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News » Pack vs. 'Boys is stuff of legends

Pack vs. 'Boys is stuff of legends

Pack vs. 'Boys is stuff of legends
When the Packers and Cowboys meet up, memories of great battles and clutch performances spring to mind immediately.

The 1966 and 1967 NFL Championship games, the 1995 NFC Championship, even last year's regular-season meeting are remembered by fans of both organizations.

For me, Dallas-Green Bay evokes thoughts of the game that never was. I think of it as the imaginary 1996 NFC Championship.

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The Pack put it all together that season. Brett Favre, the reigning MVP, no longer had to do it all himself with a viable running game built around Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens. The defense was led by several veterans, including HOFer Reggie White, Sean Jones and Leroy Butler.

But despite having a championship-caliber team, the one place they always laid an egg was Texas Stadium.

Mike Holmgren's Packers saw their season end in Dallas in the '93, '94 and '95 playoffs. Three straight postseason losses created some animosity between the clubs, but more importantly, they drove the Packers to clinch home field throughout the playoffs in '96. After they went 13-3, all roads to Super Bowl XXXI would go through Lambeau Field.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, had won three of the previous four Super Bowls. However, their motivation under head coach Barry Switzer was in question throughout the season. With Leon Lett and Michael Irvin out several weeks for disciplinary reasons, the team struggled. Two of their most consistent performers, Charles Haley and Jay Novacek, also missed nearly the entire season with lower-back problems, causing the team to limp through a 10-6 season.

Then came the playoffs. With Irvin in the lineup, the Cowboys destroyed the Vikings 40-15. The following Saturday in the divisional round, the Packers manhandled the 49ers in a mudfest.

Everyone in the country wanted to see the Cowboys go for another NFC title in Green Bay, but it never happened. You see, the Cowboys had a game to play the Sunday after the Packers' win ... in Carolina. And that's where the dream died.

Irvin busted his shoulder on the Cowboys' first series and Deion Sanders would leave the game in the second half after filling in at wide receiver. The Cowboys were beat.

For so many fans, Carolina going to the NFC Championship was a major disappointment. As lovable as the Sam Mills-led Panthers were, they had no shot against the Packers.

About a year ago I asked former Cowboy fullback, and FOX analyst, Daryl Johnston about the game that never was, suggesting that Irvin's injury changed everything.

"We would have gone up there and gotten killed anyway," he said.

Film study

For the matchup with the 2008 Packers, the biggest storyline is what Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips and defensive coordinator Brian Stewart must do to slow down the Packers' attack. Stewart is essentially running Phillips' defense, which has been on the NFL landscape for years. It's a pressure-oriented 3-4, utilizing the outside linebackers for much of its pass rush. The Cowboys have two of the best in DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis, who combined for 26.5 sacks last year.

But the 'Boys can't rely only on those guys to bring heat. That was seen last Monday night versus the Eagles. With the Eagles' starting receivers hurt, stopping Brian Westbrook, the best player in the NFC, and receivers such as tight end L.J. Smith was vital. This meant using Ellis, Ware and backup Anthony Spencer to play in space on several occasions, not just attack the pocket.

The problem with that strategy is the same one the team faced in 2007: The defensive ends. Former first-round pick Marcus Spears and highly touted Chris Canty aren't getting pressure on the quarterback on their own.

Too often Canty is getting caught flat-footed with a big offensive tackle like the Eagles' Tra Thomas. Ellis replaces Spears at defensive end on certain passing downs in an effort to create a pass rush. This robs the defense of a pressure performer at outside linebacker.

The other major issue resides in the secondary. Former head coach Dave Campo was brought back to shore the group up. While Campo has three Super Bowl rings, he doesn't have his biggest gun: Terrence Newman. The Cowboys' best corner was out during the preseason and opening day, and was limited Monday night. Newman can cover the slot receiver or hold his ground even when the quarterback has three or four seconds to throw.

When Newman is not in, the starters are Anthony Henry and Adam Jones. Both let Eagles receivers get big cushions, giving McNabb some easy quick throws. Henry isn't the fastest and Jones is so rusty that the cushion he's giving receivers is understandable, but it's not helping the team win.

Eagles coach Andy Reid altered formations and moved Westbrook around in an effort to get desirable matchups — kind of like any Cowboys safety on any Eagle. At times, Harold Carmichael and Vince Papale could have gotten open.

The defensive breakdowns came about because McNabb had more than ample time to find his second, third and fourth options, and Reid used Westbrook in every capacity.

Westbrook is the queen on the chessboard. His presence prevented the Cowboys from ignoring the run and forced the 'Boys linebackers to recognize their surroundings, partially negating their pass rush.

When both Ellis and Ware were free to pursue the quarterback, they managed to wreak some havoc, sacking McNabb three times and hurrying him a couple others.

What I learned

Can the defensive ends get enough pressure on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers so the secondary doesn't get exposed? If not, is Newman healthy enough to start while Jones shakes the cobwebs loose to give the Cowboy rush time to plant Rodgers?

Green Bay's young quarterback has played well, but more credit should go to his offensive line. While the Packers' running attack has been up-and-down, the passing game has thrived. Because of the line play and Rodgers' poise, the Pack has destroyed the blitz. Rodgers is 15 of 19 against the blitz through two weeks. That's over 73 percent!

That said, I think the buck stops here for the Pack. Newman is supposed to start and Packers running back Ryan Grant is not Westbrook. The Cowboys should have more freedom using their big 'backers to go after Rodgers.

The Packers' receivers, Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, are better than the wideouts the Eagles were lining up. But with Newman back, it could be a wash.

Pick: Cowboys (but I yelled at myself and said some hurtful things too)

Odds and ends

  • DeSean Jackson is getting a lot of heat for his "premature celebration" Monday night. I saw longtime Cardinals receiver Pat Tilley do the same thing against the Cowboys, coincidentally on Monday Night Football, in 1985. Does anyone remember that or am I the oldest person in this room?

  • A reader noticed that I mentioned Cowboys tackle Flozell Adams in "Odds and ends" two weeks in a row. Just for that, I'm doing a weekly Flozell Adams watch.

  • Flozell Adams Watch: No sacks allowed versus the Eagles. Some really gnarly sweaty pants though.

  • Author:Fox Sports
    Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
    Added: September 20, 2008

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