COMMENTARY | It seems like yesterday that the Green Bay Packers were leading the NFC North with thoughts of a first-round bye in the playoffs dancing in their heads.
Just over a month later, the Packers are fighting desperately without their leader just to stay in the playoff hunt with three weeks of football left to play. Two comebacks -- one against the Minnesota Vikings and the other coming last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons -- staged by backup quarterback Matt Flynn have kept Green Bay very much in the thick of the division race.
It's Green Bay's first trip back to AT&T Stadium since winning the Super Bowl three seasons ago. Here are five things to watch for against the Cowboys.
Who plays safety with Morgan Burnett?
You may have noticed that Green Bay didn't allow a single point in the second half against Atlanta, a remarkable feat for a defense that has looked downright pitiful as of late.
It's no coincidence that Sean Richardson -- not M.D. Jennings -- was playing safety alongside Morgan Burnett for the final 30 minutes of Sunday's game.
Burnett and Jennings grade out as two of the worst safeties in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus, but if either is going to see their playing time slashed, it's Jennings considering the lucrative extension Burnett received prior to the start of the season. The Packers have nothing to lose playing Richardson, as evidenced by the defense's resurgence in the second half against the Falcons.
Can Clay Matthews get after it?
It's been Aaron Rodgers receiving nearly all of the attention in Green Bay lately, but where in the world has Clay Matthews been?
After recording two sacks against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 12, Matthews only has seven tackles without a sack in his last two games. Hypothetically speaking, Matthews should be getting healthier by the week after breaking his thumb earlier in the season, and the Packers need to get pressure on the quarterback to help protect the defensive backfield.
That begins with Matthews doing his thing, but the lack of a second pass rushing threat off the edge doesn't do him any favors. With the health of both Nick Perry and Mike Neal in question, much of the burden will fall on Matthews' shoulders -- once again -- to make Tony Romo uncomfortable in the pocket.
The effectiveness of Eddie Lacy
It was one of the more head-scratching moves from last Sunday. With less than half a minute remaining in the first half, rather than take a knee, the Packers attempted to make something out of nothing. Only instead of throwing it, they handed the ball off to Eddie Lacy, who subsequently sprained his ankle on a meaningless carry.
Lacy returned to the game in the second half, but he wasn't the same player, and it could have cost the Packers dearly. But head coach Mike McCarthy feels optimistic that Lacy will be able to play against the Cowboys.
Green Bay does have a reliable backup in James Starks, and he may be called upon more often with Lacy not quite 100 percent. However, with how poor Dallas is at stopping the run, a 100-percent Eddie Lacy might not be necessary to run the ball effectively and give the Packers' offense some balance against the worst defense in the NFL.
Does the defensive effort carry over?
That's the amount of points the Atlanta Falcons scored against the Green Bay Packers in the second half at Lambeau Field on Sunday. Sure, the elements and some dropped passes may have had something to do with that, but it was the best effort this defense has put forth since Rodgers' injury.
Too many players simply haven't played to the best of their abilities this season based on what we've seen in the past, and it might take some inspired efforts from lesser-known players, like Johnny Jolly, Sean Richardson and Jarrett Bush against the Falcons, for the defense to have a repeat performance.
Statistically, the Falcons have a better offense than the Cowboys, but this game will take place in Dallas, and there are several offensive weapons to account for. The Packers need their defense to step up once again to keep their season alive.
The return of Aaron Rodgers (?)
Week after week, the hope is that Aaron Rodgers can return from his broken collarbone, and week after week, we learn he hasn't been medically cleared to return to action. For Rodgers to have a chance of playing Sunday, he will need to take a majority of the reps in Friday's practice, and scans will need to show a necessary amount of healing in his collarbone.
Without Rodgers, the Packers are 1-4-1, although with Flynn under center, they have lost just once. That loss came on a short week with Green Bay nine weeks removed from its bye week, and the result was a 30-point drubbing on Thanksgiving from the division-leading Detroit Lions.
Should Rodgers return, how effective will he be? And what is the risk of him re-injuring that collarbone? These questions may be a moot point by Friday evening, but simply put, having Rodgers on the field gives the Packers' chances of victory a substantial boost.
Dave Radcliffe is a resident of a little known Milwaukee suburb who is an avid follower of Wisconsin sports. He has contributed to JSOnline, as a featured columnist on other sites and publications, and been a guest on multiple sports talk radio shows.
You can get the discussion going and follow Dave on Twitter @DaveRadcliffe.
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- Green Bay Packers
- Aaron Rodgers
- Atlanta Falcons
- Clay Matthews
- Dallas Cowboys
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