Cowboys Upset Proves Packers Are Viable Playoff Threat

Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and RB Aaron Jones
Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and RB Aaron Jones
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 10 - The Green Bay Packers have been in a state of disarray for most of the 2022 season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is on pace to post his second-worst passing DVOA since becoming a full-time starter. Since the Packers moved on from star wideout Davante Adams, Rodgers has failed to get on the same page as his receivers. He called them out during training camp (which receivers apparently didn't take kindly) and questioned playing time allocation across the roster in October. Even head coach Matt LaFleur's play calling came into question, with Rodgers asking LaFleur to "simplify some things" in the offense that helped Rodgers win back-to-back MVP awards.

I'd be frustrated, too, if I was a quarterback on a potential conference contender that had not won a game since October 2. Even with the departure of Adams, a five-game skid that featured losses to both New York teams, the Washington Commanders, and the Detroit Lions did not seem to be in the cards for these Packers . With the Minnesota Vikings running away with the NFC North and the conference wild cards quickly slipping away, the Packers needed to stop the slide by any means necessary. That task wouldn't be made any easier after losing defensive starters Rashan Gary and Eric Stokes for the season.

In an increasingly high-strung locker room with mounting pressure to turn things around, Green Bay needed to heed the sage wisdom of one of its own. To beat the Dallas Cowboys, the Packers just needed to "R-E-L-A-X."

Offensively, the Packers stuck with what they are good at: rushing the ball. Their top-10 offense by DVOA is propped up by a sixth-ranked rushing attack, which in turn is spearheaded by Aaron Jones, who leads all running backs in DVOA with a career-high 27.9%. The Packers had gone 1-5 coming into Week 10 when passing in more than 50% of offensive plays. While those games can vary in game plan and situation, Green Bay found a model of success on Sunday by leaning into a run-first offense, and boy did they lean into the run. Green Bay ran 24 pass plays, with Rodgers getting sacked twice and scrambling two more times. Even with those additional plays factored in, those are dwarfed by the 37 designed run plays Green Bay called on Sunday. Green Bay's running backs averaged 5.5 yards per carry on the day, but the real takeaway came in the passing game. Passing so sparingly and situationally, coupled with the incorporation of play-action, helped the Packers achieve an offensive passing DVOA of 80.0%. That's their best DVOA performance through the air this season by almost 30 percentage points, topping Week 2's 52.8% against the Chicago Bears.

The Packers started out the game by running the ball seven straight times on their first drive and on 13 of their 16 first plays. That commitment to the run is what opened up massive passing gains for Green Bay's offense. After an end zone interception by Rudy Ford, Green Bay opened their ensuing drive with three straight runs (one wiped out by offsetting penalties). With a third-and-1 near midfield, Dallas had every indication this would be a rushing down for the Packers. The play-action Green Bay ran got the linebackers in the second level to bite and kept the single-high safety honest, giving Christian Watson a one-on-one go ball on the outside.

Watson had himself a day, eclipsing the total yardage output from his previous six appearances with a four-catch, 107-yard game, accounting for three of Green Bay's four touchdowns. Games like this were why the Packers selected Watson 34th overall in the 2022 draft. At 6-foot-5, Watson still has the speed necessary to separate from defending corners. Both of his long touchdowns on the night highlighted that, with LaFleur building in separation by placing Watson in a trips bunch. Dallas is forced to play off, and Watson's break inside maximizes the cushion afforded to him by the Cowboys defense.

Defensively, Green Bay stuck to its usual plan with some additional wrinkles. The Packers run a zone-heavy pass defense, something that Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott struggled with early. Prescott missed his first four passes of the game, leading to two opening three-and-outs. He eventually adjusted, focusing heavily on crossing routes over the middle and comeback routes along the sideline. This kept Prescott from truly testing Green Bay's secondary, with only eight of his 46 pass attempts targeting receivers deeper than 15 yards downfield and only four deeper than 20 yards, per Next Gen Stats.

The Cowboys also leaned heavily on the rushing attack, albeit not as consistently as the Packers. Tony Pollard and Malik Davis combined for 27 rushes, while Prescott chipped in four quarterback sneaks (all of which were converted). The Packers emphasized eliminating big plays from the Cowboys. In two of his last four games, Pollard posted a rushing attempt of at least 50 yards. While he still averaged over 5 yards per carry in Week 10, Pollard's longest rush of the afternoon was just 14 yards. Green Bay executed quality run fits throughout the game, with safety Adrian Amos consistently coming in as the last line of defense and mitigating massive gains from the Cowboys rushing attack.

In addition, the Packers used their edge defenders as spies on Prescott. In the run game, Dallas ran multiple plays where Prescott could have faked the handoff and kept it himself for a moderate gain.

On this play, the first assignment for Green Bay's Kingsley Enagbare (55) is the Prescott keeper, working inside to the rusher once he has confirmed the ball has been handed off. This comes just one game after Prescott had his best rushing day of the season, finishing with five carries for 34 yards against Chicago, including a 7-yard touchdown run and a 25-yard gain. The same assignment kept the Cowboys honest on play-action, especially in overtime. Prescott ran a bootleg out, giving him the option to run or pass once outside the pocket. However, the Packers running that extra edge as a spy kept Prescott pressured.

This win single-handedly kept the Packers' season alive. While the NFC North divisional race is all but locked up by Minnesota at this point, Green Bay currently occupies the ninth seed in the wild-card race. Yes, there was still some drama in this game. Rodgers was seen yelling at LaFleur for end-of-game play-calling decisions. But LaFleur also owned up to it afterward. Rodgers told reporters how he wanted "a chance to go win the game." At least it comes from a place of mutual interest.

There still remains some ironing out to do on the communication front, but the win over Dallas serves as a sage cleansing for the rest of the Green Bay Packers locker room. There is a recipe to win that worked against a quality opponent coming off a bye. It would be a bit of a longshot, but there is a path to the playoff still on the table for this Packers team.

By the DVOA

DVOA OFF DEF ST TOT
DAL 5.2% 14.8% 4.1% -5.5%
GB 40.9% -7.5% -5.5% 42.9%
VOA OFF DEF ST TOT
DAL 4.2% 19.5% 4.1% -11.1%
GB 29.9% -2.5% -5.5% 26.8%

The Packers finish with their best offensive DVOA, best offensive passing DVOA, and fewest pass attempts of the season.

The Cowboys made a pivotal decision to go for it on fourth-and-3 from Green Bay's 35-yard line in overtime, passing up a 53-yard field goal. Prescott nearly evaded pressure, which would have led to a surefire first down had he escaped, but instead the Packers sacked Prescott for only the second time that afternoon. Our win probability model, which favors going for it more than other models, liked the decision:

WP Go: 67.2%
WP FG: 63.1%

ESPN's more conservative model considered the decision a toss-up, favoring the field goal by less than half a percentage point:

WP Go: 59.7%
WP Kick: 60.1%

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

This was the Cowboys' game to lose, and they certainly lost it. Coming into this weekend, the Cowboys had gone 180-0 in the regular season when entering the fourth quarter with a 14-point lead, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Expand that to the playoffs, and Dallas was 195-0.

Green Bay was only even in the game in the first place because the Cowboys threw two interceptions that the Packers converted into touchdowns. Color commentator Greg Olsen did an excellent job explaining that, boiled down, both picks were a result of poor execution in the route.

Dalton Schultz's route over the top was meant to clear out safety Rudy Ford, allowing CeeDee Lamb a cleared space in the end zone. Schultz's route failed to do that, and Ford capitalized with his first interception of the afternoon. Ford's second interception came on the back of a miscommunication between Prescott and Lamb. Prescott was expecting Lamb to run a dig route underneath his defender. Lamb ended up running a post route, Prescott threw the ball blindly, and Ford set Green Bay up with a short field.

While failed execution resulted in glaring mistakes, the Cowboys' continued lack of discipline sunk them on Sunday. Dallas was charged with nine penalties for 83 yards, with two more flags ruled out in offsetting penalties. Three of those penalties—an offensive offsides, an offensive holding, and a facemask—came in overtime, with the two offensive penalties wiping would-be first downs off the board. Despite Dallas having a penchant for out-playing their own mistakes (two of their four touchdown drives Sunday featured offensive penalties), it doesn't excuse the fact that these easily avoidable mistakes still occur. Dallas ranks fifth in the league in penalties against, with three of the teams ahead of Dallas not having played their bye.

Dallas is in an ever-tightening race for the NFC wild cards with the NFC East still within grasp. Dallas sits just two games in the loss column behind 8-1 Philadelphia, with a home game against the Eagles in Week 16. Their remaining schedule is very manageable—the entire AFC South, one more go-around against the rest of their own division, as well as road games against the Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans. Our numbers deem that the seventh-easiest remaining schedule in the league.

This team is much too talented to have losses squandered to penalties and miscommunications. The Cowboys are good enough to make the Super Bowl, especially given how wide-open the NFC is. If they hope to break their 26-year streak of failing to make it out of the divisional round, it starts with cleaning up these easy-to-fix mistakes.

Comments

7 comments, Last at 16 Nov 2022, 4:20pm

#1 by BigRichie // Nov 15, 2022 - 5:33pm

The Mighty Pack finally passed the ball more than 5 yards downfield. While holding off a topnotch Cowboys pass rush.

Points: 0

#2 by KnotMe // Nov 15, 2022 - 5:39pm

I'm kinda curious what the standards are for 1 game showing a team to be a viable playoff threat. If they make it they well get some respect bc well, that's what happens when you have a first ballot HOF QB. (Same for TB). 

Points: 1

#3 by Romodini // Nov 15, 2022 - 5:55pm

The Cowboys would still lose to Aaron Rodgers if the Packers were the worst team in the league, so I wouldn't consider them to be a playoff threat yet. Losing big or emotional games is simply what the Cowboys do. The Cardinals were also on a skid last season when they suddenly appeared to get right against the Cowboys before promptly sucking again.

Points: 1

#4 by BlueStarDude // Nov 16, 2022 - 11:32am

The Cowboys are “much too talented”? They have some talent, for sure, but too talented?

Lamb is fine, he's not one of the top wideouts in the league though. Gallup was a great #3. Pollard and Zeke—good, but there are several better backfield pairs. The trio of TEs are fine/promising. Martin, a stud, and the rest of the guys upfront make for a good OL with decent depth. Dak is better than Cooper Rush (OK, and half the league), but he's a "can win with" not a "will carry you" or whatever.

The defense has talent on the edge, and Diggs, but is otherwise filled with castoffs and overachievers, and Dallas hasn't been able to stop the run since they had a healthy Sean Lee. The CBs lacked depth (due to the two 2021 draft picks not being good) and now it's an issue. Even Parsons, and maybe it's the nagging injuries he's been playing through, as an off-ball LB this season, has been more underwhelming than not (as an ER of course he's amazing—and to reply to a comment in a different thread, he has beaten plenty of holds, that's why his win % is so high).

Points: 0

#5 by Romodini // Nov 16, 2022 - 1:36pm

On the issue of Dak and the offense, here's a great, although long, breakdown from Kurt Warner:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2TiSKHjQks

I don't have an issue with them forcing the ball to Lamb because he's their best weapon, but it's not good that he has route running issues and doesn't flatten the angles enough. At times it seems Dak doesn't trust his receivers, and I can't blame him when that trust leads to interceptions due to bad routes.

At the end of the day, I think the Cowboys need to run the ball more, which is something I never thought I'd say after the Garrett days. I don't know whether it's because Kellen is auditioning for a head coach job and is in love with his own passing plays, the coaching staff has too much faith in Dak, or that Dak is killing too many run plays, but at this point it doesn't make sense to not run the ball when it's the strength of the team and Dak's inconsistency is unlikely to change at this point. He's more talented than a play-action dependent QB like Tannehill, but Dak has always been better in a heavy run and play action system, so I just don't see an excuse not to use it more when they're not playing from behind.

Points: 0

#6 by BlueStarDude // Nov 16, 2022 - 2:37pm

RE: "At the end of the day, I think the Cowboys need to run the ball more, which is something I never thought I'd say after the Garrett days."

Agreed, right down to the "never thought I'd say" — couldn't believe I kept saying to run it more on Sunday, but there I was telling my TV screen to run it. 

And, yeah, there is an issue with knowing where to place the blame. I've been dinging Dak a bit in FO comments for Sunday's performance, but I'm not even really thinking about the interceptions, where everyone knows there were route issues. How much is on the receivers for that vs the coaching? And IDK because I haven't gone back to rewatch the game but there were some key plays on Sunday where it sure seemed like the pass routes being called were oblivious to the situation.   

Points: 0

#7 by Romodini // Nov 16, 2022 - 4:20pm

I've soured on Kellen's route designs and offensive acumen since the Niners loss, not surprisingly after watching a Kurt Warner breakdown of that game. The 4th down call in overtime had like one good option by design, and it was covered. 

Points: 0

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