If you believe "the best defense is a great offense," then the result of Sunday's game falls to the group that had the ball in its hands down on the other end of the field. If you believe Aaron Rodgers is nearly unstoppable -- especially in AT&T Stadium against the Cowboys' defense -- then you have to roll the tape back to where there is still 1:24 to play in the game.
That is where my attention goes.
Ezekiel Elliott just reeled off a zone-read give for eight yards. The Cowboys are rolling. They have the Packers on the run and the game in their sights. Yes, they trail 28-24, but because of two consecutive challenges -- one from each head coach -- we had a Cowboys first down, challenged back short of the sticks, then a Cowboys fourth-down stop, challenged barely ahead of the sticks, all within moments. SkyCam saved the day with a view of Elliott reaching the ball past the hash mark at the 19-yard line.
Then, Elliott eats up eight more yards. The Cowboys have the Packers down to one timeout and there is a very real possibility now -- with 1:24 to go -- that if the Cowboys play this right, they can take the clock almost all the way down, burn the Packers' last timeout, and then drive over the goal line with no time remaining. Perhaps even a replay of Bart Starr crashing in behind Jerry Kramer, but here it's Dak Prescott following Zack Martin to pay dirt.
But that requires some perfect decision-making to complement the rough execution of driving the dagger into the heart of their current nemesis.
And this is where the decision-making went bad. You see, the play before it (the Elliott eight-yard run) and this play and the play after (the Prescott touchdown) were all basically the same play call off the RPO (run-pass option) we talk so much about. They all gave Prescott the authority to diagnose the situation and defense's alignment, and all the coaches can do once they give him complete control of the steering wheel is to hope he makes the correct decision.
Now, they do that because he makes the correct decision almost every time. And, just like the loss to this same opponent 266 days ago in the exact same location, Prescott played a brilliant game that should have been more than enough for the Cowboys to leave with a win. Unless, of course, the other guy plays a game even closer to perfection.
So, here is second and 2 with 1:24 to go. Prescott's biggest decision blunder is to look at the Packers in pre-snap and diagnose what he sees as a call that is an automatic in the Dallas offense. You see a corner on his own -- this time, Davon House (a man released by the Jacksonville Jaguars in March and re-signed by his original Green Bay team shortly thereafter) -- trying to handle Dez Bryant in the red zone. This is a read the quarterback sees only on occasion since most opponents don't try it anymore, but when you do see it, the alarms go off. Tony Romo saw this at Lambeau Field when Sam Shields was trying to do the same thing back in January 2015, and now Prescott saw House on Bryant all by himself.
You always go to this throw. It is 100 percent the correct read, in a vacuum. But that decision was incorrect here.
If you go to that read, Bryant on House, you have a number of potential outcomes. The best one is a touchdown, which is great to give the Cowboys the lead, but then you give the Packers way too much time to answer to a three-point deficit based on lessons learned in January. Another not-so-great outcome is an incomplete pass, which gives Green Bay a timeout it didn't have to spare.
Prescott almost always makes the right decision. But here, you have to ignore your meetings and instincts and you have to play the game in front of you. In other words, this decision is automatic -- unless you are playing against the clock. On second and 2, you run the ball and keep the clock moving. You cannot allow the Packers to keep their timeout with the remaining time. The quarterback did not know his situation well enough at this early stage of his career.
The clock stops at 1:18 and sets up a third and 2. The Cowboys call yet another RPO. If there are three different adventures for RPOs, we see them all here. Give to Elliott on the dive, keep and throw to the open man (which worked for the second Cole Beasley touchdown in the first half) and, finally, keep the ball and run to the opposite corner after Elliott draws all the attention from the backside edge defender.
On this third down, Ahmad Brooks crashed in on Elliott and had both arms around No. 21. Problem is, he didn't have the ball, and now Prescott runs to the space Brooks just vacated and turns the corner. From here, Mike Daniels is not facing the run, and no other Packers defender is close. Jason Witten has Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on a block and the safety had no chance, either. By the time anyone touches Prescott, he had already crossed the goal line to score an 11-yard touchdown with 1:13 to play. He was untouched.
It made you wonder if the Packers were playing a game in their own heads. Surely they weren't, but watching Clinton-Dix not really give effort to get around Witten suggested that they knew if they couldn't stop Elliott on that fourth down, maybe their best chance to win was giving Rodgers the ball back as soon as they possibly could. In other words, if you can't stop them, let them score quickly. Twenty years ago, they did that in Super Bowl 32 with different players and coaches, and anyone who follows Green Bay was thinking that very thing yesterday.
Should Prescott have considered getting to the 1-yard line and purposely falling short of the goal line to eliminate any chance Green Bay had at a response? Let's be clear: I am not sure any team in the history of the sport has tried this while trailing. Brian Westbrook did it at Texas Stadium in 2007, but that was with his team leading 10-6. Was it crazy to consider it? Could Green Bay have stopped the Cowboys four times from the 1-yard line? And if you don't get the ball into the end zone, does Jason Garrett get fired for his quarterback's decision?
Prescott scored to give the Cowboys a 31-28 lead -- as any football player surely would have there -- but, we will always wonder if the only way to win this game would have been to "pull a Westbrook" and understand that not only did you have to score, but you also had to leave no chance for a response. He went in virtually untouched, and then it fell to the defense to save the game as Dallas kicked the ball back to Green Bay with 1:13 to play.
In January, Rodgers had two timeouts and 35 seconds to play in a game that was tied 31-31. This time, he gets 1:13 and one timeout against a defense that doesn't have Sean Lee -- and a point that has been made exceedingly clear through all of this is that Lee is, without question, the most indispensable member of the Dallas defense.
In that game in January, there was a moment when Jeff Heath had Rodgers for a blind-side sack and a chance to get the ball. He does not. Rodgers escapes disaster and eventually makes the play to win the game.
In this game, there will also be that moment when Dallas was right on top of him and he somehow pulled another escape act to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But first, on the initial four snaps of the drive, the Packers find 14 yards to Davante Adams on the left sideline, 14 yards to Martellus Bennett back to the right and 15 yards on a handoff to their third running back, Aaron Jones, who was anonymous until Sunday afternoon.
Those 43 yards in four plays carried them all the way to the Dallas 32-yard line with 39 seconds to play. They were already in field goal range, if you assumed Mason Crosby was in any shape to kick one (one thing that really had changed from Jan. 15).
But, after an incompletion and a short run, Green Bay faced a third-and-8 at the 30-yard line. This is the play that will stick in your memories for a bit.
The Cowboys are going to roll out the "Deacon" package, where they are in 2-deep, man under with three rushers and a linebacker playing quarterback spy. The two linebackers who are on the field are Anthony Hitchens and Justin Durant. One of them is to pick up Jones and the other is to keep Rodgers from breaking contain. The three pass rushers are the best the Cowboys have -- DeMarcus Lawrence, David Irving and Benson Mayowa from left to right.
The Packers will double-team Lawrence -- which requires the right tackle and right guard -- leaving Irving in a one-on-one with center Corey Linsley and Mayowa against Lane Taylor (who is their left guard playing left tackle for just the second time in his career). The left guard is responsible for a blitzing linebacker who appears to be Hitchens, but when Jones slides out of the pocket into a route, Hitchens goes with him. The problem with that is Durant is doing the same thing. The Cowboys have two linebackers who play both positions regularly, and on this occasion it appears both seem to be thinking they have the same responsibility. Both are on the running back, and neither is spying the guy with the ball and reputation -- Rodgers.
As the play develops, Mayowa is beating Taylor, and as Rodgers steps up in the pocket, Mayowa gets both hands on the quarterback at the 38-yard line. But Rodgers is able to power through that and head to the left sideline. Irving, who has tremendous mobility for a man his size, is now on top of Rodgers' path and dives from close proximity to get his legs at the 33-yard line. Somehow, Rodgers eludes him, too. Since there are no linebackers nearby and the secondary is in man coverage, he has a lot of space down the sideline and finally stops the clock and play at the 12-yard line with 21 seconds to play. It is a fresh set of downs, and that might have been the last chance to stop him, as the ending from here felt a bit inevitable.
The Packers then run consecutive back-shoulder fades to Adams against promising rookie Jourdan Lewis. As solid as the young Lewis is, he is still 5-foot-10, and the Packers knew to isolate him for a rather unstoppable concept if properly executed. The first attempt was not a great throw. The second one was perfect, and Adams caught it in a spot where Lewis could do almost nothing. The only way to stop that situation is generally to halt them further up the field. Green Bay is the gold standard in the red zone and ball placement from its quarterback is the top reason why.
Green Bay wins again, 35-31. The Packers won in the playoffs, 34-31. The Rams won last week, 35-30. If you are wondering if the Cowboys' offense can protect its defense, the answers here are pretty clear. In fact, thanks to football writer Scott Kacsmar, we have this ominous statistic to chew on: Since 2010, the Cowboys are just 15-10 in home games in which they score at least 30 points. Ten losses is double that of any other team in the NFL over that span. The league wins 89 percent of the time over that span. New England is 40-2, Green Bay is 28-1, Denver is 24-2 and Seattle is 21-2. Basically, nobody ever loses home games when scoring 30 points besides Jason Garrett's Dallas Cowboys. They have lost 10 times in 25 chances.
We certainly blamed Tony Romo for that and, on this Monday, I have blamed Prescott's decision-making a bit for this loss. Neither were perfect and unfortunately, because the franchise has had such a hard time building championship defense, they have had to be just that to win regularly as the Cowboys' QB1.
This is just the latest example of the opponent being one score better.