By Jason Keidel
In the cutthroat, zero-sum calculus of pro football, most teams would be celebrated for winning three of their first four games. But not the 2016 Green Bay Packers.
Is there a 3-1 team more trivialized? You’d think a club with their cachet and current roster/record would be way more lauded. The team’s patriarch, after whom the Super Bowl trophy is named, turned middletown into Titletown. To hear the cynics, the Packers are a loss or two from plunging down the rungs of relevance. Aaron Rodgers is one interception from becoming Brock Osweiler.
Who knows where these doomsday diagnoses are spawned? But it seems Colin Cowherd has hammered the nails into Rodgers’ vocational coffin. Cowherd pointed to a clear decline in Rodgers’ production, particularly in the second half of games, during which he has yet to toss a touchdown this season.
But Rodgers set the bar so high it’s almost impossible to keep up. One could argue that his 2011 was the best season for a QB in NFL history — unless you can find fault with 45 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.
Since his Super Bowl season (2010), Rodgers has been in a quarterback class all his own. Yours truly has argued that Rodgers had a four to five-year period that was the gridiron equivalent of Sandy Koufax. Rodgers has posted PlayStation numbers so often we, frankly, take his talent for granted.
Word is he had a sharp drop in production last year. Perhaps he did. But he still tossed 31 TD and 8 INT. If that’s your local QB’s idea of a bad season, then count your lucky cheeseheads.
All concede that Rodgers isn’t his typical, terminator self, slinging pellets past cornerbacks, nestling nicely into Jordy Nelson’s arms. But any notion that Rodgers, 33, is over the hill is a stretch. It merely looks stark because he’s gone from Herculean to human over the last 10 or so games, dating back to 2015. But don’t count out No. 12.
And here come the Cowboys. back to the scene of the crime. Depending on your loyalty, Lambeau Field is either heaven or house of horrors. Two years ago, the Packers and Cowboys played a fantastic playoff football game, forever remembered for the fourth-quarter, Dez Bryant catch that was called back. (You won’t find someone less impressed or infatuated with the Cowboys than yours truly, but Dez caught that ball.)
The Packers are supposed to be 3-1, sniffing the top of the NFC Central. Maybe few expected the Vikings to be the most dominant team in the NFL as we approach Halloween. But no one — other than Skip Bayless — expected the Cowboys to be a glittering 4-1, and atop the NFC East. Especially considering franchise QB Tony Romo hasn’t taken a snap this season. And considering Ezekiel Elliot should have some kind of learning curve.
But instead, two NFL neophytes are leading the Cowboys into prime, playoff form. Starting with rookie QB Dak Prescott, whom, to hear the locals, is playing with the poise and leadership of Roger Staubach.
This game may not have the gravitas of their playoff matchup, but this is clearly the marquee game of the weekend and will tell us much about both teams.
The general sense is that Green Bay has grown fat on a soft schedule, with wins over the Jaguars, Lions and Giants. But their lone loss of the season was on the road, by just three points, agains the Vikings — easily the most dominant team in the NFL thus far. If Green Bay beats Dallas, then cynics can’t make those assertions anymore.
The Cowboys just whipped the Bengals, have all kinds of mojo and momentum on their side and, as always, feast on the false moniker, America’s Team. But a win at Green Bay, who leads the NFL in rush defense, is far from guaranteed.
This is the classic gridiron case of strength on strength. Elliot leads the NFL with 546 yards on the ground. And the Cowboys lead the league as a team, with 776 (155.2 YPG). They also lead the NFL with 11 rushing touchdowns.
Green Bay yields a staggering 42.8 rushing yards per game. To give you an idea of how stout the Packers have been, consider that David Johnson has had the highest rushing total for a single game, with 157. The Packers have surrendered 171 yards — all season.
The Packers, of course, have been way more generous to opposing passing games, allowing 1,100 yards in just four games (275 YPG). But it may not be as much of an issue considering that Prescott is hardly posting Dan Marino numbers.
The Cowboys’ aerial assault under the fledgeling QB has been cleverly coined ‘Dak and Dunk’ in reference to the short passing game the club has designed for him. Indeed, Prescott has thrown for 1,239 yards, 15th in the league. And he’s only thrown 4 TD in five games. But an equally telling number is zero — the number of interceptions he’s thrown, which is quite startling for someone who played in the SEC last year.
Rodgers hasn’t exactly been awful. Going into the Giants game last weekend, he had tossed 7 TD and 1 INT. No doubt he’s not his normally accurate and lethal self; he’s completing 56.1 percent of his passes, though he has yet to throw for more than 260 yards in a single game. His gridiron BFF, Nelson, is back. So something is indeed askew. But let’s chill before we toss soil over his NFL grave.
No matter, it’s hard to argue with 4-1, and atop the totem pole of the NFC East, which is where Dallas currently sits. It would be equally hard to argue with 4-1, and second place in the NFC Central. Which is where Green Bay would sit with a win on Sunday.
Might even be worth a Lambeau Leap.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.