For as much fun as it has been to watch the Packers' high-flying passing attack over the last several years, Sunday afternoon's game was, to me, football at its finest. Really, it should be no surprise that a Wisconsin graduate like me would like a game that features nearly 40 rushing attempts, over 200 yards on the ground, and a (mostly) suffocating defensive performance.
The beauty of that game plan, however, was its ability to make everyone forget about the deficiencies of the Packers' receivers. And I mean everyone...even Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli lined up his defense in zone coverage at times, which allowed Green Bay's wideouts to get some separation.
While the game plan was great, the performance of the Packers' offensive line deserves plenty of credit. They set the tone from the first series, opening up holes for Eddie Lacy and James Starks and generally making live easy for the players behind them.
The Packers' receivers are what they are at this point. There's probably not much that adding Ty Montgomery to the mix will do to help them get separation, and while I still think more can be done in play design to scheme the players open, that only goes so far. If this team is going to make a deep playoff run, it will need to repeat Sunday's rushing performance a few times.
The time for Mike McCarthy to reclaim his play-calling duties was overdue, but the fact that the head coach acknowledged he made a mistake deserves plenty of credit. Even though his first game back in the saddle included some rough patches (particularly in the third quarter), the offense clearly functioned at a higher level than it had in months. The offense came within less than a foot of producing 21 points in the first half, a total greater than most of the games Tom Clements called since the bye week. It seems unlikely that Clements regains the play sheet the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, the defense has quietly hit its peak over the last 30 days. It has surrendered 20 or more points only once during that span, and that game -- last week's win over the Detroit Lions -- saw the unit defend two extremely short fields within the first quarter of play. Even without the qualifier, this is the best defense Dom Capers and the Packers have rolled out since 2010.
Sometimes it's fun to watch running backs maul people. Dallas isn't a good team, but by DVOA they were a frisky 15th against the pass, and while the Packers actually did a decent job through the air, what I really liked about this game was the fact that they saw a weakness (Dallas is 26th against the run) and pounded the ball. And pounded it again. And again.
The Packers ran the ball 39 times. I can't remember the last time a Packer team ran that much in one game, but Starks and Lacy were basically unstoppable. Due to the quality of opponent I'm going to hold off on pronouncing Eddie Lacy "back", especially considering that Starks was better on a per-carry basis, but Lacy looked strong and punished defenders. The defense did exactly what they should do against a Matt Cassel offense. There were a few troubling breakdowns on run defense, but in general this was a dominating, fun performance, and a nice palate-cleanser before a relatively tough final 3 games.
This is the type of football the Packers need to play down the stretch, and it is something we have not seen in quite some time. Deep down I always thought McCarthy would take back the play calling duties, and I am glad the time finally came. It is just hard to imagine someone with such great success calling plays in the past standing back while his offense is stuck in neutral. Watching the same formations set up different looks throughout the game is something that has been missing with Clements in control.
Also, is it possible the Packers were simply stashing Lacy and keeping him fresh until the stretch run of the season when he is needed the most? I am kidding of course (I think) but it is nice to see him running on fresh legs and dominating the way we are used to seeing. With the passing game looking sluggish, though it looked much better Sunday, a reliable run game is the best way to survive.
The defense, meanwhile, continues to prove that they are more than capable of holding their own. It seems to me like they have been severely overlooked this season while so much talk is directed toward the struggling offense. This is a unit that has given up just over 15 points per game in their last five games. That deserves some serious recognition. Maybe Packer fans are so used to watching and relying on a great offense, they forgot what a stout defense looks like. I'll be the first to admit that I fall into that category. For the first time in what seems like forever, the defense is outplaying the offense.
I've always believed the Packers' bigger problem with their offense was the actual play design as opposed to the plays being called. After all, a menu filled with ham sandwiches isn't going to net you a filet depending on when you order. So when Mike McCarthy finally yanked Tom Clements' clipboard away, I was among those who believed there wouldn't be much difference.
But what I underestimated about that move was the effect it would have on the players themselves. For the first time in weeks, this actually looked like a confident group. There was a pep in their step, an excitement about them that had been devoid throughout most this season. Some of that can be attributed to the emotional residue of last week's miracle in Detroit, but it was clear from the beginning of this one that the players feel far better about Mike McCarthy calling the plays - even when some of those plays include a freaking fade route to John Kuhn.
The question now is whether that excitement will last. We see teams get re-energized all the time when there's a coaching, front office or personnel change but it's almost always a brief fling, with teams fading back to who they really are after a few games. So while there's certainly plenty to feel good about after this win - the tempo of the offense, the pass rush, Eddie Lacy turning defenders into Lambeau Field mulch - it was also against one of the worst teams in the league. The remaining three games have the Packers facing a suddenly frisky Oakland team on the road, the NFC West-leading Cardinals, and the Vikings, who are still nipping at the Packers heels for the NFC North title. Those will be the games that tell us whether the Packers are truly a different team with McCarthy calling the plays, or if it was all just a fling.