Pete Dougherty, Tom Silverstein and Aaron Nagler break down the Packers' win in Dallas. (Oct. 8, 2017)
ARLINGTON, Texas - In the aftermath of another enthralling win at AT&T Stadium, this one by a 35-31 margin after a dash of brilliance by Aaron Rodgers, the unlikely accomplice to the quarterback’s brilliance donned an outfit befitting his divisive personality.
Cornerback Damarious Randall had emerged as a villain of sorts in the wake of his public meltdown at Lambeau Field. A former first-round pick by the Green Bay Packers, it was Randall who spawned headlines after a pummeling of the Chicago Bears 10 days ago. He was pulled from the game sometime after the Bears scored an easy touchdown in the second quarter, and everything worsened when coach Mike McCarthy banished him to the locker room after an apparent kerfuffle.
Ten days later, a throng of reporters encircled Randall as he slipped into a soccer jersey with the name Ibrahimovic pressed across the back. That one of the most boastful players on the Packers’ roster wore the jersey of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a global superstar for Manchester United, offered a window into Randall’s subconscious. Where Randall has labeled himself one of the best cornerbacks in the league, Ibrahimovic has compared himself to lions and gods.
SILVERSTEIN: Offense runs smoothly on winning TD drive
DOUGHERTY: Rodgers, Packers setting early-season tone
BOX SCORE: Packers 35, Cowboys 31
5 TAKEAWAYS: Capsule look at the Packers' victory
But when Randall returned an interception for a touchdown to give his team a lead in the fourth quarter, his teammates were reminded of the talent that made him the 30th overall pick in 2015.
“That was a big play for us, man, and it turned the game around for us,” safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. “That just goes to show the guy has the most talent on the team on the back end. He’s capable of doing whatever he wants to do. It’s all up to him.
“Most talented DB we’ve got. That’s the truth.”
Randall’s pick-6 was the pivot point in a game that began like the inverse of last year’s playoff thriller, when the Packers raced to a multi-score lead clung to life in the fourth quarter. On Sunday it was the Cowboys who shot from the gates for an early edge, carving apart a wounded secondary.
What began as a healthy unit for defensive coordinator Dom Capers quickly transformed into a revolving door that never stopped. The return of veteran Davon House, who missed the last two games with a quadriceps injury, gave the Packers a reliable starter to pair with rookie Kevin King on the perimeter. But the preferred duo lasted less than a quarter before King was felled by a concussion.
INSIDER: Thumbs up to Rodgers, down to pass D
King’s absence set in motion a fluid approach to coverage for the remainder of the game. Rather than choosing one player to fill the void, as Hawkins did when Randall was benched last week, Capers used every corner on the 46-man roster. His rotational patterns bore resemblance to training camp, when cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. intentionally shuffled his players through seemingly every position.
So there were times when House played opposite Randall, trusted by the coaches to line up in the slot and on the perimeter in spite of recent events. There were times when the coaches turned to Hawkins, who seized his opportunity against the Bears and plays with as much feistiness as anyone on the roster. There were even a handful of reps for Quinten Rollins, the forgotten man in this year’s secondary.
“We’re professionals, so you’ve just got to be ready,” Rollins said. “Obviously when you’re cold turkey and you get thrown into the fire you’ve just got to be ready to go. No excuses.”
Said Clinton-Dix: “We had a lot of moving parts and guys coming in and out. Guys stepped up and made plays and guys were not afraid to come in and compete. Hats off to each and every one of these players that came in and stepped up when we needed them to.”
MONDAY CHAT: Ryan Wood at 1 p.m.
NAGLER: Post-game chat video
GAME BLOG: Tom Silverstein's live coverage
In truth, the combinations felt irrelevant for much of the first half as quarterback Dak Prescott sliced open the defense with aplomb. He completed 12 of his first 15 passes for 143 yards and three touchdowns as the Cowboys reached the end zone on each of their first three drives. Afterward, owner Jerry Jones called it “the best game I’ve seen him play since he’s been a Cowboy.”
And he diced the Packers in different ways, doling out touchdowns on a variety of throws. He began with a sprint out to the right for a quick flip to slot man Cole Beasley, whose phone-booth quickness created instant separation from House. He connected with Beasley again on a 5-yard slant that cemented concerns about Rollins’ lack of speed. Prescott punctuated the first half with a beautiful 10-yard fade to wide receiver Dez Bryant, who reached around Randall for a sliding score.
“I thought Dak was really, really good in this ballgame throwing the ball to the right guy,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Made a lot of big-time throws throughout the game. Big plays for us.”
All told, Prescott orchestrated a 21-6 lead that somehow felt thorough and surmountable at the same time. The Packers chipped away as the Cowboys cooled: touchdown, field goal, touchdown in a stretch of three possessions on either side of halftime. The Cowboys more or less stalled with punt, field goal, INT.
But the 43-yard field goal from kicker Dan Bailey pushed the Cowboys in front, 24-22 as Prescott trotted onto the field with 10:37 remaining, pining for another lengthy drive. Instead, it fell apart.
On second down Prescott fired a short pass to the right, toward wide receiver Terrance Williams, and the ball flicked off William’s hands directly to the welcoming Randall. It was the moment he desperately needed after a week he may want to forget. Twenty-one yards later, Randall was in the end zone to give the Packers a lead.
“Scoring points on defense leads to a lot of wins,” Randall said. “That is what our coaches have been preaching. … I saw the ball, picked it off. My eyes just lit up on the touchdown.”
Ibarhimovic surely would be proud.