Every week in the NFL, we see an ambush. Philadelphia loses at Oakland. Green Bay loses at Tampa Bay. Dallas comes extremely close to losing to Kansas City. All the conditions are the same; a team that is a pretty substantial road favorite rolls into a place where two things happen - 1) the road team that is the favorite thinks that the game will be easy because they have been told all week that they are better, and that the home team is not very good. 2) the home team is told all week that they don't belong in the NFL and that we should be lucky if the team coming in to play them on Sunday doesn't demolish our poor stadium before the game is over.
The Cowboys are a 3-point favorite right now, so if you factor in the home field number (add 3 to the home team) then you can surmise that the oddsmakers see the Cowboys as 6 points better on a neutral field. That sounds about right.
Last week, the Eagles were coming off the surge of beating the Giants handily, and the Cowboys were being challenged at every turn with the 44-6. Now, the Cowboys are being congratulated for beating the Eagles, and the Packers are being further humiliated all week for their last two weeks with the Favre-a-geddon and the Tampa loss.
I lead off this story with all of this information not to set you up for a Green Bay prediction, but to merely remind the Cowboys organization (that surely include this piece in their weekly preparation, right?) that all of the conditions are right for an ambush on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
The Cowboys should win on Sunday. But, this is not college football where the favorite can play as poorly as possible and still be able to win. In the NFL, if you give an underdog a chance early, it could put you in a hole you cannot dig out of for the rest of the day.
Further, I cannot forget how many times the Cowboys have demonstrated they are not really strong at being favorites. I like it when the Cowboys are under the radar, but now in sole possession of 1st place in the NFC East, it is time for this team to show that they can perform when everyone is watching and waiting.
I wish I had counted how many times this week I heard a national pundit suggest that "he doesn't trust the Cowboys". Michael Lombardi and Pat Kirwan both said it, and those are two guys at the very top of my list as far as guys I do trust for their insight. There is a reason nobody nationally trusts the Cowboys. Games like this one. Where we see if the Cowboys can deal with success. It is where we see if the Cowboys can handle people telling them that they may have it all figured out.
Will they take care of business? Or, will they eat the cheese? Don't eat the cheese, Cowboys. The trap is waiting.
ON OFFENSE: The Cowboys are starting to really believe in what they do with the football. Let's be honest, in Weeks 2-4 this season, against the Giants, Panthers, and Broncos, things just weren't right with Tony Romo and his targets. Frustration was setting in. Something happened - possibly in the end zone at Arrowhead, when this thing started to galvanize. I cannot quite trace back to its genesis, but since that day, Romo has had 4 tremendous games, putting the ball where it needs to go with confidence and accuracy. His 9 Touchdowns and 1 interception during this stretch demonstrates that elite QB play means all of the difference in the world in this league. It makes every game winnable, and it makes every opponent beatable.
It is next to impossible to know how good the Packers really are. Generally, either they are very good against a bad team (Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis) or they are very bad against a good team (Minnesota, Minnesota). Of course, the loss to Tampa Bay kills that trend, but this is what 8-8 teams are all about. Win a few, lose a few, rinse, repeat.
But, we do know this: They have played the following QBs: Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer, Mark Bulger, Brett Favre, Duante Culpepper, Derek Anderson, Favre again, and Josh Freeman. The defense was dominated by Palmer, Favre, and Favre. Against the rest, the Packers defense was not abused. But, do you think the Cowboys offense is closer to Cleveland or Minnesota? Me, too.
The Packers do not rush the QB well. The scheme doesn't fit with asking one of the great pass rushers of the last several years, Aaron Kampman to be an outside LB who seems to seldom rush the QB. That maddening strategy will not be on display this weekend, as it appears Kampman will not play.
The secondary is good when healthy, but when you get no pass rush, you expose the DBs too long. Charles Woodson is an elite talent, and although his age-clock is ticking (turned 33 last month), he still is a ball-hawk who makes plays every week. He has 23 interceptions in his 3.5 seasons in Green Bay, 5 more forced fumbles, 4 sacks, and amazingly, 5 touchdowns. Every team needs a guy who consistently causes turnovers for his opponent. There are not that many kicking around, but Woodson is on the short list of the best in the league. I can't recall the last time the Cowboys had a consistent threat in their secondary to turn the game on one play like Ed Reed, Troy Polumalu, Woodson, etc.
1) - Patience - So, now that we all know the Packers are a wounded animal with plenty of game breaking talent on both sides of the ball, we must understand that the only recipe to handle them is patience, precision, and composure. The Cowboys showed tons of that in Philadelphia, but that doesn't carry over. They must withstand the initial burst of energy from the crowd, and weather the storm. Usually, this means high percentage passes and pounding the rock between the tackles. I believe if the Cowboys turn the ball over less than 2 times, they win this game. But, it is vital on the road (and there are plenty of stiff road tests ahead) to play a clean offensive game. That starts with a patient Tony Romo and Jason Garrett.
2) - Use the width of the field - The Packers must blitz to get pressure. They do not bring it generally from their front. We saw last week that the Cowboys are prepared to use your blitz against you with a series of speed plays to the edge. The WR screen was the best weapon, but dump off passes in the flat to the RBs is another weapon. The Packers are not a very fast team, and last year Austin and Felix Jones showed that. Use the whole field, use all of your weapons, and do not settle for the traditional drop-back-and-heave-offense. The Vikings did this wonderfully 2 weeks ago, and the Packers were in trouble from the kick. I think that game film is worth viewing. Percy Harvin gave them fits. Speed kills.
3) - Be ready to fight for your ground - The Packers are well-known across the league for their physical corners. They are also well known for being heavily penalized. Woodson and Al Harris lead a group of guys who enjoy press coverage in your face, and they beat you up physically and frustrate you over the course of the game. This is a good test for all of the Cowboys WRs to find out how badly they want the pass to go their direction. Roy Williams has been questioned at times to see if he really wants to go get the ball. I eagerly await that test. Be ready for a street fight on the edge.
4) - Miles Austin owns the Packers - There is a reason I bought many shares of stock in Miles Austin before 2009, and it might be because his best 2 games as a pro WR (in my estimation) were against my beloved Green Bay Packers. Everyone remembers when Austin was awesome in Lambeau last year to the tune of 2 home run catches from Romo on Sunday Night football for 115 yards and a Touchdown. But, do you recall his huge impact on the win over Green Bay in 2007? The stats show 0 catches for 0 yards. But, I recall that twice Romo went play action over the top to Austin for pass interference calls where the Cowboys gained 40 and 42 yards, both receiving 1st and goal plays. This is what speed does. It gives you big catches, and big penalties. Miles Austin has owned the Packers in the last 2 meetings, and now the NFL is learning all about his abilities. We knew 2 years ago that he could make us forget Terry Glenn's speed threat over the top if he was developed right. I think he has been.
ON DEFENSE: The Defense came up very big on Sunday night with a key 4th down stand, another key sack at the biggest moment of the game, and overall good solid containment of DeSean Jackson.
On Sunday, there is a whole new set of challenges coming their way, and it starts with a WR group that is all talented and worthy of your attention. Aaron Rodgers has the positive opportunity of throwing to a bunch of developed, confident targets all over the field, but the negative opportunity of running for his life the entire time.
Peyton Manning has a reasonable offensive line. Nobody would call them the best in the league, nor would anyone call them the worst. But, he is the gold standard for demonstrating that it is a two-pronged effort to avoid sacks. 1) protect your QB and 2) get the ball out. Consistently in Manning's career, nobody gets the ball out faster. He does this to frustrate the defense, pull the plugs on their blitz ideas, and most improtantly, he preserves his health and career. Brett Favre has always done a very nice job of this, too. As does Tom Brady, generally.
Aaron Rodgers does not. Manning gets sacked once every 45 throws in 2009. Rodgers? Once every 7 throws. Now, I am not suggesting it is all his fault, but the truth is this: When you are getting sacked 37 times in 8 games, it is everyone's fault. And if your OL is that bad, then you have to adjust your thinking to result in quick passes that can, among other things, save your health.
The oblivious nature of his rationale in this department has me really wondering if he can have a great career, despite passing numbers that are off the charts. When he has time to make the throw, he is border-line elite. But, he seems to have no idea when to get rid of the ball.
1) - Stress the OL - Perhaps the most obvious objective of the season is to freak out the Packers OL early and often. This is not difficult. This link will demonstrate how horrid the OL has been this season . It is quite remarkable to see that both tackles have been so poor. And, they have tried multiple options at each spot. Clifton and Tauscher have been great soldiers for years up there, but their time is ending, and they can't stay healthy. And, all of Ted Thompson's premium picks have not proven they can play. No single Green Bay Packer annoys me like their Left Guard Darren Colledge. I would love to know what sort of pictures he has to black-mail the team into letting him play week after week when it is obvious he has an enourmous bag of nothing.
2) - Prepare for a very deep group of weapons - One of the keys to the Green Bay offense (like many offenses across the league) is to spread you out, and find the match-up that they can enjoy. I would imagine they will seek size mismatches with Jennings and Driver, and then proceed down the list further with James Jones and Jordy Nelson. They lost Jermichael Finley in the Cleveland game, and I don't know if he will be in the lineup. I will say this, their work out of the "12" has been very effective with Finley and starter, Donald Lee. Finley is a real threat, and everything we hope Martellus would eventually become.
3) - Safeties, mind your gaps - Very few teams consistently hit home run passes over the top like the Green Bay Packers. Rodgers can really throw the deep pass well, and their Wide outs all get down the field in a hurry. There is no telling how good they could be offensively if they could pass protect even a little, but even in their current state, they are very dangerous on the quick strike. The safeties are much better off laying back and sacrificing a few yards to the running game, rather than cheating up and costing 75 yards in 1 play. Be careful, Hamlin and Sensabaugh to not jump up on play action. This is a vital objective.
4) - Win the interior - The Packers have no elite players in their offensive line. This limits their playbook. Jay Ratliff and DeMarcus Ware are elite, and there are a few other members of the front 7 who occasionally do elite things. If the Cowboys win this battle, they will win the game. The Packers OL is sweating with nerves already wondering how they are going to get the big, bad Cowboys front 7 blocked.
SUMMARY: I would totally ignore my selection this week, because I never know how to predict Green Bay games. Sorry, but I have 37 years of history, here, and I learned long ago that I have no idea how they are going to respond. I do know that this could very well be their last stand, and hypothetically, that should affect their performance if they want to have a reason to play in December.
Playing at Lambeau is often a boost for the road team, too, so I don't know if that has any true effect.
I have detailed why the conditions are right for an ambush, but I am also someone who studies the NFL way too much. My studies over the years conclude that if you win the line of scrimmage, you should be fine. The Cowboys' OL should not have a big problem against the Packers' front, and the Cowboys' DL should mess with the Packers' OL all game long.
Assuming the Cowboys control the giveaways, they should win this game late.
Can they deal with success?
Cowboys 30, Green Bay 24
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