The teams: The Green Bay Packers (6-6-1) vs. the Dallas Cowboys (7-6).
The time: 3:25 p.m. CST Sunday.
The place: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth and Pam Oliver reporting from the sideline.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 86-48-1 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Dallas’ Jason Garrett is 28-25 in his third season as coach of the Cowboys and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The all-time regular-season series is tied, 12-12, although the Cowboys hold a 12-5 advantage in Dallas. The Packers have not beaten the Cowboys in Big D since 1989.
The rankings: The Packers’ fifth-ranked offense is No. 10 in rushing and No. 9 in passing. Their 21st-ranked defense is No. 25 against the run and No. 21 against the pass. The Cowboys’ 22nd-ranked offense is No. 24 in rushing and No. 15 in passing. Their 32nd-ranked defense is No. 28 against the run and No. 32 against the pass.
The line: The Cowboys are favored by 7 1/2 points.
The injury report: Packers – Out: DE C.J. Wilson (ankle), QB Aaron Rodgers (collarbone). Probable: ILB Brad Jones (ankle), RB Eddie Lacy (ankle), ILB Jamari Lattimore (knee), OLB Mike Neal (abdomen), C Evan Dietrich-Smith (ankle/knee). OLB Nick Perry (foot).
Cowboys – Out: LB Bruce Carter (hamstring), WR Dwayne Harris (Hamstring), LB Sean Lee (neck). Questionable: CB Morris Claiborne (hamstring). Probable: LB Justin Durant (hamstring), DT Jason Hatcher (neck), LB DeVonte Holloman (neck), LB Orie Lemon (not injury related).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
No head games: Some coaches might’ve kept the decision to sit Rodgers quiet until 90 minutes before kickoff, when teams’ inactive lists are due. Not McCarthy. After Rodgers said on Thursday that it wouldn’t be fair to backup quarterback Matt Flynn to hold off until game day, McCarthy could have made the decision on Friday but kept it under his hat and instructed Flynn and the players to do so, too. After all, Garrett himself said that Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and the 32nd-ranked defense were prepping for both Rodgers and Flynn.
Instead, McCarthy just made the announcement that Flynn was in.
“I’m not very good at that, frankly. I never felt being on the other side of that that it really accomplished anything,” McCarthy said of gamesmanship. “I thought the Minnesota Vikings last year, prior to the (NFC Wild Card) playoff game with (injured quarterback) Christian Ponder not playing in the game, that was about as well-kept decision that I’ve ever seen, and I don’t think it really factored in the outcome of the game. Now, we had talked about it, did a little research on (backup quarterback) Joe Webb earlier, but we had time to make our guys were ready for that.”
Now, the Cowboys will be ready for Flynn, who completed 24 of 32 passes for 258 yards with a touchdown and an interception in last week’s victory over Atlanta. While he did have to share first-team reps with Rodgers on Wednesday and Thursday while the coaching and medical staffs determined if Rodgers was ready to play, Flynn got plenty of work and should be good to go.
“That’s not going to make that much of a difference. I feel very prepared with the game plan and what we’re trying to get accomplished. I feel good about it,” said Flynn, who’ll make his third straight start after Seneca Wallace (one) and Scott Tolzien (two) also started in Rodgers’ place. “[I’m] a lot more comfortable. Simple as that. Getting more reps, getting more time, and every week I feel better.
Flynn, who sounded hoarse on Friday but expected his voice to be fine by kickoff, said he was unfazed by Rodgers’ participation in practice.
“My mind-set all week’s been that I’m going to start. That’s been my mind-set, so it doesn’t really change anything,” Flynn said of the announcement that he’d start. “Just keep preparing, make sure – our physical work’s kind of in the bag – so just mentally, I’m going over the game plan, understanding it a little bit more. Just making sure I’m 100 percent on everything that we’re trying to accomplish.”
Flynn, who is a Texas native and will have 11 family members and friends at the game, admitted after the Thanksgiving loss at Detroit that he wasn’t “cutting loose” in that game on throws. He still needs to work through his progressions more quickly – he’s been sacked 12 times in his two starts – and should be better in that department. While at least two of the sacks last week, including the blind-side hit that resulted in a fumble, were by unblocked free runners, Flynn also held onto the ball on others.
“One thing that we talk about is we don’t want any premeditated decisions or any blind throws. There are times when you maybe would rather like to throw the ball away, but a sack is definitely better than a turnover in that regard there,” quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo said. “Not that we push sacks on anybody, but we definitely want to do a good job taking care of the ball. He’s done a nice job coming in here in a short period of time getting ready to play for us.
“The more reps he gets, the faster he’ll play.”
Whoa, Nellie: Rodgers, Wallace, Tolzien, Flynn – it hasn’t mattered to wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who enters the game with 67 receptions for 1,046 yards and seven touchdowns. He also comes in with 15 receptions of 25 yards or more this season – tied for the most in the NFL – and needs only two receptions to set a career single-season best. He caught 68 passes in 2011.
Of Nelson’s receptions, 27 catches for 370 yards have from the Packers’ three replacement quarterbacks. He caught four passes for 85 yards against Atlanta.
“I think it starts in practice. I tried to say that when everyone was like, ‘How’s it going to be without Aaron?’ Well, it may be different how the offense performs, but individually, you still have to go out and do your job,” Nelson explained. “That’s what we try to stress in our room with or without Aaron. Just do your job.
“That’s what I try to do every week. I’m going to run my routes the same with Aaron or without him. I’ll talk with each quarterback and see what they like, but I’m still going to try to get as much separation and do what I’m going to do regardless of who’s the quarterback.”
Nelson, who caught 49 passes for 745 yards and seven TDs last season but missed four games (and left two others early) because of a hamstring injury, pointed to being healthy as the primary reason for his productivity – not any secret formula for getting on the same page with various QBs.
“It’s been great to be on the field every game after what happened last season. That’s No. 1,” Nelson said. “If you go through any year being healthy, you’re going to have a good year and everything else will take care of itself. It’s been interesting the last few weeks obviously with the quarterback situation. And not just being without Aaron but going through so many of them. So it’s been different.
“I think what happened was different guys in each room stepped up to make sure everyone was doing what they were supposed to do and trying to take as much load off the quarterbacks as possible so they weren’t having to worry about us and we took care of ourselves. That way the quarterback could focus on himself.”
Jolly good: Johnny Jolly might have been a feel-good story when he was reinstated after a three-year NFL substance-abuse suspension and made the team coming out of training camp, but the veteran defensive lineman has proven to be more than just that. He’s become vital to a run defense that struggled when he was either out of the lineup or not 100 percent healthy because of a lingering groin injury. After surrendering 200-plus yards in back-to-back games, the Packers’ once-proud run defense was at least respectable against the Falcons (83 yards).
Jolly, who has played 288 snaps on the season, was credited with seven tackles, recovered a fumble forced by Mike Neal and also batted a pass at the line of scrimmage against the Falcons, and Pro Football Focus had him for three run “stops” as well.
“I thought he played one of his best games,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “One of the things I liked is he did a nice job of separating off blocks. He did like you see Johnny do – you saw him bat a pass. You saw him recover the fumble when Mike Neal striped it out of there. He had a couple negative yardage plays where got in his gap, separated off a block and went and made the play. He played one of his better games.”
McCarthy agreed, calling it an “outstanding” performance.
“Johnny’s attitude, his passion, he just has that personality that people are attracted to. He’s always had it,” said McCarthy, who coached Jolly from 2006 through 2009 before the suspension. “He has a lot of natural leadership ability. He definitely brings an edge to the D-line and to our football team.”
Now, he’ll have to deliver another uplifting performance against the Cowboys as the Packers try to keep their slim playoff hopes alive. If anyone knows about not giving up, it’s him.
“It’s just fight. You never quit. You leave everything you’ve got out there on the field for your team,” Jolly said. “When everyone counts you out, you just have to keep fighting. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Hobbled Eddie: At 887 yards,Lacy needs 113 yards in the final three games to become just the second rookie in franchise history to crack the 1,000-yard barrier. He would join John Brockington, who ran for 1,105 yards in 1971. But he’ll have to do it on a bum right ankle after spraining it at the end of the first half of last week’s victory.
Lacy was re-taped and able to come back in the second half, but he was in an orthopedic boot on Wednesday and Thursday. The Packers usually give backup James Starks at least one series each half to give Lacy a breather even when he’s healthy, but Starks could spell him a bit more Sunday.
“I feel confident if we need James to carry the load for us, if Eddie’s limited and we have to split them, whatever we have to do,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said.
Van Pelt seemed unconcerned about the practice time Lacy missed because of the ankle injury, and Lacy wasn’t worried, either.
“I don’t like to miss practice. I don’t want to miss practice because I feel as though that gets me ready for the game. That’s just what the situation called for this week,” Lacy said. “[But] it’s really late in the season and I feel as though I have everything down. Just going into practice and doing the reps mentally helps out a lot.”
Another thing Van Pelt isn’t worrying about: Lacy’s contact-seeking running style. Perhaps because the Packers haven’t had a back like him since Ahman Green was in his mid-2000s heyday, Lacy’s physical style seems to worry some of his supporters. Not so with Van Pelt.
“I think that’s his game. That’s the guy we knew we were getting, and we’re never going to shy away from asking him to break tackles and running as hard as he can,” said Van Pelt, referencing a Pro Football Focus stat that has 543 of his yards coming after contact. “It’s the type of guy he is. We knew that coming in. He’s a big, bruising back. If you’re those DBs, you see the film, you’re going to make a business decision of whether you’re going to take the big fella on or not. It sends a message across the league as well.”
Big foot: Punter Tim Masthay is easy to take for granted. Before his arrival in 2010, the Packers went through two years of abysmal punting following the foolish release of incumbent punter Jon Ryan, who in turn found a home in Seattle, where ex-Packers executive John Schneider is the GM.
Masthay just makes it look easy. He’s having another terrific season. Although his gross average of 44.7 is 24th in the league, his net average of 40.1 yards ranks 11th. He’s on pace to shatter the team record he’s set each of the past three years for net average; last year, he was at 38.9 net yards per kick.
But Masthay also showed that he can deliver the big punt in a clutch situation. With 52 seconds left in the game last week, he uncorked a perfectly placed 62-yarder that rolled to the 1-yard line. The Falcons assumed possession with 44 seconds to go and the extra yardage to traverse was vital since they only needed a field goal – and might’ve gotten in position if not for Harry Douglas’ drop on a deep ball on second-and-10 from the Atlanta 43.
And yet, as big as the kick was, it is not No. 1 in his pantheon of punts.
“That was a big one,” Masthay said. “Whenever it’s a real critical situation and the play winds up being a very positive play – the performance is high in a very critical situation, that’s very satisfying. So the fact that we were able to pin them inside the 10 from well in our own territory when it was freezing cold and late in the game when we’re only up by 1, that’s very satisfying as a punter and as a punt unit.
“That was definitely not No. 1 in my list, (though). Without a doubt, it was my rookie year, NFC Championship Game against Chicago 2 minutes left in the game I think, we’re up by 7, and hit a 58-yarder on the sideline and we netted like 50 on the punt. That was a special punt. I don’t know if I’ll be able to top that, quite frankly, my whole career. It might take a similar situation. Plus, (Devin) Hester was the returner and you’re at Soldier Field, a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, and I was a rookie. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to top that one. But this past Sunday was a big one.”
What a story it would be if, after angering Rodgers by telling him he could not play in this game – no matter how desperately he wanted to – the Packers and Flynn found a way to win. The story would be even better if the Packers then got the requisite help from the Baltimore Ravens, who face the Detroit Lions on Monday night, and Cleveland Browns, who face the Chicago Bears Sunday. Suddenly, the Packers would be 7-6-1 and in first place in the NFC North, and the final two weeks of the season would make for off-the-charts compelling theater. The Dallas defense is just bad enough to make such a scenario less far-fetched than it should be. Still a very creaky limb to climb out upon, you say? We’re goin’ out there anyway. Packers 37, Cowboys 31. (Season record: 10-2-1)
– Jason Wilde