The Cowboys are set to make their third consecutive appearance in wild card weekend on Sunday. Unlike last season, they’ll play this game from the comforts of AT&T Stadium, where they dominated opponents while going 8-0. The Green Bay Packers are coming to town, setting up the third playoff game between these two teams over the last decade. Dallas is 0-3 against Green Bay since Dak Prescott beat the Pack in his rookie season in 2016, and the Cowboys haven’t beaten the Packers in the playoffs since Troy Aikman was under center. But fret not, folks, for two main reasons. First, that’s a small sample size. Second, Green Bay no longer has Aaron Rodgers at the helm.
This will be the first time the Cowboys have faced Jordan Love, the 2020 first-round pick who didn’t take the reins of the offense until this year. But he has made the most of his opportunity and is a big (if not the biggest) reason the Packers are in the postseason. A simple way to pin down just how important he has been to the offense, and how important he will continue to be when he comes to Dallas, is by looking at one simple number: 3.
That’s Love’s passing efficiency rank over the final 10 games of the season, as measured by EPA per play. The only two quarterbacks to be more efficient over the second half? San Francisco’s Brock Purdy and Prescott. Those two guys have been leading truly special offenses, which makes it a good time to consider whether Green Bay’s offense is approaching the level of the Super Bowl contenders we’re all talking about already.
The back half of the season was a marked improvement over the first half for both Love and Prescott. Prescott was largely his same efficient self, but he threw downfield more often over the final 10 games, pushing up his average depth of target by a full yard, from 7.1 to 8.1 yards, and bumping up his efficiency rank from seventh to second. Love, meanwhile, jumped into the top three after ranking only 15th in EPA per play over the first eight weeks.
That’s not the only stat that illustrates how Love took a step forward as the year progressed. His game-by-game grades from Pro Football Focus also trended upwards from Week 9 on. Steven Ruiz of The Ringer ranked Love as the 28th-best quarterback in the NFL in Week 9, but he has climbed all the way up to 12th as we roll into the postseason. All this is to say that the Cowboys will face a stiff challnege come Sunday.
The Packers have one of the more balanced offenses in the NFL. That their run game is good should come as no surprise, considering they’ve finished no lower than seventh in rushing success rate since coach Matt LaFleur took over in 2019. But the passing attack in the first post-Rodgers season is another story. Love has been most successful on throws within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, and he has done most of his damage on the outside. He has thrown 220 passes to the left and right sides in this range, the third most in the NFL behind Prescott and Jalen Hurts.
The Cowboys, however, are top 10 in the league at shutting down passes in that area. Opposing quarterbacks throwing to the outside within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage completed passes at a rate 8 percentage points below expectation, the best mark for any defense in 2023. So there’s potential to make this a tough day on Love when it comes to the short passing game.
Perhaps the more interesting matchup will come from the throws 20-plus yards downfield. Love is around league average when he pushes the ball deep, but he is flirting with the top 10 in terms of his EPA per play and success rate on throws to the deep left half of the field with a 7.2 CPOE. He also leads the league in throws to that section of the field with 35, and his 20 throws to the deep middle are the most in the league as well. He has the ability to air it out when he wants to.
On the other side, the Cowboys just happen to feature the best defense in the NFL at defending passes to the deep left side of the field. They allow a success rate of just 15 percent on these passes, well below the league average of 32 percent.
That success rate allowed by Dallas on deep passes in the middle of the field should be addressed here, too. Opponents have only thrown five passes more than 20 yards down the middle of the field against Dallas (third-fewest in the NFL), but on those passes they are four for five, for 160 yards. Purdy, Hurts, and Jared Goff (twice) have the completions, while a Tommy DeVito interception accounts for the other attempt. That per-play success rate shouldn’t be as important as the fact that teams have thrown it in that area only five times all year. What we don’t see is telling us that the area is often just not open for the opposing quarterback.
The tricky part for Dallas when it comes to limiting the Packers’ potential deep passes stems from the fact that it’s not clear who will be running deep to go get them. Green Bay has had nine (!) players finish a game with the most receiving yards on the team, more than any other team in the league. Over the past five weeks alone, five players have become the No. 1 option. Playing defense against this team is going to be far from simply “double up their No. 1 guy,” because I don’t think even the Packers know who that No. 1 guy is. If the Cowboys are looking to shut down the deeper parts of the field, they’ll most likely be worrying about Jayden Reed, who has caught eight of 17 targets at 20-plus yards downfield, well above the average for an NFL receiver. But don’t discount the other guys on the roster, including those in the tight end room. Green Bay’s tight ends have caught six of nine targets that traveled more than 20 yards downfield this season, racking up 205 yards and a league-leading 13.1 EPA on these throws.
That’s a lot of talk about the dangerous potential lurking inside Green Bay’s offense, so let’s reset our outlook before we close out. The Cowboys are favored by a touchdown, they’re playing at home, and they don’t have just a potentially dangerous offense—they flat-out have a dude at quarterback, with a history of good quarterbacking, and arguably the best receiver in the game. Even if the Packers bring their A-game on offense, the Cowboys have the weapons to go toe to toe with anyone. The way the Packers season has gone (especially in recent weeks) provides evidence that the Cowboys really will have to bring that high-powered offense to this game as they look to advance to the divisional round for the second straight year.