jordy Nelson (ribs), running back James Starks (concussion) and center JC Tretter (knee). In addition, cornerback Quinten Rollins (neck/concussion) is questionable. All four players are or have been starters.

The Cowboys have seven players on their injury report, all of whom are listed as questionable. But they have all practiced this week and it appears they’ll be at full strength come Sunday.

“They’re healthy, they've had a chance to rest their team, they've played with good continuity,” McCarthy said. “That's a real benefit to them. At the end of the day, I know where we are, we've been in that position, but it's not preferred.

“It's really being in touch with what you need to do, so really we've done a very good job of hitting the target of how to train our team each week to get them ready for Sunday. That's difficult, because the 10-week run in the regular season, coming into your second week of playoffs, there's a lot of wear and tear.

“You've got to find that balance to make sure we're ready to go in Dallas.”

Dallas coach Jason Garrett didn’t want to lose any of the magic the Cowboys had generated during the regular season, so he had the team practice two days last week before setting them free for a bye weekend. The Cowboys ended the season with a 27-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

“I think the bye was helpful for all of us,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “We had a lot of guys banged up and injured. It seems like everyone is back this week. We look really fresh, really energized and really ready to come out and play Sunday.”

The benefit for the Cowboys was not only the rest, but the extra time to prepare for their next opponent. All you have to do is remember San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh springing the read-option on the Packers after having a bye week in the 2012 playoffs to know the Cowboys will come up with something new to show the Packers.

McCarthy said the Packers will be prepared for unscouted looks, but the amount of work they were able to do on the practice field was limited because he didn’t want to run his team into the ground. After beating the New York Giants on Sunday in the wild-card round, they focused a lot on mental preparation for the Cowboys.

“Everybody is feeling a little worn down and tired, but it’s everybody,” guard T.J. Lang said. “It’s not just us linemen, not just our team. I’m sure it’s every team. It’s been a long season. You’re feeling some soreness.”

If there is one thing the Packers think they have going for them it is they have been playing playoff-type games for seven straight weeks and have been playing better with each game. They come in with the hottest quarterback in the NFL and a lot of playoff experience, the result of being there eight straight seasons.

They are hoping the Cowboys have to shake off some rust.

“They didn't play a lot of starters in the finale against Philadelphia,” Rodgers said. “They were off this last week, and they're hosting the game, so there's extra pressure on them as the No. 1 seed to win.

“And we're coming in with a lot of confidence and riding the streak. We're feeling good about the way we've been playing.”

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