As the season goes on, we typically get to know teams better and better. Rosters take shape. Identities get established. Tendencies form on both sides of the ball.
Then you have the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys. As they head into their 14th game of the season, who really knows what to make of these teams? Just this season alone, the Packers have been everything from a playoff contender with an elite offense to a struggling, broken down bunch that couldn't finish off the UFL candidate Minnesota Vikings. The Cowboys have been equally as Jekyll and Hyde-ish. This is a team with enough firepower to hang with the Denver Broncos - one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history - but that also has a defense so completely inept that no one ever knows which side will win out. Whereas most teams are already consistently good or consistently awful, the Packers and Cowboys represent a rare case of two teams with still more questions than answers this late in the season. Will any of that change this Sunday? Here are five things that could come into play.
The Packers' running game
We know the Cowboys pass defense is abysmal but they do have one thing going for them in this game: Matt Flynn. Of course, the slim possibility still exists (at least at the time of this publication) that Aaron Rodgers plays, but if you're Mike McCarthy or Ted Thompson, do you really want Aaron Rodgers playing on the same turf that broke Charles Woodson's collarbone and nearly did the same to Sam Shields? Assuming Flynn gets the start, he'll certainly have his opportunities to throw, but he'll be immensely helped by a solid running game. The Dallas pass defense might be bad, but what does it matter if the offense you're up against is one-dimensional? That leaves it up to Eddie Lacy and James Starks, who should get a few more carries with Lacy's ankle being hurt to make things easier for Flynn and the passing game.
The Latest on Aaron Rodgers from Thursday
Two things need to happen on Friday for Aaron Rodgers to start on Sunday: a scan that clears him to play and a lot of reps in practice.
This kind of fits in with running the ball, but the Packers' best chance to win on Sunday might just be from keeping the Cowboys offense off the field. Romo and his oversized suits can outright chuck the ball and if the Packers offense gets into a habit of going 3-and-out too often, things could get ugly quick. Likewise, the Packers with Flynn can't afford to get into a shootout with the Cowboys. We've seen Flynn go into "He's on Fire" mode before, but to expect that this game (or ever again) is probably unreasonable. Because of that, I expect to see more of a focus on sustaining longer drives for the offense. Of course, that responsibility falls on McCarthy, who will need to devise a game plan that can make that happen.
If there's one thing the Cowboys defense can do, it's create turnovers. To date, they've forced the second-most in the entire league with 12 fumbles and 13 interceptions. I'm jealous of the second number, too. In a way, the Cowboys defense isn't terribly unlike Green Bay's from 2011. The Packers finished that season ranked dead last in the league in yards per game, but thanks to finishing second in takeaways (and an earth-scorching offense) the Packers were able to rack up plenty of wins. The Cowboys aren't quite on that level offensively, but it doesn't make them any less dangerous. Winning games versus almost any opponent usually comes down to turnovers, but when you're facing an offense like the Cowboys, protecting the ball becomes even more crucial. For the Packers, it likely means more boring slant routes and checkdowns from Matt Flynn, but if it nets yards (and points) while keeping the Cowboys offense on the sideline, I'll take it.
Pressure from Perry
From a sheer entertainment standpoint, there are few quarterbacks that rank higher than Tony Romo in my book. There's just something great about seeing him pirouette out of four potential sacks, find his footing, and deliver a strike to the corner of the end zone. He's a fun, Favreian type player who can make a lot out of nothing and because of that, the Packers will have to find ways to get consistent pressure on the Cowboys QB. One of the ways they can do that is if Nick Perry comes to play. I've been hard on Perry this season but in fairness to him, he's been banged up and, in a lot of ways, is still getting his feet wet as an outside linebacker. If the last two games are any indication though, Perry could be coming around. He was the lone bright spot in Thanksgiving's crap-fest, totaling 5 tackles, 1 sack, and a forced fumble, and followed that up with a decent day last week including six quarterback hurries. I'm not sure whether Perry is the answer at linebacker, but it's clear the defense is far more dynamic when he's on his game.
The Dez Bryant show
Even with their success versus other top-flight receivers this year, the Packers should be plenty concerned with Bryant. He's one of the most physically gifted wideouts in the league and can hurt defenses in a variety of ways from jump balls, to going over the middle and even getting past safeties for the long ball. Of course, that's all dependent on Bryant being the mature, composed player he's been for the majority of this year and not the unhinged, fire-breathing malcontent he's susceptible to morphing into. That's kind of what makes Bryant interesting, though. The Packers corners might only do so much versus Bryant's 6'2, 230 lb. build and 4.5 speed, but if they can get in his head, who knows? He might just impale someone with one of the down markers and then voila! One receiver fewer to worry about.