FRISCO, Texas — If there was actually such a thing as an NFL script writer, they'd deserve a raise for painting such a masterpiece with this year's NFL playoff picture. One of the biggest headlines entering Super Wild Card Weekend is Mike McCarthy facing off against the Green Bay Packers as head coach and offensive play caller of the Dallas Cowboys.
In other words, if McCarthy wants to seize everything in 2023, he'll have to first go through his former team as the leader of a club he knocked out of the playoffs on more than one occasion — as leader of said former team.
McCarthy isn't leaning into that angle this time around, though.
"The drama of it, I'm sure you guys will love, but I will not participate in it this year," he said after defeating the Commanders to clinch the NFC East title and No. 2 seed. "It's playoff time. It doesn't matter who we play, to be honest with you. … We need to play our best football.
"It doesn't matter who we play or where we play them. That has to be our mindset."
That's fair, but the media and fans can talk about it, so let's.
It's truly a perfection of coincidence, or karma, depending upon your belief system but, regardless of which is the actual driver here, you won't see or hear McCarthy playing up the matchup; and that's because of the outcome of the previous clash in 2022, when Aaron Rodgers engineered a comeback win at Lambeau Field.
The Cowboys held a firm 28-14 lead in the third quarter before losing 31-28 in overtime.
McCarthy was physically upset following that battle, and it was due to not only the fashion in which the Cowboys lost, but it was also very clearly who'd they lost to — torpedoing McCarthy's homecoming. He now wonders if his pre-game approach to that matchup did his players a disservice despite, in the moment, his belief that the opposite might've been true.
"Last year, I thought it was important for me to talk about Green Bay at the beginning of the week with the team. I regretted it," McCarthy admitted on Monday. "That doesn't even need to come into our energy base, but you live and learn. This game is about our commitment. It doesn't matter who we're playing.
"… That's where I am. There's just no time for that. … It will not help us win. And if it will not help us win the game, I'm not interested."
That said, Dak Prescott and the locker room haven't forgotten what happened in Wisconsin on that fateful night in November.
The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback agrees with McCarthy in that there's far more to this game than his head coach's rematch with the Packers, or even his own, considering it was McCarthy's Packers who slammed the door shut on Prescott's record-setting rookie season in 2016 — marching into AT&T Stadium with Aaron Rodgers to deliver a 34-31 loss in the NFC Divisional Round (an added tidbit in case you needed yet another mind-bending layer to consider).
But, given how things ended between the two teams in 2022, Prescott is also not playing coy.
"We're excited for him for this game," he said. "As much as everybody else knows what this game means for the Dallas Cowboys, it's got something a little special as well. It's important to get it for our own being, but the way that we do it will be punctuation for him."
Jayron Kearse echoes the sentiment of Prescott, revealing that the defensive side of the equation is also signing up for some redemption for McCarthy.
"I'm pretty sure there's going to be a lot of emotions with Coach McCarthy, and rightfully so, being he's been there, he's won a Super Bowl up there and had some great years there," the veteran safety said. "So, to play them in this wild-card game, I know it's going to be huge for him."
What the Cowboys can not allow, however, and to McCarthy's point, is to let an added emotion cause them to play outside of themselves and lack execution. If that happens, nobody's goal in Dallas will be achieved, and it'll likely be a repeat of last year's matchup anyway. The definition of insanity is to continue doing the same thing but expect different results.
Kearse acknowledges the prevailing headline, but the more important one is to win and advance to the NFC Divisional Round, and more.
"I'm pretty sure he won't let that get in the way of the things that we have to do — understanding that we're here for one reason," said Kearse. "It's not Mike McCarthy versus Green Bay. It's the Dallas Cowboys versus Green Bay, and that's something players need to understand as well.
"We want to go out there and win this for Coach, but let's understand that it's a team that is in our way. Let's not make it bigger than what it is. Being that the playoffs are already huge enough, so let's not put anything else on it.
"Let's just go out there and win, because that's what we have to do in order to achieve the things we set out to achieve [at the start] of this year."
The reality is McCarthy is far removed from his days in Green Bay, at this point. He departed following the 2018 season and opted to take a year off from football in 2019 before signing on with the Cowboys in 2020 — battling through a COVID pandemic and major changes to the roster and staff en route to having now completed his third consecutive 12-win season, equipped with his third consecutive playoff berth.
And, as it stands, there's not much familiarity on the Green Bay side of the equation anyway, with only four players on the entire roster (practice squad and injured reserve included) who suited up for McCarthy in Green Bay, e.g., Aaron Jones, Jaire Alexander, Kenny Clark and David Bakhtiari.
It's not the same team McCarthy knows, and this isn't the same McCarthy that the Packers had come to know, at least not in a football capacity.
It doesn't matter that he has a street named after him in Green Bay. Hell, if he can end the near 30-year drought in Dallas, it's not impossible he will be awarded one in the Metroplex as well.
The first roadblock on his 2023 postseason journey is the Packers, his former team.
Key word: former.
"At the end of the day, this is my team — I'm a Dallas Cowboy," said McCarthy. "This is our opportunity and I'm just making sure I'm doing my part, and that's doing everything [I can] to help win this game."
That's what you might call a … Mike drop.