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Spagnola: Let's Worry About What's Really Important Come Sunday At Lambeau

FRISCO, Texas– Can't wait. Dallas Cowboys, winners of four of their first five games, vs. Green Bay Packers, winners of three of their first four games, 3:25 p.m., Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis., nationally televised on Fox.

         Can you?

         Great matchup.

         So let's start with clearing up some of the potential extraneous negative vibes on just why the Cowboys can't win a fifth consecutive game, something they have not done since winning six straight after losing the 2014 season opener, and for those with short memories, with Tony Romo at quarterback.

         First, Dak Prescott is on the cover of this week's edition of Sports Illustrated. You know, the cover jinx.

         When asked his thoughts about being on the cover, he said, "It's cool," and then with eyes wide and somewhat suppressing a smile said, "What jinx?" claiming to not know anything about it. Said he's not superstitious anyway. Said he's been on the cover of S.I. twice before with nothing bad happening.

         Second, the Cowboys can't win in Green Bay. Have lost the last four times at Lambeau and five straight to the Packers, last winning up there in 2008, uh, with Tony Romo at quarterback. Overall, the Cowboys are a woeful 1-9 at Lambeau, dating back to the franchise-opening 1960 season when they met up there for the first time.

         Well, the Cowboys' five-hour energy boosters don't know much about that. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, as far as they are concerned, have never lost to the Packers. They've never been to Green Bay. Never have stepped foot onto Lambeau. Might not even know anything about "The Catch," er, "No Catch" in the second round of the 2014 playoffs. Heck, they might not know anything about the darn Ice Bowl.

         That was them others.

         "Obviously, we've got a big test against the Packers on Sunday at Lambeau," Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said, "and we'll see if we can check some more boxes," as they've done already by winning two straight at AT&T Stadium, winning an NFC East game on the road, coming from behind to win on the road and beating a Cincinnati team thought to be one of the AFC's elite.

         So let's discuss tangibles. You know, the two-prong priorities the Cowboys must satisfy if they are to head into next week's bye at 5-1 and still in first place in the NFC East:

         First, run the ball effectively, if not exceptionally.

         Second, bug the heck out of Aaron Rodgers in his house.

         Now this will be the delicious part of this game: The unstoppable force vs. the immoveable object.

         Right, the Dallas Cowboys' No. 1 rushing offense in the National Football League going up against the Green Bay Packers No. 1' rushing defense in the NFL. Something has to give.[embeddedad0]

         The Cowboys, over five games, average 155.2 yards rushing. The Packers, over four games, yield an average of 42.8 rushing yards. The Cowboys lead the NFL with 11 rushing touchdowns, Elliott tied for the second with five, already more than any Cowboys player totaled last year. The Packers are tied for giving up the second-fewest rushing touchdowns in the NFL with one. The Cowboys average 4.6 yards per carry. The Packers give up a paltry 2.0 a carry.

         "They are stout," says Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

         "We've got our hands full again," says Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, meaning they were supposed to be severely challenged this past Sunday by the Bengals' front four only to rush for 180 yards and three touchdowns.

         Does this then mean the Cowboys, who have actually run the ball more times (169) than they have thrown the ball (155), owning the second-ranked offense in the NFL, will be denied their bread and their butter?

         Let's examine.

         In Green Bay's season-opening victory over Jacksonville, the Jaguars were without running back Chris Ivory, and T.J Yeldon only gained 39 yards on 21 carries.

         In their Game 2 loss at Minnesota, Adrian Peterson suffered his knee injury, carrying the ball only 12 times for 19 yards.

         Against Detroit, the Lions had lost lead runner Ameer Abdullah with a torn foot ligament in need of surgery and had placed him on injured reserve.

         Against the Giants this past Sunday night, New York already was without their top two runners, Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen.

         Plus, with the exception of the Vikings, those other three teams like to spread it out and throw the ball. They aren't much for 12 personnel, as are the Cowboys with their two-tight end sets. And from the looks of things, none of those teams remained persistent running the ball.

         If anything, the Cowboys will be persistent, no matter the early results against that Packers 3-4 defense. So far the fewest carries for the Cowboys has been 30 in each of their first two games.

         "We've got to stay with it," Linehan says. "We're committed to it."

         Darn right they're committed, especially with Elliott leading the NFL with 546 rushing yards and knowing the best way to take the pressure off Prescott is to churn out some rushing yards. Plus, the Cowboys love to line up in their two-tight end offense, though from the looks of things, the Packers equally love to play their nickel defense with all of two defensive linemen, even against two tights.

         That will be an interesting chess match

         "We have a great offensive line; they are the heart of our offense," Prescott said. "We go as they go. We have all the trust in them. We feel they are the best in the league, and we're going to follow them."

         Next order of business?                   

         Get Rodgers on the ground. Period.

         Who can forget the 2014 playoff game with Rodgers running around on one good leg and throwing for 316 yards and three touchdowns in the Packers' 26-21 win? The Cowboys only sacked the hobbling quarterback twice. Worse, he extended plays by scrambling around outside of the pocket.

         Then there was last year, a 28-7 Green Bay victory. But with 8:15 left, the Packers only led 14-7 and were facing a third-and-9 from the Dallas 48-yard line. Get a stop and the Cowboys have a possession to potentially tie the game.

         But no. The Cowboys' pressure forced Rodgers out of the pocket, and I'll be darn if he didn't run for 11 yards and a first down. Roughly four minutes later, the Packers scored the knockout touchdown to take a 21-7 lead. In that game, Rodgers completed 22-of-35 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns. The Cowboys only sacked him twice.

         In fact, the last three times the Cowboys have faced Rodgers (Matt Flynn beat them 37-36 at AT&T Stadium in 2013), they have only five sacks in 104 passing attempts. For his career, he has a 102.9 passer rating against the Cowboys, throwing 10 touchdowns and only interception.

         So defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli knows simply "affecting" Rodgers in the pocket is not enough.

         "Can't let him move around," Marinelli said. "He moves around and is accurate down the field. (Pressure) is everything. Got to get to him and get him down."

         He remembers the playoff game, Rodgers limping around back there with a badly strained calf, yet able to escape far too many times. And he certainly remembers last year, that third-down run that broke the Cowboys' back.

         "It's just how shifty he is," said Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, having returned last week following his four-game suspension. He remembers the grass at Lambeau last year being especially slippery, meaning wearing the proper cleats is imperative.

         Lawrence's return helps the Cowboys' pass rush immensely. While he only played 17 snaps in his return against Cincinnati, his pressure from the outside aided the defense in sacking Andy Dalton four times, its most in a single game since sacking Brady five times in Week 5 last year. Remember, Lawrence led the team in 2015 with eight sacks.

         "We've got to contain him in the pocket," Lawrence knowingly said. "You let him out of the pocket and he'll run around and hit that deep ball.

         "Hey, he's a Hall of Famer."

         The Cowboys have 10 sacks in five games, no more than an average pace of 32 for the season. OK, but still only one better than last year (31) and four better than the year before (28). Their sacks per pass play, one every 18.7 attempts, ties them for 18th in the league.

         "When you play great quarterbacks … then you've got to get pressure on them or it's going to be a long day for you," Jones said.

         Goodness knows the Cowboys have experienced far too many long days at Lambeau in the past. But this is a different team, a different season, many different players.

         And these the keys that just might set this franchise free.

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