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Spagnola: Time for seizing your own history


FRISCO, Texas – Hey, Dak, one more time for real.

Here We Goooo!

Yep, playoffs. Darn right playoffs. Third straight year, a first for these Dallas Cowboys in 27 seasons, not since the last of six straight from 1991-96.

And the journey in this the season of 2023 has been long. A lot of ups. A lot of downs. As Cowboys owner Jerry Jones likes to say, not everyone makes it. Just like back in the day for those heading west in this country when they had to burn a few covered wagons along the way. Lost the likes of Trevon Diggs and Leighton Vander Esch. C.J. Goodwin and John Stephens (remember him?), too.

These Cowboys have braved the cold, the rain, those rowdy Niners, resurgent Bills and gritty Dolphins. Had to tame Lions and keep an eye out for 'Hawks and Eagles, not to mention facing a few Giant tasks as well.

Also picked up a few stragglers during this 17-game journey through the NFL. Old hands like La'el Collins and Damien Wilson.

But now it's time. Time to start "seizing," that rally cry from the jump, that mission to grab it all. And this all starts 3:30 p.m. Sunday at AT&T Stadium by waking up those ghosts of playoffs past. Meeting up with them old foes, past and present, the Green Bay Packers. Sure to drag their loyalist Cheeseheads into an expected 93,000-plus crowd to drop a yellow stain into a promoted "whiteout" for this wild-card playoff game.

This will be the ninth time Cowboys and Packers have met in the playoffs. Twice in 1966 and 1967 for the NFL Championship. Once during the strike-shortened 1982 season, in something called the Super Bowl Tournament. Then three straight playoffs from 1993-95. And, of course, these last two times, 2014 and 2016, when current Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy was the chief on the other side.

These two teams have split those eight games, going 4-4, them Packers winning the first two, the Cowboys winning the next four and the Packers painfully eliminating the Cowboys from the playoffs in the most current two.

But that was then. Landry vs. Lombardi. Meredith vs. Starr.  Pearson vs. Lofton. Aikman vs. Favre. Romo/Prescott vs. Rodgers. Both rosters all those years littered with Pro Football Hall of Famers. The likes of Lilly and Nitschke, Renfro and Adderley. Come on, Landry, Lombardi, Dorsett, Hornung, White, Haley, Aikman, Favre, Emmitt, Jefferson. We could go on and on.

And the infamous games, too, between these two teams living in posterity. Oh, No, Dandy Don. The Ice Bowl. Catch-No Catch. Not Rodgers Again.

But that all was then. This is now. The 12-5, NFC East champion, No. 2-seed Cowboys vs. the 9-8 wild-card, seventh-seed Packers, but beware, winners in seven their past 10 games and the last three straight to edge into the playoffs for the final spot.

The Cowboys stars for this one shine bright once again. Dak Prescott 36 touchdown passes to lead the NFL. CeeDee Lamb 135 receptions to lead the NFL. DaRon Bland nine interceptions, five returned for touchdowns, to lead the NFL. Brandon Aubrey 157 points to lead the NFL. Bryan Anger 51.4 punting average and franchise record 44.9 net punting average second in the NFL.

But let's not sell these Packers short. Jordan Love, in his first full NFL season starting (17 of 17 games), finishes with a lofty 96.1 QB rating, his 4,159 yards passing seventh in the NFL, yet more than the likes of Justin Herbert, Matthew Stafford, C.J. Stroud, Lamar Jackson and Jalen Hurts. And Love's 32 touchdown passes second to only Dak. Plus, he's the first Packers quarterback in his first season with multiple starts to lead his team into the postseason since 1950, and only the third NFL quarterback in his first season with multiple starts to throw for at least 4,000 yards and 32 touchdowns, joining Kurt Warner (1999) and Patrick Mahomes (2018).

 A lot to, uh, love, even McCarthy saying, "I'm impressed with Jordan."

And if there is something to worry about for the Cowboys, finishing 12-5 for the third consecutive season – the first string of at least 12-win seasons since 1992-95 (13, 12, 12, 12), though in the advent of the 17-game regular season – grind your teeth over this, and we'll let McCarthy spell it out for you:

"This is what it's all about. It always starts with run defense for us. You just go back to last year's game, the way they started the game. I think the first 16 out of 20 plays were runs, so it's definitely a focus for us. And it is every week.

"They've got two excellent running backs. The offensive line is in sync, they are playing together, they got continuity. Yeah, so we're always focused on our run defense, and definitely we're expecting them to challenge us."

OK, here is what the Packers did to start their 31-28 overtime regular-season victory over the Cowboys that took place at Lambeau Field on Nov. 13, 2022. On their first offensive series, they ran the ball seven consecutive times before two incomplete passes and then kicking a field goal. On the second series, they ran the ball six of seven times before punting. Total that up, the Packers ran the ball on 13 of their first 16 plays for 65 yards, averaging 5 yards a carry.

Now then, the two running backs McCarthy mentioned are Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. In that 2022 game, Jones had 24 carries for 138 yards with a long of 30 and one touchdown. Dillon went 13 for 65, a long of 17. Together, they totaled 203 of the Packers' 207 yards rushing that game with Rodgers the other 4.

"It just wasn't pretty," veteran defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins says.

And even though Love has progressed as the season has gone along, head coach Matt LaFleur has not abandoned the run this season. Jones, battling injuries that limited him to 11 games, has rushed for 656 yards, but in the last three after missing the previous three, he's gone for 127, 120 and 111. As for Dillon, 6-2, 238, the big guy, as the noted run-stopper Hankins describes as "a big, fast, strong joker," has run for 613 in 15 games.

So all totaled, in winning their last three games to pull into the seventh seed at 9-8, the Packers have run for 162 against Carolina, 177 on Minnesota and then 124 on Chicago.

Cowboys, buckle up them chin straps.

"Hit 'em," defensive lineman DeMarcus Lawrence says of how to slow The Pack down, and promising, "I'll be back there." D-Law's six tackles for loss tied for second this year, just one behind Micah Parsons' team leading seven.

"This ain't the same defense as last year."

 No, but this defense, ranked 16th against the run this year, is giving up 112.4 yards a game on the ground. What sticks out most is being gashed for at least 109 yards in four of the five losses, all on the road, finishing with highs of 222 at Arizona, 170 at San Francisco, 109 at Philadelphia and 266 at Buffalo, with at least 108 yards rushing in six other games.

"It starts with us up front," Parsons says. "We've got to be dominant up front, get a lot of bend-back, get a lot of movement. I feel like we can do it, we're capable, we showed it already. Just got to continue to do it on Sunday."

Got to do it on defense, not only stopping the run, but making sure to produce undo pressure on Love, too. Got to do it on offense, the NFL's top scoring unit at 29.9 points a game has also averaged 37.4 points while going 8-0 at home with the Cowboys gunning for 17 straight home wins ever since losing the 2021 season opener to Tampa Bay.

The opportunity is here. And let's silence all this talk about the pressure on this team to advance to at least the NFC title game for the first time since 1995. The helmet might be the same, but this team has nothing to do with the painful playoff success drought from 1996 through 2022, dealing with a 5-12 record over its past 12 playoff appearances and never advancing past the NFC divisional round. This team is only responsible for 2023.

It's this game, this Sunday. Why, it's great to have gone undefeated at home during the regular season, but sure can't rely on that as if it's a given the Cowboys will naturally win another. Take it from veteran cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who insists he's good to go Sunday despite the shoulder injury he suffered at Washington, likely with the help of a harness, to keep everything in place, saying, "You still got to go out there and win."

Right you are. Because at this point, 12-5 doesn't mean a thing. No. 2 seed doesn't mean a thing. The history of these two franchises doesn't mean a thing. Nor does the long journey each has made to get here. In this NFL, all you are is here, only the opportunity to write your own history promised.

"We put the work in since the end of July," says Lamb, or as one of his teammates called out while passing by during his Thursday interview, "Lamborghini," creasing a smile on the wide receiver's face. "And I understand the situation we have in front of us, and the opportunity to be great and to be destined. Yeah, man, it's fulfilling.

"We got to go do it."

Yep, time for some "seizing."

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