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Spagnola: Must Turn Into Ball Robbers if Cowboys Are To Stop Packers

IRVING, Texas – This much we know about Cowboys-Packers in this NFC Divisional Playoff game.

         It's going to be cold, noon, Sunday at Lambeau Field, probably hovering around 20, so heck, not that bad, some 33 degrees warmer than kickoff at the 1967 Ice Bowl.

         Offense is the Cowboys' bread and butter, having won all 10 games in which they scored at least 30 points during the regular season and losing all four games when they scored no more than 17 points.

         Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is going to play, of course, no matter the strained calf or not, the only question being just how mobile he actually will be.

The Cowboys are the only team to go 8-0 on the road this season, evidence that they have bought into head coach Jason Garrett's mantra about how it should not matter if you are playing, home, away, the parking lot or the moon, just do your job.

The Packers went 8-0 at Lambeau, furthering the iconic stadium's mystique, although during last year's 8-7-1 season they were but 4-3-1 at home, so more to do with the quality of the team than any home-field hocus-pocus.

DeMarco Murray led the NFL with 1,845 yards rushing, 706 yards more than Packers leader Eddie Lacy.

While Tony Romo had the NFL's top passer rating for the regular season at 113.2, a point higher than Rodger's, Green Bay's quarterback threw for 4,381 yards, 676 more than Romo.

And while the Cowboys finished fifth in the league, averaging 29.2 points a game, Green Bay was No. 1 at 30.4 points a game, and get this, scored 310 of those points in the first half.


So to me, for the Cowboys to advance to a third-round game, either in Seattle or at home against Carolina – wouldn't that be something? – they must continue this inflating trend of collecting takeaways, which is one of the reasons they've been able to win their past five games in a row. And please, do not misspeak around defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, calling them "turnovers."

Oh no, as Marinelli corrects, "take-a-ways."

Broach the subject to either Garrett or Marinelli and be ready for a short dissertation on the importance of taking the ball away from the Bay Packers (12-4) come Sunday afternoon on what everyone hopes is not The Frozen Tundra, for sure.

"Obviously that's a huge point of emphasis for us as a coaching staff," Garrett begins, warming to the subject. "That's what we stress more than anything else, on the practice field, in the meeting rooms, and our team has done a good job of taking that to the game. We've done that all year long, but here lately it's certainly been better. I think there is a direct correlation between the success we've had and winning these ball games and that particular statistic."

In other words, another mantra of Garrett's: The ball, the ball, the ball. I want to take it from you, and I sure as hell don't want to give it to you.

You've heard of bank robbers, well the Cowboys must be ball robbers.

This year the Cowboys finished a plus-6 in turnover differential, tied for ninth in the NFL, just one short of being tied for fifth. Oh, and leading the way, that would be Green Bay at plus-14. The Packers just don't give the ball away, tied for a league-low 13 (the Cowboys had 25), which is greatly enhanced by Rodgers, who hasn't been intercepted at Lambeau since December of 2012, encompassing 471 attempts.

No coincidence then the homebody Packers are 14-2 over those 16 games the past two seasons.

Of the top 16 teams in turnover differential, ranging from Green Bay's plus-14 to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh's 0, 11 of the clubs comprised the NFL's 12-team playoff field. Only Indianapolis was able to overcome a negative turnover differential (-3).

Check this out: Not only did the Cowboys' 31 takeaways wind up second in the NFL this year, 31 also represents the most takeaways for the Cowboys since the 2006 season when they had 34. They also established the franchise's second-longest consecutive-game streak registering at least one takeaway, 16 straight, starting in Game 2 this season at Tennessee and including the three in the first-round playoff win over Detroit.

The longest streak? Well, 18 straight during the 12-4 season and playoff run of 1981 when the Cowboys went to the NFC title game for the second time in three straight seasons.

"There are a lot of ways to measure a defense," Garrett says, "and the No. 1 way to measure a defense in my mind is their ability to take the football away, and that correlates to points scored, and that correlates to winning ball games."

Face it, the Cowboys defense this year wasn't exactly Doomsday III, or would that be IV, since we should never forget during that stretch of winning three Super Bowls in four years the Cowboys had a top-10 defense, including No. 1 in 1992 and 1994.

But that has to do with yards against.

And when it came to yards against this year the Cowboys finished 19th, considerably better than last year's 32nd, but still giving up 355.1 yards a game, not exactly end-of-the-world type numbers.

The Cowboys also gave up 352 points this season, 80 fewer than last year and the second fewest in the past five seasons. But even at that, the 22-point average ranked only 15th, so average, and just below average for yards against.

Ah, but the great equalizer, right? Second in takeaways.

"Yes, you just do it over and over and over; you walk in, you're punching a ball, you talk about it, you talk about it every day," Marinelli says. "You just start going in and you see guys coming in, the second and third guys trying to grab it. You just get aware of it, just you're aware of getting it and that spreads. Just taking it away."

         So let's examine the past five games, the Cowboys going from 8-4 and on tenuous footing for a playoff berth to winning the next five straight, landing them in Green Bay for a second-round playoff game. The Cowboys have collected 15 takeaways in those five games, and no fewer than two in any of the five, including the three against Detroit this past Sunday.

         That breaks down to eight interceptions and seven fumble recoveries, two of those on Detroit's final possession when trying to close out their first playoff victory since 2009. The Cowboys had a high of four against Washington, and this 15 – so averaging three a game – does not include stealing the ball on the opening kickoff at Philadelphia and with the onside kick at Washington.

         The takeaway total now stands at 34 in 17 games, with just less than half in the past five games.

         And chances are if you are not taking the ball away from Rodgers and the Packers – Rodgers has thrown 25 first-half touchdowns this year without being intercepted – they are scoring. There is a reason why Packers punter Tim Masthay has punted only 49 times this year, the fewest of the NFL's top 32 punters.

         Hard to stop these Packers on downs.

         "The ball is everything, oh man," Marinelli says, especially in the playoffs.

Oh man, the ball absolutely will be on Sunday if the Cowboys have any designs on still playing the third Sunday in January. See ball, get ball, that simple. Just steal a couple of possessions.

And now, we know this, too.

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