5 NFL Divisional Round X-Factors for the Packers and Cowboys

With Green Bay playing without its top wideout, do Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys have the edge in this NFC divisional round matchup?

In Wisconsin, Sundays from September through January are treated like religious holidays. All work ceases, loved ones are told to hush in reverence of the moment, and speaking in tongues shakes every house from Ashwaubenon to Oconomowoc while green-and-gold-clad revelers dance to Todd Rundgren’s “Bang On the Drum All Day”.

Half a country away, the heart of Texas thunders like a herd of stampeding bulls when the Sunday night lights go on. It’s less a faith and more a genetic code written into Texans to rage and holler at every first down, for blue-and-silver to adorn their walls, their cars, their lives. Playing and watching the game isn’t a hobby; it’s a birthright.

And I couldn’t be more excited to see two of the most storied franchises with the most passionate fans in the country, the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, square off this weekend in the NFC Divisional Round.

Only one team can win, but both of them have their own specific advantages -- and we’re not talking about which group of fans cheers louder.

Which storylines should you be following in this matchup of NFC titans?

Home-Field Advantage vs. Momentum

Will the Cowboys, who are playing in the comfort of JerryWorld, or the Packers, on a monumental seven-game win streak, have the intangible advantage?

Over the last 10 years, there have been 94 playoff games played. In that span of time, the home team won a convincing 62.77 percent of the time, with an average point differential of 4.04 points. They have soundly outproduced away teams in every statistical category, shown in the table below.

Category Home Away
Comp% 62.30% 59.11%
Pass Yds/Att 7.03 6.46
Pass TD 1.81 1.41
Int 0.99 0.99
Sack Allowed 2.15 2.17
Rush Yds/Att 4.16 4.03
Rush TD 1.04 0.86

This would seem to bode well for the Cowboys’ chances, especially given that they are expected to lead for most of the game and control the clock. But what about the Packers’ win-streak juju?

When we look at teams over the last decade on a winning streak of at least seven games with a turnover differential of 15 or more (like the 2016 Packers), we get 14 results per Pro Football Reference. Of those 14 teams, 13 made the playoffs (92.86 percent likelihood) and reached the divisional round, as did the 2016 Packers. On average, those playoff teams won 2.00 games in the postseason.

From there, it gets even more interesting. The table below shows the percent of teams with these streaks to win in each playoff round.

Result Divisional Champs Super Bowl
Win 71.43% 42.86% 28.57%

It’s a small sample size, but that just means the Packers are in rare company as well. They themselves went on a nine-game win streak to bring in a ring from Super Bowl XLV just six years ago.

Mojo seems to be split pretty evenly here.

Dak Prescott vs. the Packers’ Leaky Secondary

Dallas rookie quarterback Dak Prescott has dazzled opposing secondaries this year, and by numberFire’s Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back, he ranked third this year. Only Matt Ryan and Tom Brady -- consensus MVP frontrunners -- generated more value per play than Prescott at quarterback, and Prescott also came in third in Passing Success Rate (the percent of plays that generate positive NEP).

When we examine Prescott’s splits between bottom-half and top-half passing defenses, it’s pretty drastic how much better he is on a per-play basis. The table below shows his basic rate stats against passing defenses rated 1st to 16th, and 17th to 32nd.

Top-Half vs. Pass Bot-Half vs. Pass
Comp% 63.03% 70.90%
Yds/Att 7.18 8.50
TD% 4.16% 5.60%
Int% 1.03% 0.75%

The Packers fall easily into the bottom-10 of the NFL as a passing defense by traditional statistics, and -- having produced a lackluster 0.17 opponent-adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play -- rank 23rd by our numbers. Dak will not be starstruck by this unit, rookie status or not.

Fortunately for the Pack, Aaron Rodgers has produced the fifth-most Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks this year, and the Cowboys' defense is allowing 0.13 adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play -- good for 17th. This is a pretty even matchup here.

Wide Receiver Health

Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson was already ruled out on Friday afternoon with multiple rib fractures, which leaves the Packers’ receiving corps in a bit of a bind. Undrafted rookie Geronimo Allison did step up in relief of Randall Cobb -- who dealt with an ankle injury -- late this season, but Jordy has a bit of a different skill set.

The table below shows the difference in the Packers’ passing production with and without Nelson in the lineup over the last three years.

With Nelson Without
Comp% 65.68% 60.67%
Yds/Att 7.80 6.70
TD% 6.91% 5.43%
Int% 1.08% 1.40%

Things could get rocky for Green Bay, even in spite of Allison’s emergence and Davante Adams' progress.

On the other side, the Cowboys will be getting a fully-healthy Dez Bryant back for the first time since Week 3 of the regular season. He’s been on the injury report each of the last 14 weeks, but his knee and back have quieted down and he’ll be all-systems-go here. From Week 10 onward (excluding the rest week in Week 17), Bryant has averaged 73.43 receiving yards and 0.86 touchdowns on 4.86 catches (7.71 targets).

These units are trending in exactly opposite directions.

The Duel of the Running Games

It’s no shock that rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott has risen into the pantheon of elite NFL rushers already, but many don’t realize just how much the Cowboys have relied on their running game to control the clock and keep opposing offenses off the field.

The Cowboys have the league’s lowest pass-to-rush play-calling ratio, at a near-even 1.02 passes per every rush. In addition, they’ve called the most running plays this year, with 499 of them in the regular season. Dallas' stellar offensive line has allowed the sixth-lowest stuff rate in the league, and they and Elliott have tag-teamed to create the league’s best rushing attack by opponent-adjusted Offensive Rushing NEP per play, at 0.14.

The Packers’ run game has also helped stabilize them, but they still have the league’s fourth-highest pass-to-run ratio.

Christine Michael has helped add some power running, but Ty Montgomery has been the explosive revelation. The former wide receiver has stabilized the rushing attack and helped the Packers attain the seventh-best opponent-adjusted Offensive Rushing NEP per play, at 0.05. Still, the Packers have less impact and a more inconsistent ground attack, due to just a 16th-lowest stuff rate allowed.

Advantage: Dallas.

Rodgers’ Secret Weapon: The Hail Mary

All of the numbers indicate Green Bay is on the outside looking in, as we give the Cowboys a 70.0 percent chance to move on to the NFC Championship Game. Green Bay has to hope the presence of Rodgers makes this an even game at best.

But the secret weapon the Packers have in store isn’t just Rodgers: it’s his impressive downfield passing.

Over the course of the last 13 months, the Packers have won three games on a ridiculous Hail Mary, and tied a fourth to send it to overtime (last year’s playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals, which required two insane deep balls to Jeff Janis to make happen).

How does Rodgers do it? And how good is he at it?

Over the last three years, Rodgers has attempted 365 deep passes, converting 37.77 percent of them for first downs (just 20th-most). He’s earned 12.04 yards per attempt (8th-most) on them, scored touchdowns on 8.42 percent of them (6th-most), and turned the ball over on just 1.90 percent of them (best). Rodgers’ rating on deep passes: 105.2, second-best among quarterbacks with at least 150 deep attempts since 2014.

The Cowboys have most things going their way in the divisional round, but it’s possible the Packers have just enough magic to eke by. All we know is this should be a tightly-contested game which will be a blast to watch.