Rodgers, Prescott excel at playing keep-away
GREEN BAY - As they flipped through video clips of the respective quarterbacks they’ll be facing Sunday at AT&T Stadium, seeking a tell that reveals how to force a mistake, the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys defenses had to feel like they were on a mouse hunt.
There’s one there, but good luck finding it.
The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers is riding a string of 285 consecutive passes without an interception, the longest streak of any quarterback still in the NFL playoffs. The Cowboys’ Dak Prescott has gone only 77 consecutive passes without an interception, but he holds the NFL record for most pass attempts without an interception to start a career (176) and later this season went 171 attempts without a pick.
Together, Rodgers and Prescott threw 1,069 passes and were intercepted just 11 times, giving them a combined interception rate of 1.03.
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Rodgers’ streak is all the more impressive given he has thrown 22 touchdown passes in the eight games it has spanned. New England’s Tom Brady holds the all-time regular-season record of 358 consecutive passes and during the 13 games it spanned (2010-’11) he threw for 27 touchdowns.
The Cowboys were aware of all the criticism that Rodgers received earlier this season and were witness to his sub-par play in a 30-16 victory at Lambeau Field on Oct. 16. But that’s not the quarterback they expect to see Sunday in their divisional playoff meeting with the Packers.
“I said something to somebody earlier, to me, he’s been on a roll for the last nine years,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s been such a great quarterback and played the game at such a high level for a long time.
“In some ways, I think people who see him every day start to take him for granted. We don’t. We have a great respect for how he’s played throughout his career and he’s certainly playing at a very high level right now.”
Rodgers has never had a longer string of consecutive attempts without an interception and he has described moments where he has felt in “a zone.” Not throwing interceptions has helped the Packers go seven games with just one turnover, a fumbled snap between Rodgers and center Corey Linsley against Houston on Dec. 4.
During the Packers’ seven-game winning streak, Rodgers has thrown into some tight spots with confidence, holding onto the ball far less often than he did earlier in the season. His confidence in completions seems to be higher than at any time this season.
But he said not throwing interceptions doesn’t cause him to think he’s invincible.
“I don’t really ever feel that way,” Rodgers said. “There’s moments where you’re kind of locked in a zone, where you feel like you can put it where you want it, but I think reckless abandon as a mentality has just never come into my mind.
“It’s about being as accurate and as smart as possible with the football. That being said, there’s a time and place. In certain situations – trailing, or a big third down – where you’re going to have to put it in a specific spot and take some shots. But it’s calculated risk – that’s the way I’ve been playing.”
Since Brady’s record is for regular-season games only, Rodgers still will be in pursuit of it next season. He’ll start with 240 consecutive passes without an interception and will need to go about four games without one to set the mark.
In the postseason, Rodgers needs to throw 112 consecutive passes without an interception to move into third place all-time in lowest interception rate. Kansas City’s Alex Smith leads at 0.54, Dallas’ Tony Romo is second at 1.08 and New Orleans’ Drew Brees is third at 1.29.
Rodgers holds the NFL regular-season mark for lowest interception rate at 1.55.
If Prescott continues on the path he has set during his rookie season, he may very well knock Rodgers off the top of the list. He doesn’t have enough attempts to qualify for the all-time mark, but his 2016 rate was 0.87, the second-lowest mark in the league behind Brady’s 0.46.
Prescott completed 311 of 459 passes for 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns with four interceptions.
Mature beyond his years, Prescott has been extremely careful not to play outside of the Cowboys’ system. He has one of the best wide receivers in the game in Dez Bryant, but Packers defenders said it was rare to see him just throw a ball up in Bryant’s area and hope he comes down with it.
The Cowboys rely heavily on a play-action game that takes advantage of a dominant run game spearheaded by the NFL’s top offensive line and rookie phenom Ezekiel Elliott at running back. Prescott has been well-schooled in running offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s plan and letting the game come to him.
“He’s been very good,” said Packers safety Kentrell Brice, who is expected to play a fairly large role Sunday. “The scheme he’s in fits really well for him. He goes through his reads. If he has to throw the ball away, he’ll throw the ball.
“In getting the ball to Dez, he’s made some really accurate throws. He’s playing great in that offense.”
Prescott is in the unfortunate position of being a rookie trying to get to the Super Bowl. No rookie quarterback has started in the Super Bowl and only four have led their team to the championship game.
Unlike some rookies, however, Prescott is hard to attack because any tricks you throw at him are probably going to have an effect on how you’re handling Elliott, who is every defensive coordinator’s No. 1 concern.
It might seem logical for Dom Capers to throw the kitchen sink at Prescott when it comes to disguising coverages, designing blitzes and using unscouted looks. But Capers can’t let Elliott rush for 157 yards as he did in the first meeting and so anything he does to Prescott has to have a foundation in stopping Elliott.
“That’s where everything starts,” Capers said. “I mean you can’t get too wild and crazy in terms of trying to pressure the quarterback, or next thing you know you’ve got seams that they’re turning into 30- or 40-yard runs.
“You’ve got to be sound in their run game, and their play-action pass comes off of that. You have to pick your spots in terms of when you pressure these guys.”
As they’ve studied Prescott, the one thing the Packers know is that they can’t get out of their lanes when it comes to their assignments. Prescott is going to be careful with the football and picking him off probably will come from natural pressure up front and not from defensive backs or linebackers taking chances.
Their hope is that they stop the run well enough to put pressure on Prescott to be perfect, even if he’s been pretty close to that when it comes to avoiding interceptions.
“He’s an amazing quarterback,” linebacker Blake Martinez said. “I think throughout the season he’s shown he has the poise. He only has four picks and when he’s thrown one of those, he’s bouncing right back and leading the team.
“He’s used his speed to help get 3 or 4 yards (scrambling) and keep them out of long distances. He makes it manageable for them. He understands what the offense is formed around. He’s not looking for just the big plays. He’s looking to do his job.”
And making it hard on defenses to do theirs.
The following list ranks the eight starting quarterbacks in the NFL playoffs by most consecutive passes without an interception, entering Saturday. Touchdown passes thrown during that streak are listed in parentheses.
285: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (22)
137: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons (12)
107: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (7)
106: Tom Brady, New England Patriots (8)
77: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (3)
65: Brock Osweiler, Houston Texans (2)
10: Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs (1)
0: Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (0)