The Green Bay Packers' defensive game plan against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday was straight forward: Try to limit halfback DeMarco Murray and receiver Dez Bryant, and make one of the Cowboys' other skill players beat them.
It worked. Murray, the NFL's leading rusher this season, had a good game (123 yards, 4.9-yard average) but didn't dominate. Bryant, who had the 12th-most targets in the NFL this year (138, or 8.6 per game), was targeted only four times and had only three catches for 38 yards.
Even if Bryant's leaping fourth-down catch over Sam Shields in the fourth quarter hadn't been overturned on replay challenge, he still wouldn't have had a big game. And even if the Cowboys had scored, the Packers still would have had plenty of time to tie or win the game. In other words, Murray and Bryant didn't beat them.
What made the game plan work and separated the Packers' defense Sunday from the playoffs the past few years were the two key defensive players they added in the offseason: Julius Peppers and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
The Packers signed Peppers as an outside linebacker to make big plays in big games. On the big stage Sunday he came through.
Peppers forced two fumbles — one on a sack of quarterback Tony Romo in the first quarter and the other on halfback DeMarco Murray in the third quarter. Romo recovered the first, but it came on third down, so it ended the possession. The second was one of the two or three biggest plays in the game.
It happened early in the third quarter, with the Packers trailing 14-10. Murray ran to his right and when he cut into a huge hole, he had nothing but green grass ahead of him. He was headed for a 59-yard touchdown run.
But as Murray cut inside him at left end, Peppers lunged and knocked the ball from his grasp. Defensive lineman Datone Jones recovered, and what would have been a disastrous play for the Packers turned into a game changer their way. Rather than being down 11 points, the Packers ended up kicking a field goal and trailed by only one point with 1 1/2 quarters to play.
Capers has cut back on Peppers' playing time the past few weeks under the theory that less is more, and it appears to be working. Peppers played 60 percent of the Packers' defensive snaps (33 of 55) Sunday and, besides the two fumbles, he was effective in run defense also (six tackles total).
His best run stop probably was in the first quarter. On a first-and-10 from the Cowboys' 49, Murray ran a sweep to his right. Peppers blew up the play by beating both men in a double team (right guard Zack Martin and tight end Gavin Escobar) with an inside move.
Martin held Peppers, which kept him from making the tackle and cost the Cowboys a 10-yard penalty. And even if the officials hadn't made the call, after Peppers forced Murray off his track, the Packers dropped the back for no gain.
Clinton-Dix didn't make splash plays like Peppers but was key to the Packers containing Bryant.
More often than not, defensive coordinator Dom Capers played safety Morgan Burnett at linebacker level or even closer to the line to help stop Murray.
That left Clinton-Dix, the Packers' first-round draft pick, as the lone safety deep. He usually shaded heavily toward Bryant, and his size and aggressive double-teaming kept Romo from throwing the ball to his best receiver.
A typical play was a first down in the second quarter. The Cowboys had Bryant and slot receiver Cole Beasley lined up on the left. Bryant ran a deep in route against Sam Shields, but Clinton-Dix bracketed him quickly, so Romo threw underneath for Beasley. The play was a decent gain (11 yards), but Romo had no chance of hitting Bryant for a big chunk of yardage.
Clinton-Dix also showed on a couple plays that although he has only an OK 40 time for a first-round safety (4.58 seconds), he's football fast.
On the first-quarter play that Tramon Williams was penalized for interfering with Terrance Williams in the end zone, Clinton-Dix reacted extremely fast from his deep position and nearly intercepted the pass. Also, late in the third quarter, Romo hit tight end Jason Witten on a hot read against a blitz for what looked like a potentially huge gain. But Clinton-Dix filled hard from centerfield and made a sure tackle that kept an 18-yard gain from being much bigger.
The Packers on Sunday gave up 315 yards and 21 points, which is pretty good against an offense that came into the game ranked No. 7 in yards and No. 5 in points.
But if it was good enough to beat Dallas, it probably won't beat Seattle this week in the NFC championship game. The Seahawks have the league's only dominant defense and have given up an average of seven points in their past seven games. Points will be much harder for Aaron Rodgers to come by Sunday.
THAT WAS FAVRESQUE
Rodgers' game-winning touchdown pass to tight end Richard Rodgers was as spectacular a throw as they come. Really, it conjured memories of rocket-armed Brett Favre in his prime.
Considering Rodgers is playing on a bum left calf, the throw showed just how strong his arm is. There probably are only a couple of quarterbacks in the league who could have fit that pass into that tight a window, with defensive backs closing from either side of the tight end.
In fact, what made it stand out was that Aaron Rodgers took the kind of chance he normally doesn't. If healthy, he probably would have run because he had a lot of room once he started sliding to his left. But with limited mobility, he instead kept looking to the end zone and saw Richard Rodgers flash along the end line.
Officially the play was a 13-yard touchdown, but the throw actually covered 26 or 27 yards, and it seemed like the ball was about six feet off the ground the whole way. That's a special throw.
Receiver Jordy Nelson had one and possibly two drops Sunday.
-- The definite drop came on a third-and-8 from his own 35. The Cowboys blitzed, and Nelson ran a seam route against cornerback Brandon Carr. Rodgers' throw was on Nelson's helmet, but the receiver seemed to misjudge it and got only one hand on the ball. If caught, it would have been a 30-yard gain, maybe more. The other came on a crossing route in the third quarter. Carr had tight coverage and hit Nelson but didn't appear to get the ball.
The drop or two didn't hurt the Packers much against Dallas, but those plays have to be made for the Packers to have a chance this week against that Seattle defense.
-- To improve his run defense against Murray, Capers played Clay Matthews at inside linebacker in place of A.J. Hawk on six of the 20 snaps the Packers ran their base 3-4 defense. Don't be surprised if Capers does it even more this week against Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, who might be the hardest running back to tackle in the NFL.
-- The Packers definitely run the ball better with fullback John Kuhn on the field instead of a tight end in their three-receiver sets. He had a key block on a linebacker that sprung Eddie Lacy on three runs for a combined 47 yards.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
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