Any time two of the NFL's jewel franchises get together, it's going to be a big deal, but with this Packers team, and this Cowboys team, it feels particularly ratcheted up.
This has been the most fun Cowboys team in years, with two thrilling rookies playing behind a monstrously effective offensive line. And the second half of the season, this has been Aaron Rodgers at his absolute peak, a future Hall of Famer who has never been better. Each team thinks it might be their year. There are going to be some pretty devastated fans on one side after this one.
No. 4 Green Bay Packers (11-6) at No. 1 Dallas Cowboys (13-3)
When: Sunday, 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Most recent meeting: October 16: Cowboys 30, Packers 16. Ezekiel Elliott ran for 157 yards and Dak Prescott threw for three touchdowns and it was starting to become clear to Cowboys fans that they might have themselves a couple of talented rookies.
Simple Rating System numbers: Dallas 7.0, Packers 2.8
Current line: Cowboys by 3.
Ranking among four divisional matchups: First. Pretty much the perfect playoff mix of old and new, past and future, history and potential.
How the Cowboys can win
1. Hit Rodgers. The Giants have a better pass defense and pass rush than the Cowboys do, and they couldn't pull this off, so it's a tall order for the Cowboys. But Rodgers, when he is performing at the level he is right now, might be unstoppable … unless you knock him off his feet again and again and again.
2. Feed 21. Turns out all the draftniks were right: Elliott was the perfect running back to play behind this offensive line, and he's a legitimate MVP candidate in his rookie year. They've been giving him the ball all year, and it ended up in a 13-3 season. Don't' stop now. Particularly because …
3. Take advantage of the Packers' secondary. Eli Manning and the Giants weren't able to attack the Packers' injured secondary the way they needed to, but Prescott and Dez Bryant might have more luck, if just because they're working with a better running game and behind a much better offensive line. Even if they contain Rodgers, he's still going to hit some spots, even without Jordy Nelson. The Cowboys will need one or two big plays. Those plays will be there for them.
How the Packers can win
1. Have another wide receiver step up. Jordy Nelson's injury, obviously, could not have come at a worse time, but unlike last season, the Packers have some capable options if Nelson has to sit out or is rendered ineffective. Rodgers has already shown an affinity for Geronimo Allison, and Randall Cobb looked like himself against the Giants, for the first time in a long time. Rodgers will have openings against a Cowboys defense that's not fantastic at stopping the pass.
2. Scare the rookie. I know he doesn't seem like it, but seriously, that really is a rookie quarterback under center for the Cowboys. Sure, Prescott appears unflappable, but this is his first playoff start, and he's going against a Hall of Famer who's on a hot streak. If the Packers can score early, the Cowboys might not just be able to hand the ball to Elliott over and over … and that could more pressure on Prescott than he should be able to handle.
3. Handle Elliott a lot better than last time. Even with Rodgers killing it, it's going to be tough to beat the Cowboys if Elliott has the openings he had in the last meeting between these two teams. They don't need to stop Elliott: They just need to put the Cowboys in a lot of third-and-7s. That starts with concentrating on Elliott. Slow him down just a little, and this game is yours.
Dallas is a young, exciting team that's fun to watch in spite of the fact that they play for Dallas. But the Cowboys are going to have to score more points, on more big plays, than they might be capable of here. The way Rodgers is playing, you might need 31 to beat him. Can Prescott lead his team to 31? Here's betting no.
Packers 30, Cowboys 24