ARLINGTON – It will be argued forever that the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff loss to the Packers yesterday at AT&T Stadium was about the results of rust. Or about the results about readiness. Or about the results of the reliance on rookies.
But to me? Packers 34, Cowboys 31 was exactly what I’d feared it would be: About the results of Rodgers.
Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers was my regular-season pick for NFL MVP based on the simplest of facts: He is the NFL star with the best chance to get to the Super Bowl with the least amount of help. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, after suffering through Rodgers’ conversion of a third-and-19 to set up the game-winning field goal with no time remaining, said when it’s all over, Rodgers “will go down as one of the three greatest to ever lace ’em up.”
Dallas has a special tandem in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys didn’t lose because they are too young to win (yes, I say that despite our fancy number that shows that now, since 1950, rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs are just 9-20). Prescott is likely to someday be the reason Dallas wins games like this, as here he overcame early errors to become the first NFL rookie QB to throw for three TDs in a playoff game in the last 50 years.
But he wasn’t Rodgers.
Elliott wasn’t the problem, either. He had not played since Dec. 26 against Detroit, but amid some concerns that he might enter the playoffs with “rust,’’ I noted coming into Sunday that in college, after having a layoff ahead of an Ohio State bowl game, Elliott averaged 190 yards and three touchdowns.
Meanwhile, since 1990, NFL teams that rushed for 140 yards or more per game during the regular season — as Zeke’s Cowboys did — are, once they come off their first-round byes, 7-3 all-time. Here, Elliott totaled 22 carries for 125 — numbers that might’ve been more bloated had Dallas not fallen behind 21-3 early.
And how did that happen? Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers doesn’t have a Zeke at his disposal and he doesn’t have a Dez Bryant (magnificent with nine catches for 142 yards and two TDs), either. But Rodgers has an uncanny knack for keeping plays alive while staying in the pocket, and an uncanny knack for catching a defense with its silver-and-blue pants down. He did so twice early on, earning two “free plays’’ that helped power him to a boxscore-filling set of numbers: 28 of 43 for 356 yards and two TDs.
I said going into this game that Dallas employed a better, deeper roster and maybe the Packers can argue about that now. The Cowboys’ magnificent 13-3 record during the regular season was built on that highly-bonded group of men, but that’s all immaterial (until next year, anyway). Because while Dallas might be stronger than Green Bay in active roster positions 2-through-46, Green Bay is stronger in position No. 1.
I said going into this game that Prescott wouldn’t need to “match’’ Rodgers or exceed him, something that did happen when the Cowboys won at Green Bay back in October. No, he simply needed to play at the consistently high level the fourth-round rook existed at all year, as he posted the third-highest passer rating in the NFL this year at 104.9. Oh, and in the history of the NFL, starting quarterbacks who finished with 104.0 or greater passer ratings are 25-9 in their opening postseason games. So that was something to feel confident about.
Dallas’ defense also rose to a higher level of playmaking this year than expected; in the last six games of the season, the Cowboys ranked No. 6 in the NFL in sacks. And oh, if you can just sack Rodgers, his lifetime mark when he’s downed three times or more? A mere mortal 32-32. Well, guess what? Dallas sacked Rodgers three times. And it still didn’t matter.
After the game, Dak marveled at Rodgers’ brilliance while coolly adding, “It’s the kind of game I’ve dreamed of playing in since I was a little kid. And I plan to be in many, many more of them.’’
I’m all for that. But this year the Cowboys needed to match Rodgers, needed to exceed Rodgers, needed to endure Rodgers and needed to, in a way that would ruin his night, get to Rodgers. But it didn’t happen. And now Dallas — for whatever reason you choose — doesn’t get to continue on a Super Bowl path either.