With only three games left in the 2013 season, the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys sit on the outside of the NFC playoff picture. What makes this game so important for both teams is that a loss will likely keep them home during January and February.
That's why Green Bay's game plan has to be absolutely perfect this week. With the Cowboys coming off a terrible loss to the Chicago Bears on Monday night, there is no doubt they are going to be motivated to win in front of their home crowd. That'll make the Packers' task of winning on the road even more difficult.
Here's a breakdown of Green Bay's game plan for Week 15.
The Competitive Edge
Much like in the past few weeks, the advantage for this position all comes down to whether or not Aaron Rodgers plays this week. If he doesn't, the Cowboys will have a massive advantage with Tony Romo. Since Rodgers hasn't been cleared to play yet, Dallas gets the edge.
The battle between rookie Eddie Lacy of the Packers and DeMarco Murray of the Cowboys should be one of the best in the game. It's likely that the winning team will possess the running back who had the more productive day. As for who gets the edge, Murray's ability to make big plays pushes him over the top.
There is only one, maybe two, receiver with more talent that Dez Bryant. Jordy Nelson is close for Green Bay, but his production has dropped significantly without Rodgers. However, the supporting cast of James Jones and Jarrett Boykin ultimately gives the Packers the edge.
Advantage: Green Bay
This matchup is actually closer than anyone would think. Sure, Jason Witten is one of the best in the game, but last week, the combo of Brandon Bostick and Andrew Quarless really performed well for the Packers. Dallas still gets the edge, but it's close.
The Packers offensive line has given up 37 sacks on the season, including 12 over the past two games. Simply put, until it can start keeping its quarterback upright, the line won't have the edge over any other offensive line the team plays.
Let's get this out of the way so it doesn't need to be repeated: The Cowboys may have the worst defense in the entire NFL. And their defensive line is the weakest part of their defense. As for the Packers, their defensive line is coming off one of its strongest performances of the season.
Advantage: Green Bay
The Cowboys might have the most talented linebacker on the field in Sunday's game in middle linebacker Sean Lee. However, he isn't talented enough on his own to make up for the rest of a struggling unit. Green Bay got great production out of its linebackers last week, especially outside linebacker Mike Neal.
Advantage: Green Bay
The Dallas secondary gave up four touchdown passes and nearly 350 passing yards to quarterback Josh McCown of the Chicago Bears last week. Not even the Packers secondary is that bad.
Advantage: Green Bay
Packers Offense vs. Cowboys Defense
The Packers offense looked much improved against the Atlanta Falcons last week. This is especially true for how it played in the second half.
The good news is that the unit has a chance to play an even better game this week due simply to how poorly the Cowboys defense has been this year. The chart below from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) will give you a good idea of just how bad the Cowboys defense is:
Via Pro Football Focus
Dallas is allowing nearly 300 passing yards per game. So, in order to be successful, the Packers offense will need to attack through the air.
Whether Rodgers or backup Matt Flynn plays quarterback doesn't matter as long as he can push the ball down the field. If the quarterback can get the ball into the hands of playmakers like Nelson, Jones and Boykin, they should have no trouble picking up chunks of yardage.
The Cowboys run defense is also poor and is giving up an average of 126.7 rushing yards per game, the sixth-most in the league. While Lacy may not be completely healthy (more on this later), he probably doesn't need to be in order to have another 100-yard rushing game.
All signs point to the Packers offense having a major advantage over the Cowboys defense. Green Bay should have no trouble putting enough points on the board to ultimately win this matchup.
Packers Defense vs. Cowboys Offense
The Packers defense has been one of the worst in the league all year. However, the good news is that it played its best football in the second half of last week's game. Hopefully, that means the unit will have some momentum heading into this matchup.
The bad news is that it will absolutely need all of that momentum due to the potency of the Cowboys offense. What makes the Cowboys offense so dangerous is that it can beat you in a number of ways. If Dallas can't get the ground game going, it will just turn to the likes of Romo, Bryant and Witten to destroy a defense through the air.
That means every positional unit on the Packers defense will need to do its jobs. The defensive line and linebackers need to win in the trenches and put pressure on Romo. The secondary will need to limit big plays and make tackles when the opportunity arises.
There is no doubting the potential that Green Bay has on defense, but its execution has been severely lacking this year. The Packers will finally need to reach that full potential in this week's matchup in order to get enough stops to win this game.
Last week was the first week in a long time that the Green Bay's coverage team didn't allow a huge play on special teams. That's good news for this specific matchup, because the Cowboys have a dangerous return man in Dwayne Harris.
Harris has already taken one punt back for a touchdown. He's also averaging 30.5 yards per kick return and 14 yards per punt return. Simply put, he has the potential to give the Cowboys a huge advantage on special teams.
As for the Packers' return game, it hasn't looked good since Micah Hyde returned a punt for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings back in Week 8. The Packers did a good job of not allowing special teams to beat them last week, but they'll need to play even better this week against a better return game.
Wednesday's Injury Report
|Evan Dietrich-Smith||OL||Knee/Ankle||Limited Participation|
|Brad Jones||LB||Ankle||Did Not Practice|
|Eddie Lacy||RB||Ankle||Did Not Practice|
|Jamari Lattimore||LB||Knee||Did Not Practice|
|Mike Neal||LB||Abdomen||Did Not Practice|
|Nick Perry||LB||Foot||Limited Participation|
|Aaron Rodgers||QB||Collarbone||Limited Participation|
|C.J. Wilson||DL||Ankle||Did Not Practice|
There is quite a bit to digest from Wednesday's injury report for Green Bay.
For starters, the fact that neither Brad Jones nor Jamari Lattimore practiced is a little worrisome. If Jones and Lattimore can't go on Sunday, the Packers will be forced to start Victor Aiyewa alongside A.J. Hawk at inside linebacker. If you're unfamiliar with the name Aiyewa, join the rest of the world's population.
The fact that Lacy also didn't practice on Wednesday could be an issue. It was easy to see that he wasn't even close to 100 percent in the second half against the Atlanta Falcons last week, so it's definitely possible his ankle injury is much more serious than originally thought.
Of course, the good news is that there are still two days for these players to get back on the practice field.
As for our weekly checkup on Mr. Rodgers, Josina Anderson of ESPN had this good news concerning the All-Pro quarterback:
TE Andrew Quarless told me that Aaron Rodgers took 1st team reps with the offense today. LT David Bakhtiari told me Rodgers called plays.— Josina Anderson (@JosinaAnderson) December 11, 2013
Unfortunately, Pete Dougherty as USA Today quickly brought all talk about Rodgers back to Earth, writing, "Aaron Rodgers' chances of playing again this season are diminishing by the week."
Overall, there is plenty of good news and plenty of bad news as of right now for the Packers' injury report.
The Packers Will Win If...
...The defense makes two stops.
Will the Packers beat the Cowboys?
That may sound like an extremely specific request, but two defensive stops are all Green Bay needs. With the Cowboys defense allowing a league-worst 421.6 yards per game, the Packers should have no trouble moving the ball and putting points on the board.
However, the Cowboys offense has the ability to score in bunches. It's averaging 27.4 points per game, good for the third-best in the league.
This game could potentially turn into a shootout between the two offenses. That means whichever defense is capable of coming up with stops will likely win the game for its respective team.
One stop isn't likely to be enough, so the Packers will need two defensive stops to beat the Cowboys.