McGinn: Who will answer the call for Packers?

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy both have opportunities at redemption on Sunday against the Cowboys.

Green Bay – Opportunity, as they say ad nauseam at 1265 Lombardi Avenue and across the NFL, must be taken advantage of.

'Tis trite but true. And it goes for every coach, player and team in the history of the league, especially in the postseason.

On Sunday, the fourth-seeded Green Bay Packers will have their chance when they take on the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys in an NFC divisional game at AT&T Stadium.

Since the present playoff system went into effect in 1990, there have been 22 instances in which the No. 4 seed met the No. 1 seed.

The No. 4 prevailed 27.3% of the time, winning six of the games.

In the NFC, the record for the No. 1's would be unblemished in 10 starts were it not for the Packers’ loss to the New York Giants in 2011.

In the AFC, the No. 1’s have barely broken even at 7-5.

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Besides the Giants, other No. 4’s that beat top-seeded teams were the 1992 Bills, ’97 Broncos, 2000 Ravens, ’06 Patriots and ’12 Ravens.

Four of those teams went on to win the Super Bowl: the ’97 Broncos over the Packers, the ’00 Ravens over the Giants, the ’11 Giants over the Patriots and the ’12 Ravens over the 49ers. The ’92 Bills lost in the Super Bowl to the Cowboys.

Since their football renaissance began 25 years ago, the Packers have played 36 playoff games under three coaches. Mike Holmgren finished 9-5 in six appearances, Mike McCarthy is 9-7 in nine and Mike Sherman went 2-4 in four.

In those 36 games, the Packers have been the favorite 21 times (15-6 record), the underdog 14 times (4-10) and pick ‘em once (1-0).

If the Packers, a five-point underdog, were to beat the Cowboys on Sunday, it would rank as their biggest playoff upset in 21 years.

As an underdog, McCarthy’s victories were at Philadelphia (+1½) in 2010 and at Washington (+1½) last year. Sherman was 0-2 as an underdog.

Holmgren’s first playoff victory came at the Silverdome in 1993 as a one-point underdog against the Lions. Two years later, the Packers were a 10½-point underdog at San Francisco when, in arguably the franchise’s greatest victory since the 1967 Ice Bowl, they ambushed the 49ers, 27-17.

The spread Sunday isn’t nearly what it was on that unforgettable afternoon at Candlestick Park. Still, the Packers and their fans know full well the jubilation that a victory over the Cowboys would generate.

Here are several Packers and some positions as a whole where opportunity will be presented Sunday afternoon.

Mike McCarthy – A week ago, after the wild-card rout of the Giants, McCarthy reflected on the season and the past in an interview with the league’s website.

“Why is America so tough on me?” McCarthy asked. Later, as the one-on-one concluded, he repeated those same words.

Evidently, McCarthy felt at ease fishing for compliments because the Packers had extended their winning streak to seven games, made the playoffs for an eighth straight season and beat the Giants as a five-point favorite.

Left unspoken was how in the world a team with Aaron Rodgers taking every meaningful snap and outstanding talent overall could have lost six of its first 10 games.

As for the love, well, let’s see … McCarthy is paid in the neighborhood of $8.5 million, he has a street named after him, he has advertising contracts galore and, sooner or later, every network broadcasting team that works Green Bay games gets around to singing his praises as a coach and play-caller.

Wins are wins and losses are losses, whenever they occur. What was gained in the last two months had been lost in the two months before that. What was one of the most disappointing teams in the NFL has improved to 11-6 and finds itself playing on the road in the second round of the postseason.

It has been six years since one of McCarthy’s team won two playoff games, let alone the Super Bowl. This is the eighth straight season in which he has had a team capable of winning it all.

McCarthy knows how good he has it in Green Bay, from the overwhelming resources to the unyielding support of management to the unique adulation of large segments of the fan base. He has been duly rewarded for winning a ton of games.

In the 30-16 loss to the Cowboys on Oct. 16 at Lambeau Field, the Packers turned the ball over four times and were anything but clean in coach-to-player communication. It was a comedy of errors from a team that looked poorly coached on offense and defense.

One day later, McCarthy said, “This is not the way we play football, and we will do a better job.”

McCarthy’s words brimmed with confidence last week. His message to players seems to be that they played their worst game of the season and now will surprise Dallas with mistake-free efficiency if they just play their game of the last seven weeks.

The Packers appear to have no doubt they’ll win this game, and I think they will, too.

Now McCarthy and his team need to finish a big playoff game instead of going down in another heartbreaker.

Aaron Rodgers – It is shocking, after his brilliance down the stretch, to go back and watch just how poorly Rodgers played against the Cowboys.

Clearly, it was his lowest moment of the season. Sunday will be the 150th start of his career, and Oct. 16 has to rank among his five worst performances.

Rodgers lost track of strong safety Barry Church and threw the ball right to him for an interception. He fumbled twice, including a first-down audible to a quarterback draw at the Dallas 1 that was the most momentous play of the game.

Seven times he was off-target with passes, and more than half should have been routine for such an accomplished thrower. His game management was flawed. Afforded impeccable protection, he was able to make only one big play, a 25-yard pass to Jordy Nelson in virtual garbage time.

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli did a masterful job trapping Rodgers in the pocket with a variety of beautifully choreographed twists and stunts. The lasting image of the afternoon was Rodgers on all fours pounding the turf after his goal-line fumble.

The Cowboys cover well but, if they go on to win the Super Bowl, would rank as one of the only championship teams without an elite pass rusher. It’s a defense that can be shredded if Rodgers is the Rodgers of the last seven games.

After his shameful performance 13 weeks ago, Rodgers owes his teammates this one.

Jared Cook – The Cowboys caught a break in the first meeting when Cook sat out with an ankle injury and neither Richard Rodgers (47 snaps) nor Justin Perillo (16) was a factor.

Minus Nelson, look for Cook to have at least 80% playing time. Only once, at Washington, has he been the most targeted receiver. This could be No. 2.

Cook probably will be matched with Byron Jones, a second-year free safety with the height (6 feet 0½ inch), speed (4.42) and athleticism (44½-inch vertical jump) to cover him from the slot to the deep seam. Cook, 29, is playing for a new contract here or elsewhere, and this is his chance to earn it.

Ted Thompson – It was 20 years ago when I wrote a column saying that it didn’t seem possible for the Cowboys to catch the Packers because they were at such a disadvantage with a career oilman in Jerry Jones trying to make personnel decisions against a career scout like Ron Wolf.

Green Bay is 7-4 against Dallas since 1997 but now, with son Stephen Jones having moved into a position of prominence, the Cowboys finally are threatening to overtake the Packers. They’ve done it basically the Packers way, drafting well and taking fewer chances in free agency.

There are dozens of past personnel decisions made by Thompson that could be underscored Sunday, but in light of Ezekiel Elliott let’s re-examine his moves in the defensive line and inside linebacker.

When B.J. Raji walked away on the Ides of March, the Packers almost felt compelled to take another defensive tackle. So, with the 27th pick, they took UCLA junior Kenny Clark over, among others, Vernon Butler of Louisiana Tech.

Playing every game, Clark has averaged 21 snaps. He hasn’t been able to beat out Letroy Guion for the starting job opposite Mike Daniels in what has become the team’s base 4-2 defense.

The Packers have used a 3-4 front on just 117 plays, none in the last two games. Their high-water mark was 28 snaps against the Cowboys, and it’s possible they’ll use three wide bodies at least as many times Sunday.

The party line this week has attributed the Packers’ inability to stop the Cowboys’ running game (190 yards) on poor gap control and players trying to do too much. It’s true, at least to a degree. For example, on the first play of the second half Morgan Burnett blew containment and Elliott burst outside for 25 yards.

But that’s only part of the story. Everyone that played in the front seven took turns getting covered up if not buried by the meat-grinder that is the Cowboys’ exceptional offensive line.

Of those 28 snaps in the 3-4, Datone Jones played 19 and Clark nine at 5-technique; Guion played 21, Clark five and Mike Pennel two at nose tackle; and Daniels played 25, Clark two and Pennel one at 3-technique.

Clark has a full season under his belt now and has played OK. He was drafted to be better than that in exactly this type of close-quarters game.

The Packers entered the 2015 draft with inside linebacker as a primary need. With the No. 30 pick they selected cornerback Damarious Randall over several inside linebackers who also had first- and second-round grades around the league.

The list included Stephone Anthony (No. 31 to the Saints), Benardrick McKinney (No. 43 to Houston), Eric Kendricks (No. 45 to Minnesota) and Denzel Perryman (No. 48 to San Diego).

Thompson waited until the fourth round (No. 129) before picking Jake Ryan. Joe Thomas was an undrafted signee the year before, and Blake Martinez arrived in the fourth round (No. 131) last year.

The Packers didn’t see first-round value in any 2015 linebacker and were thrilled to get Ryan later.

Now Thompson gets to gauge his judgment when the inside linebackers will be asked to do more than just hold up against Elliott and that offensive line.

Julius Peppers – As one personnel man said early last week, the Packers’ best chance to disrupt the Cowboys’ offense is the matchup between Peppers and right tackle Doug Free.

Peppers, set to turn 37 Wednesday, beat Free off the edge for a strip-sack in mid-October. Free has size and savvy, but Peppers is capable of detonating two or three game-turning surges each week.

It’s hard to say if Peppers wants to have a future in Green Bay or anywhere else, but if he does this is the time to make his statement.

Nick Perry – He never even threatened Dak Prescott the first time around. His play in the run game was more lateral than straight-ahead, too.

It would be a bonus if Perry could get a pressure or two against Free despite playing with a club protecting his left hand. He just hasn’t been the forceful, at times immovable presence against the run that he was pre-injury.

Clay Matthews – Expectations should be high for Matthews. He didn’t get anything done against Tyron Smith, and to win the Packers can ill afford for him to be blanked again.

Granted, Matthews is playing with a bad shoulder, but at this point everyone’s hurt. Smith, the franchise left tackle, is playing with a bulging lumbar disc and a bad knee.

Hank Bullough, the grand old defensive coordinator under Lindy Infante, always used to say great players make great plays in big games. Green Bay needs Matthews to be great.

The entire secondary – It’d be hard to imagine a unit playing worse than this one did against the Cowboys.

Dez Bryant didn’t suit up but he will Sunday. Cole Beasley, the little slot, did play, and he ate everyone up.

The chance that Prescott would lose his poise or choke is minimal. He’s a winner, and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan does a great job moving him and providing fairly simple reads.

It’s incumbent upon Dom Capers to force Prescott beyond his primary read and into situations that are problematic for the rookie. That’s how Prescott would be most prone to errant throws, interceptions and sacks.

Capers blitzed 31% in the first meeting, but Prescott’s three TD passes and two completions of 20-plus came on four-man rushes. Capers probably will rely on slanting and late shifting in an effort to confuse the Cowboys’ offensive line while at the same time mixing coverage trying to rattle Prescott.

Corey Linsley – Center JC Tretter had a rough game with 2½ “bad” runs. He couldn’t handle David Irving on the aborted draw by Rodgers or on a strip-sack.

Tretter’s season was all but ended by a sprained knee in Game 7. That opened the door for Linsley, who is in position to consolidate his future just as Tretter probably prepares to depart as an unrestricted free agent.

Marinelli’s front sevens always play with maximum effort and intensity. The Cowboys aim to confuse and outwork blocking schemes, and Irving is their top gun.

Linsley must maintain the integrity of the pocket for Rodgers and tame Irving, the most dangerous pass rusher.

Wide receivers – Other than Eddie Lacy, Randall Cobb was the team’s best player against the Cowboys. Now, however, nickel back Orlando Scandrick will be back after sitting out Oct. 16.

Scandrick has the skills to cover Cobb all over the field just as Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Anthony Brown can match up with Davante Adams.

Adams has a chance to demonstrate he’s a No. 1 receiver. Cobb can show his game measures up to Beasley’s. Geronimo Allison will try to prove the setting isn’t too big for a free-agent rookie.

Opportunity abounds. Soon we’ll find out who answers the call for Green Bay and who doesn't.

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