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Wild Card Weekend Walkthroughs: The MVP race, the Cowboys’ defense, and the Packers’ chances

Acme Packing Company writers weigh in on Wild Card Weekend and look ahead to the upcoming matchup between the Packers and Cowboys.

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NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers has handled the Cowboys before. Can he do it again?
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Wildcard Weekend

Jonathan Barnett on the MVP race

While the MVP race might be won looking purely at Brady’s raw numbers for touchdown:interception ratio, it bears noting that Rodgers plays so much better when playing top flight pass defenses. When facing defenses in the top half of the NFL in passing DVOA, Brady has eleven touchdowns and two picks in six games (half his season). That is good for a touchdown rate of 5.6% of his throws and an interception rate of 1.0%. Rodgers had seven regular season games against teams in the top half and had 16 touchdowns and three interceptions. That would be a pace of a touchdown on 6.5% of throws and an interception rate at 1.2%.

What makes this difference more impressive is that Rodgers played five of those games against top ten DVOA passing defenses and Brady only faced two. At this higher level of competition Rodgers still had a touchdown rate of 5.8% and an interception rate of 1.6%, while Brady had a touchdown rate of just 4.2% and an interception rate of 1.4%. Brady was able to pad his stats by playing four of his 12 games against three of the five worst pass defenses in football (Cleveland, San Francisco, and the Jets twice). Brady had 12 of his 28 touchdowns in these four games. Roughly 43% of his touchdowns in just a third of his season. Rodgers came up far bigger in bigger games. That showed true again in the playoff victory over the Giants… the fourth-ranked pass defense in DVOA.

Paul Noonan on the Cowboys defense

Pro Football Focus ranked the Cowboy secondary as the #1 unit in football. Their grading is...what’s a nice way of saying garbage...suspect? Let’s go with suspect. DVOA isn’t everything, but they rate the Cowboys as having the 18th best pass defense in football. A lot goes into that ranking, including the Dallas linebackers struggling in coverage, but even on the outside, while you have some top 10 performers, there is no one who scares you. So what is DVOA seeing that PFF is not (or vice versa)?

I think most of the answer lies in the lack of good quarterbacking around the league. Brady, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Brees, and Matt Ryan (this year at least) are so much better than everyone that if you don’t happen to face any of them, you can end up looking really good. The Cowboys did shut down Rodgers, but there are so many weird caveats to that game that I would throw it out entirely as a data point. Kirk Cousins is a flawed, but useful quarterback, and he averaged 406.5 yards and 2 TDS per game against the Cowboys. He is probably the third best QB they faced all year. The 2nd is Ben Roethlisberger who threw for 408 yards, 3 TDs, and no picks.

The rest of their schedule is a cavalcade of suck including Eli Manning and Carson Wentz twice, Brian Hoyer, Blaine Gabbert, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford, and QB Browns. If you want to argue that Matt Stafford is actually good, feel free, but he’s not in the same class as Ben and Aaron, and when the Cowboys have faced actual good quarterback play of that caliber, they’ve surrendered a ton of yards.

It’s easy to look like the best against the quarterback version of the Browns.

Evan “Tex” Western on Rodgers’ trust in his receivers and Wild Card trends

Aaron Rodgers completed another Hail Mary on Sunday against the Giants and threw darts all over the field in the second half, but his finest play against the #2 overall (by DVOA) New York defense might have been his first touchdown. That was the throw to Davante Adams on which Rodgers danced around in the pocket for about nine seconds before somehow finding Adams in the back of the end zone with a defender draped all over him.

It was a bit reminiscent of the touchdown he threw to Jordy Nelson against the Seahawks - the one where Nelson pointed to the corner of the end zone with Kam Chancellor’s back turned to Rodgers. Rodgers’s ability to identify defenders who aren’t paying attention to him and to find a way to get the “covered” receivers the football is an impressive trait, and one that requires extensive familiarity with and trust in those receivers. Perhaps it’s why that trust factor is mentioned so often by young receivers who join the Packers - plays like these illustrate just how important that trust can be on those schoolyard-type plays when Rodgers extends the play.

I also have one observation about the 2016 Wild Card round as a whole. Last week’s results formed a trend that had not occurred since 2011: all four division winners won their home games in the first round of the playoffs. Furthermore, it was a weekend that didn’t see a single close game, as the first game of the weekend was the closest with a 13-point margin of victory. Those two trends are odd, but they still were not as strange as the Wild Card round last season. Last year, all four road teams won instead, the only time that has happened since the current playoff format began in 1990.

Alex Petakas on the future of Aaron Rodgers

For almost half of the NFC Wildcard game last Sunday, prior to Aaron Rodgers’ five-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams to take a 7-6 lead with 2:32 left in the second quarter, the Packers offense was inept. The Giants defense sacked Rodgers four times, three of which came on four-man pressures (and one from Landon Collins where Rodgers willingly ran out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage) and could be categorized as coverage sacks. One of them took the potential of points off the board, knocking the Packers out of field goal range.

Rodgers also committed one of the worst penalties of his career, sailing a ball to the left sideline without a single receiver anywhere near that side of the field. That was flagged for intentional grounding and it took another field goal attempt off of the table.

But one 31-yard completion to Adams up the right sideline and one freakishly accurate touchdown toss into the smallest of windows seemingly got Rodgers into a rhythm, giving the Packers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. It will be easy to forget that rough stretch against the Giants. But that brief slump was emblematic of everything that plagued Green Bay in 2015 and portions of 2016.

Pass protection was more than adequate and still, there was nowhere to go with the football. The Giants fit the mold of a team that can make this confusing version of the Packers reappear. They have a talented secondary that doesn’t need pressure on the quarterback to get by because they can cover receivers downfield for extended periods of time. And while the Packers broke out of that funk in a major way, it should serve as a stark reminder that there is no such thing as too many weapons and that more skill position talent will only help their future Hall of Fame quarterback “plateau at his peak” and play at a high level well into his 30’s.

As a spoiled-rotten fan who is nowhere near ready to acclimate to a mere mortal quarterbacking this offense – I hope Ted Thompson remembers Sunday’s first half as vividly as the second.

Gary Zilavy on the Cowboys’ chances of winning

This is the fourth season in franchise history that the Cowboys started out with a 9-1 record – once in the 70’s, once in the 80’s, and most recently in 2007. The previous three times Dallas got off to a hot start, they were unable to win a single postseason contest.

If you’re a Packers fan, it’s a hopeful feather in your cap. Before I go – one more stat that you can use Sunday afternoon with your friends and family. Since Dallas’ offensive line assembled in 2013, the Packers and Cowboys have matched up four times. In those four contests, the Cowboys have averaged a staggering 6.4 yards per carry. However, Green Bay is 3-1 in those contests.

Jon Meerdink on David Bakhtiari

One of the unsung heroes of this Packers’ season has to be left tackle David Bakhtiari. He’s been an anchor on the left side of the offensive line, despite playing alongside relative newcomer Lane Taylor.

My skepticism of Pro Football Focus is well documented, but it’s still worth noting that he’s PFF’s top rated pass blocking left tackle. That he’s already this good despite being just four years removed from being the 109th pick in the draft is incredible. That he’s only 25 is nothing short of amazing.

David Bakhtiari has been a huge part of the Packers’ success this year, and given how quickly salaries tend to rise for a position group once someone signs a new big deal, it won’t be long before Bakhtiari’s recent contract extension is an absolute bargain.