LLANO, Tex. — In all the jubilation over Zeke and Dak and Dez and the offense that runs and passes like a Mercedes, it’s been largely overlooked that the Dallas Cowboys have a defense that’s barely above average in the NFL. They’re 14th in yards allowed.
It didn’t matter so much when they were sweeping through the NFC East, whose idea of a good quarterback is the prematurely aging Eli Manning and the now-you-like-him, now-you-don’t Kirk Cousins.
But now we’re in the postseason, and look who’s left among the NFC quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan.
There’s no other way to the Super Bowl, and frankly, I’m not sure the Cowboys are ready, even though they have the best record in their conference and continually exceed expectations.
It should help that as they prep for Sunday’s divisional playoff against Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, the ’Boys regain the services of their best cornerback, Morris Claiborne.
But you have to wonder how much discounted he is from his peak value three months ago. Since then he’s had groin surgery, which I don’t even want to think about, and he hasn’t played in a game.
He wasn’t even scrimmaging until this week.
Not to be making excuses for the Cowboys. They are the healthiest of all playoff teams. The concern in Cowboy Country is that they may be so refreshed that they’ve gone stale.
They’ve had their first-round bye, and that came after they pretty much took the week off against the Philadelphia Eagles.
History has shown that the teams that focus on health and rest tend to get an earlier and longer vacation than the teams that charge – or even limp — into the postseason fueled by momentum and adrenalin.
We’ll see if the rested-up Cowboys are ready for the Packers, who look like a Category 5 force. They’ve won seven straight games, during which Rodgers has thrown 19 touchdowns and no interceptions. They’ve scored at least 30 points in each of their past five games.
True, on Sunday they probably will be without Rodgers’ favorite receiver, Jordy Nelson, whose rib cage was fractured by the New York Giants. But after seeming bereft of pass-catching talent in October, when they lost by two touchdowns to Dallas, the Packers now are overstocked with receivers who are in sync with Rodgers.
Randall Cobb is back to being Randall Cobb. Various injuries curtailed his production over the past two seasons, and he was questionable for the Wild Card with a gimpy ankle. But when Nelson went out, Cobb stepped in and tied a playoff record with three touchdown receptions.
He will catch, and Davante Adams will catch, and so will their latest pheenom, Geronimo Allison. The tight end, Jared Cook, and the wide receiver/running back Ty Montgomery will catch.
I’m not sure who will stop them.
The Cowboys’ defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli, will try to match up Claiborne on Adams, a wide receiver who has 12 touchowns. But that will leave Cobb with the edge on the very average Brandon Carr, and Rodgers is sure to find opportunities there and elsewhere.
Marinelli’s defense is not the kind that befuddles anyone, least of all Aaron Rodgers. Simplicity brings the reward of few breakdowns, but because the Cowboys rarely blitz, the opposing passer too often makes himself comfortable in the pocket.
And according to the rating service Pro Football Focus, the Packers’ offensive line is pass-blocking as well as anyone’s.
So Rodgers should have time to locate open receivers. And no one is better at creating extra time than he is, spinning and running from trouble.
Realistically, the Cowboys cannot hope to stop Rodgers but just to limit his opportunities. They will call on Ezekiel Elliott to run the ball and soften up the defense so Dak Prescott can throw to Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley and Jason Witten being lightly covered.
The Packers are a solid run defense – eighth in the league. But Elliott is No. 1 in rushing, he’s a rookie with fresh legs, and he has the league’s best offensive line blocking for him. Chances are the Cowboys will be able to run enough to set up Prescott’s passing, and they will maintain their all important sense of balance.
I agree with The Dallas Morning News columnist Kevin Sherrington: “Best to keep it from turning into a shootout.”
But there may be no avoiding it. Neither defense is good enough to stop the other team’s offense.
Sherrington, a close observer of Prescott throughout his rookie season, is probably correct that a shootout at JerryWorld would be “a matchup too big for the Cowboys’ quarterback at this point in his career.”
It’s not that Rodgers is invincible. Along with a Super Bowl championship he’s had many big-stage failures in his career. But he’s a supremely gifted athlete – powerful arm, quick legs and mind, exceptional vision.
His temperament sometimes fails him, but not lately. He’s a streaky quarterback on the hottest streak of his 11-year career. New York has a better defense than Dallas, and couldn’t stop him. I don’t see the Cowboys doing it.