Saying this is "a different Packers team" than it was in Week 6, when Green Bay lost at home to Dallas by 14 points, is not exactly true. Yes, the Packers are running a more diverse offense, and Aaron Rodgers is playing with extraterrestrial confidence. But Green Bay's lackluster defense is essentially the same.
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A disappointing playoff finish by coordinator Dom Capers' unit in Green Bay has become an annual tradition, like oversized Packers riding bicycles to open training camp. Sunday's matchup in JerryWorld could be Capers' biggest challenge yet with the Packers -- and possibly his last.
Consider that the powerhouse Cowboys scored 30 points in Lambeau Field despite two uncharacteristic turnovers by Dak Prescott. Dez Bryant didn't even play in the game. When the Cowboys lined up and ran straight at Green Bay, the Packers had no recourse.
All of that explains why Capers leads our group with the most to prove on a loaded Divisional Round Weekend:
Dom Capers, defensive coordinator, Green Bay Packers
Try to name the game in which the Packers' defense stepped up and played like a group ready to embark on a championship run. Any brief, late-season uptick was undone over the last month. Green Bay's D finished No. 20 in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, a ranking that is somehow better than what two of Capers' groups have managed over the last six seasons.
This is a nightmare matchup because Dallas coordinator Scott Linehan and Prescott don't care which crazy formations and blitzes Capers cooks up. The Cowboys run their offense and attack weakness. The size and coordination of the Dallas offensive line enveloped Green Bay's front repeatedly back in Week 6. Green Bay's inside linebackers, Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez, were big problems in the first matchup. The Cowboys can expose Green Bay's linebackers in coverage with Ezekiel Elliott catching passes and by flooding the middle of the field with receivers. Martinez, in the meantime, has lost snaps to linebacker Joe Thomas, who did not look great coming off injury on Wild Card Weekend.
Green Bay's undermanned cornerback group, especially LaDarius Gunter, couldn't cover Brice Butler and Terrance Williams on the outside the first time around. Cole Beasley destroyed slot man Micah Hyde a few times. How are they going to deal with Dez?
Capers has no easy answers. Five of his defensive backs played every single snap against the Giants, with six defensive backs on the field for 23 snaps. Dallas will steamroll Green Bay on the ground if the Packers take that approach Sunday.
Capers will be tempted to cook up pressure with blitzes, because there's little reason to think he can create it by rushing four. His best pass rusher all season, Nick Perry, was limited and ineffective against the Giants. Clay Matthews is having his worst NFL season. In addition to Mike Daniels, Green Bay's best defensive player right now is Julius Peppers, an ageless wonder who also showed up in the first Cowboys game. He can win his battles against the weak link in Dallas' offensive line, right tackle Doug Free. Perhaps the only way to combat the Cowboys' monstrous front line is with a physical freak of your own. Capers knows he doesn't have many of those in this group.
Brock Osweiler, quarterback, Houston Texans
Congrats on throwing for 168 yards against the Raiders, Brock. Now try to solve a Bill Belichick defense determined to slow your decision-making process from glacial to inert.
Osweiler made a few great throws against Oakland, but he didn't show an ability to adapt if his first read is taken away. The Texans averaged 4.2 yards per play against the Raiders, which was significantly less than their 31st-ranked average for the season. In short: The Osweiler-led offense didn't look that much different. A meltdown by the quarterback in New England would eradicate the good "Brock for President!" vibes generated by the Wild Card Round. It would create a mandate for Bill O'Brien to find Brock's replacement in the offseason. (That is, if O'Brien is still his coach.) No pressure!
Andy Reid, head coach, Kansas City Chiefs
This is Reid's best chance to win a championship since he coached the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles. That's how balanced the Chiefs are on offense, defense and special teams. General manager John Dorsey and Reid have worked for four years building toward this team, this moment.
The Chiefs haven't won a home playoff game since Joe Montana was their quarterback back in January of 1994. As thrilling as this 12-4 season has been, a one-and-done loss to Pittsburgh would make it feel like a waste of time, not unlike Marty Schottenheimer and Dick Vermeil's 13-3 seasons in Kansas City. A loss would support the deep-seated fears that these Chiefs and Alex Smith are a fine, well-coached operation that doesn't truly belong with the NFL's heavyweights. In a division with the rising Raiders and reigning-champ Broncos, the Chiefs know playoff byes will be hard to come by. Their time is now.
Richard Sherman, cornerback, Seattle Seahawks
By his lofty standards, Richard Sherman had a solid -- not great -- season. He's been feistier than ever with the media, not to mention his offensive coordinator. With Earl Thomas gone, he is the leader of a still-excellent secondary that must know it has seen better days.
Enter a matchup with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and the best big-play offense in football. When the Falcons and Seahawks met the first time around, Sherman held Jones to 40 yards on 25 plays in coverage and helped generate Matt Ryan's only interception of the game. Julio picked up 99 yards in only 12 plays when Sherman was not covering. Translation: Expect Seahawks coaches to ask Sherman to follow Jones whenever possible on the outside. (Sherman typically never ventures into the slot.)
Stopping Jones hardly guarantees that the Seahawks stop this entire Falcons offense. But a big game from Sherman would go a long way in the first Seattle playoff game of the Pete Carroll era in which his defense is at a clear disadvantage.
Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers
A few unsolicited and probably unfair notes on the Steelers quarterback:
1) Roethlisberger has thrown seven touchdowns and nine interceptions in his last seven playoff games.
3) Roethlisberger finished No. 10 in my year-end QB Index, his lowest final ranking in my four years of performing the exercise. He's made some incredible throws all year, but it was arguably the worst season of his Hall of Fame career since 2008. He's thrown six touchdowns with seven interceptions over his last four games.
4) That propensity for picks is a troubling trend heading into Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs tied for the league lead in interceptions, with Marcus Peters and Eric Berry among the best defenders in football at making plays on the ball.
Big Ben, like Tom Brady earlier this decade, has undeniably played his best football after his greatest team success slowed down. Now Roethlisberger needs a run like Brady had in 2014. It's a first-world-team type of problem, but Steelers fans are so hungry for a few signature wins to validate this Todd Haley-era squad.
This has been Roethlisberger's first chance to play with Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown both healthy together in the playoffs. The group needs a defining playoff win, because there's no guarantee these chances last forever.
Dallas Cowboys secondary
The deep Dallas secondary quietly played a major factor in the Cowboys' surprising season. That group now will be required to cover for five seconds at a time while Aaron Rodgers dances, looking for the perfect pass.
Dallas' DB crew, ranked No. 1 by PFF, gets a big boost Sunday with the return of cornerback Morris Claiborne. Jordy Nelson's broken ribs could remove one of Rodgers' best weapons. (UPDATE: Mike McCarthy announced on Friday that Nelson will indeed miss Sunday's game.) Green Bay is still incredibly deep with pass catchers, though, with Davante Adams playing like a true No. 1 receiver and Ty Montgomery's pass-catching skills out of the backfield. Tight end Jared Cook should help open up the middle of the field for a resurgent Randall Cobb.
Stopping Rodgers might currently be the toughest job in sports, just ahead of scorekeeper at a Russell Westbrook game. The Packers' offense occasionally resembles one long scramble drill. Packers coach Mike McCarthy can also dial up slow-developing routes because he knows Green Bay's line, the best pass-protecting unit in football, will give Rodgers all the time he needs. It's on the Cowboys' terrific safety duo, Barry Church and Byron Jones, to keep plays in front of the defense. Despite Dallas' improved sack total down the stretch and the healthy return of defensive ends Demarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford, there is little reason to believe the 'Boys will consistently pressure Rodgers. (They had exactly two QB hits in 45 Rodgers dropbacks in Week 6.)
That leaves it up to the Cowboys' secondary and Rodgers to both stay disciplined; the most patient team in this chess match wins. Rodgers can sometimes take all that time in the pocket for granted, eating unnecessary sacks. He can skip a 5-yard gain, looking for more. The tradeoff in big plays usually makes it worth it for Rodgers, but the Cowboys were one of the NFL's best teams at preventing plays over 25 yards.
With this secondary, the Cowboys are qualified to at least slow down Rodgers, content to give up yards if they can just keep Packers receivers in front of them. Forcing field goals will be a win in a game that could resemble an Arena League shootout.