Even though the opponent is the same, things are vastly different from two years ago in this pivotal playoff matchup which all points to a different result.
For the Dallas Cowboys and their fans, this is the moment that you have waited 734 days to have again.
On January 11, 2014, the Cowboys were four minutes and forty-two seconds away from advancing to the NFC Championship. One highly questionable reversal took that opportunity away.
Now, the same opponent is before a very different Cowboys team that will be playing in front of their fans for the same chance to move on.
Literally half of the Dallas Cowboys roster that participated in the #DezCaughtIt game is no longer on the team. The same is true of the starters as there is ten different guys the Cowboys now rely upon.
What is not debatable is how much better this defense has become.
It all starts with the appearance of linebacker Sean Lee, who was not available for the 2014 game. The fact that the Cowboys will have their best defensive player on the field today cannot be overstated.
Staying at linebacker, former Cowboy Bruce Carter played 94% of the defensive snaps in that 2014 game. Anthony Hitchens played on 65% of the snaps. The most talented player at that position, Rolando McClain, only participated in 13%.
Replacing Carter’s 94% with Lee is a huge upgrade. One would have to think that Justin Durant will get something close to Hitchens 65%. That’s another upgrade.
This alone improves the defense but it doesn’t stop there.
In that divisional round loss to Green Bay, defensive tackle Nick Hayden played 74% of the snaps. That led the defensive line. Jeremy Mincey (68%) and George Selvie (54%) were two of the three next highest. Defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford also played 68% of the snaps, primarily at end.
Today, if Crawford gets Hayden’s percentage of snaps in the middle of the line, you have to consider that another huge upgrade. Now, replace that 68/68/54 split that Mincey, Selvie and Crawford had with Terrell McClain, Maliek Collins and Demarcus Lawrence and things look even better.
On the back end, safety J.J. Wilcox and cornerback Sterling Moore played 100% and 90% of the defensive snaps, respectively in 2014. Today, the Cowboys have Byron Jones and Morris Claiborne available for that workload. Wilcox is still in the fray, albeit with a lesser role, as is rookie cornerback Anthony Brown.
Literally, at every level, the Dallas Cowboys are better defensively than they were two years ago. That alone could be the difference as Dallas could not stop a hobbled Aaron Rodgers from having a magnificent day.
Battling a strained calf, all Rodgers did was go 24/35 for 316 yards and three touchdowns. The worst part is that the Cowboys only sacked him once, despite his limitations.
Putting pressure on Rodgers is a huge key to this game, When he is sacked three or more times in a game, the Packers are just 32-32.
Another huge factor will be how the Cowboys secondary deals with Rodgers’ two biggest weapons, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb. In that 2014 game, the Cowboys were able to shut down receiver Jordy Nelson however Adams and Cobb combined for 15 catches, 233 yards and a touchdown.
This time around, Nelson is not available at all. That should help Dallas focus more on Adams and Cobb which will be absolutely necessary. Adams has five touchdowns and two 100+ yard games over his last five. Cobb is coming off of a 116 yard, three touchdown performance against the Giants.
Can the Dallas Cowboys defense respond to the moment and hold up against a formidable foe?
Well, they have all year and there are many factors going in their favor again today. This year, the Cowboys have faced offenses that were in the top ten on four occasions. They won all four times.
The Packers, meanwhile, have faced a top ten offense five times, losing all five games. Offensively, you expect Dallas to be good but as the old adage goes, defense wins championships.
It’s not the championship just yet, but you need this one to get one step closer to that destination. I believe the Dallas Cowboys will do just that.
Packers 21, Cowboys 34