Both of these NFC divisional round games have been played already this season. Both games happened in week six this year but the home team for each game has flipped. Last Word went back to week 6 and broke down what happened, and what we can expect to see this weekend.
NFC Divisional Round Rematches
Week 6 – Dallas Cowboys (4-1) @ Green Bay Packers (3-1) – Dallas 30-16 victory
Dallas was the much sharper team. While both teams moved the ball, it was Dallas who made the big plays down the field and turned their drives into touchdowns. A crucial series came right before halftime. Green Bay was unsuccessful in the two-minute drill and punted back to Dallas with under one minute left. The Cowboys ran a five play, 97-yard drive in just 37 seconds to take a 17-6 halftime lead. Green Bay had three second half turnovers and were never able to get back into the game because of them.
What We Learned
This game was billed as the unstoppable force (Dallas rushing attack) versus immovable object (Green Bay run defense). Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott had three straight 130 yard rushing performances coming into this game, while Green Bay had allowed just 171 yards on the ground total over their first four games. The unstoppable force won. Elliott finished with 157 yards. It was not a consistent domination on the ground, but because the Cowboys always had the lead they were able to rush 28 times with Elliott. This allowed him enough tries to break off big runs, ultimately finishing with six carries of over ten yards.
This game was also early enough in the season that the Tony Romo versus Dak Prescott debate was in full force. Prescott had a strong performance that pretty much cemented his status as the Cowboys starter.
The Packers starter Aaron Rodgers did not have such a great day. Although Green Bay started the season 3-1 it was clear Rodgers was not his usual dominating self. To this point his completion percentage for the season was below 60 percent, unheard of for the All-Star signal caller. This game was also the first game in a 1-5 slide the Packers would fight through.
Rodgers was uneven all day and was never able to connect on any passes down field. This forced the Packers to drive the ball slowly down the field and ultimately they settled for too many field goals. His performance must have been particularly disappointing because his offensive line dominated in pass protection (the Dallas rush felt a lot like the New York Giants rush from the Wild Card game last week). Green Bay moved the ball nearly every time they touched it – Dallas forced just a single punt all game. Instead it was a couple costly turnovers and Rodgers inaccuracy downfield that sunk the Packers.
What Has Changed
Dallas has battled defensive injuries since this game but they are expected to have all of their players back in time for the divisional round.
The bigger changes are for the Packers who have had two key changes since this game. Lacy is out for the season and Ty Montgomery has been moved to running back for the Packers. Although Lacy started the game in week six, Montgomery saw limited action at running back for the first time all season in this game. The Packers were more explosive with Montgomery on the field. He finished with just three carries but had 98 receiving yards, often coming out of the backfield.
The bigger change though has been to Aaron Rodgers himself. Although Rodgers slumped at the beginning of the season on the way to a 4-6 start for the Packers, he has been on fire since. The Packers haven’t lost since week 12, with four victories over playoff teams in that time.
This game may have seemed like a domination but it was really an offensive game where one team was sloppy and the other was on point. Only three punts were forced all game, and just one of them by the Cowboys defense. Now that Rodgers has turned his game around it is likely that both offenses will be sharp for this game. If the Packers offensive line can have a similar performance to week six they will have no trouble scoring points on the Cowboys.
For the Cowboys, there is little reason to think anything will change from an offensive perspective. Their key players on offense are healthy so it will just be a matter of their rookie quarterback and running back playing up to the big moment. If they can establish an early lead then Elliot will be allowed to take over the game. If Green Bay is able to match the Cowboys scores early then this will end up as a high scoring game, and it will come down to the offense that makes the big mistake that decides the game.
Week 6 – Atlanta Falcons (4-1) @ Seattle Seahawks (3-1) – Seattle 26-24 victory
Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise were out, so Christine Michael (now on the Packers) started at running back. He had a good game and wasn’t really a downgrade from Rawls. Also missing were safety Kam Chancellor and defensive end Frank Clark. For Atlanta there were no big injuries, although receiver Taylor Gabriel went out before halftime and did not return.
This game was a tale of two halves, or maybe a tale of three quarters. The Seattle defense dominated the first half and got consistent pressure on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan. The Seahawks were able to start drives at the Atlanta ten yard line (touchdown) and 45 yard line (field goal) because of stellar play by their defense. The halftime score was 17-3.
Atlanta came out flying in the second half with three straight touchdown drives to take a 24-17 lead. In the fourth quarter, Seattle’s offense finally showed up and produced their two best drives of the night, resulting in a missed field goal, and a touchdown. The defense supplied the other field goal needed to win when they picked off a pass intended for Julio Jones with under five minutes left.
Fans may remember this game for the controversial non-call on Atlanta’s final offensive play. Facing fourth and ten, Ryan launched a pass deep to Jones who was double covered by Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas. A grab by Sherman on Jones went unnoticed and the pass fell incomplete at the Seahawks 35 yard line. It was a missed call, but it was hard to argue Atlanta deserved the victory after being thoroughly outplayed the entire fourth quarter.
What We Learned
The Seattle defense dominated the Atlanta offensive line at times during this game, mainly in the first half. When they were getting pressure Atlanta went nowhere, gaining just 86 yards all half. When that pressure was blocked up though, Ryan had no trouble finding open receivers in the Seattle secondary. Jones was a big factor, but there were also some great play designs by the Falcons that ended up getting free runners who were hit for some big gains. Ryan had 220 passing yards on the three third quarter touchdown drives alone and Atlanta looked totally unstoppable.
The damage could have been a lot worse had it not been for Thomas. He made several minor plays in the game but he had his share of impact plays too. At the end of the first half, Thomas delivered a clean hit on receiver Taylor Gabriel that put him out for the game (and ended the Falcons drive). With the Seahawks trailing 24-23 and time running out he came away with a huge interception to set up the winning score. Finally, he was in coverage on the games key play (the incomplete pass to Jones).
Offensively the Seahawks were inconsistent. Their run blocking was strong and their passing was mostly quick strike so the Falcons rush was not a factor. Jimmy Graham had a big game catching passes over the middle, mostly exploiting holes in the Falcons zone coverage. They came up with their biggest drives when they needed them most, and that’s what was the difference in the game.
What Has Changed
Thomas Rawls has replaced Christine Michael as the Seahawks lead back. Based on how effective Michael was in this game, the difference is not huge. Desmond Trufant started this game at cornerback for Atlanta but is now out for the season. Doug Baldwin was not a big factor in this game and the Seahawks wanting to avoid Trufant may have been a factor in that.
The biggest change however is the Seahawks loss of Earl Thomas. Although Kam Chancellor missed the first game, and is now back, the bigger loss based on the Falcons style of play is Thomas. Atlanta often attacks down the field and that is Thomas’ territory. The Seahawks pass defense has suffered greatly since Thomas was injured in week 13, twice giving up over 30 points in just five games.
The other big change for this game is the venue. The Seahawks have the biggest home field advantage in the league, and CenturyLink Field is often the loudest stadium. This crowd noise has no bigger impact than on the opposing teams offensive line and their ability to pass protect. This was the key early in the week six tilt. The Seahawks were buzzing around on defense and disrupting Ryan. When the pass rush cooled off the Falcons offense kicked into high gear. With the move to Atlanta to play in the Georgia Dome; will this have a big impact on the Seahawks ability to pressure the quarterback? If they cannot rush Ryan then the Seahawks will not be able to shut down the Falcons, who will easily score 20+ points.
The Seahawks pass rush has not been dominant late in the season, so this scenario is likely to play out. It is then necessary for Russell Wilson and company to have a big game to match the Falcons. Rawls will be key in shortening the game and reducing the number of possessions for each team. But the Seahawks will still need Wilson to be on top of his game and Jimmy Graham or Doug Baldwin to step up and get in the endzone. Without this the Seahawks simply won’t be able to keep up.