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Spagnola: Winning This Game All That Matters


FRISCO, Texas – Let's get past all the periphery surrounding Cowboys-Packers this Sunday and get to the real meat of the matter.

You know, the hype over at venerable Lambeau Field, where as Dak Prescott says, "When you walk in the building you feel the history."

All this talk about grass and cleats.

About how the Packers have dominated the Cowboys in Green Bay, holding a 9-2 advantage, though, hey, one of those two wins belongs to Dak and Zeke and Zack and Tank and AB and Tyron, the only players left on this team from the 46 who played in that 30-16 win on Oct. 16, 2016.

That Mike McCarthy is returning to the scene of his coaching glory, where he not only was the Packers head coach for 13 seasons but lived longer in Green Bay than any place since his Pittsburgh childhood these 59 years.

That the Cowboys need to give a special effort to win for him, or as a belated 59th birthday present, at a place where he was shoved out the door four years ago. Or as he points out, where 10 other guys on his staff have worked or played – guys such as Joe Whitt Jr., Joe Philbin, Rob Davis and Al Harris – and how much a win in this game would mean to him and them. Yet as Micah Parsons says, "I'm just trying to win the game in general."

Come on, dang, this is a football game. If guys are more pumped to play this game because of extraneous matters, then did they cheat me not playing as hard in the previous game or games?

As Anthony Brown says, "We've got to go out there and play on Sunday. It is a regular game. If we win the game, what do we get? We're on to the next one."

Sound thinking. Win and the Cowboys get to 7-2, at the very least remaining tied with the Giants for second place in the NFC East and no more than two games behind the NFC-leading division-mate Eagles.

So they have no business putting any credence in the Packers coming into the game with a lowly 3-6 record, already having lost more games in half a season than they had in each of the past three consecutive seasons when going 13-3, 13-3, 13-4. And no, never mind the Packers slogging through a five-game losing streak for the first time since 2008, McCarthy's third season as the Packers head coach, the last four of those by a grand total of 14 points.

This is no time for McCarthy or the Cowboys to wax nostalgic about this trip up North or take on a team still featuring Aaron Rodgers at quarterback lightly.

"I don't recommend this for anybody," McCarthy says of having to deal with this ol' home week distraction. "It's a privilege to be standing here as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, something I take very serious and am thankful for that. Also recognize the time I had up there.

"But this is about our commitment, our journey, and we need this game. This is a big NFC game. This is a very dangerous and talented – I think the worst thing you could do this week, next week, you cannot look at games based on records. You've just got to stay on top of the video. If you watch the video, you can see their strengths and they've got a lot of them."

While many of us think a lot of this Cowboys offense, they rank just 22nd in total yards. Why, the Packers are 14th. Same with the defense, the Cowboys coming in at 10th after nine weeks. Well, guess what? The Packers are sixth – sixth now. It's just that the Packers are averaging only 17.1 points a game.

Problem is they've turned the ball over 13 times, sixth most in the NFL, and more than half of those (seven) Rodgers' interceptions.

Still, it's Rodgers, right? And you know darn well what he's done to the Cowboys, especially beating them in those two playoff games, going back to 2014, basically on one good leg, and then again in 2016, with that last-second heave to set up the game-winning, walk-off field goal at AT&T Stadium.

When Brown was asked how much he's thought of Rodgers this week, the veteran cornerback said, "I go to sleep thinking about him. When I looked at film, he's still Aaron Rodgers."

Here is another thing this Cowboys defense must think about: Their run defense. The Cowboys are giving up 4.7 yards a carry. The Packers average 4.8 a carry. And no doubt Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has pointed this out a time or four this week, only having to rattle off these numbers: 111, 203, 199, 94, 208 and 106.

Yep, the Green Bay rushing yards in six of nine games so far this season, averaging 131.5 a game overall. So you want to make a bet on what the Packers intentions will be come 3:25 p.m. Sunday?

That there would sure get my attention, especially since the Cowboys understand with their pass rush, which leads the NFL with 33 sacks in just the eight games and is the main reason why the Cowboys have held all but one opponent (Rams) to no more than 200 net passing yards, teams would rather run against them than throw the ball. Or more explicitly, throw the ball in third-and-long situations.

Ask the Bears. Though losing by 20 points (49-29), they still saw fit to run the ball 43 times and for 240 yards. Along with the 29 points and four touchdowns, all those numbers single-game opponent highs this season.

Six teams have rushed for at least 117 yards against the Cowboys, one of those the Eagles for 136 and scoring three touchdowns, and we know what happened up there in Philadelphia. Those two teams are the only ones to score more than one touchdown against this Dallas defense. That means the Cowboys have given up seven of their opponents' 12 touchdowns in two games.

"Allowing the touchdowns bothered me more than anything," Quinn said of the Bears game. "That's one that has to be better."

Going up against a Packers team intent on running the ball, but knowing Rodgers can strike at any moment, even with his depleted receiving corps, will be a huge test for this defense wanting to be the best in the league.

As Parsons reasons, "Q brought up a good point. Some people want to get into the (top) 10 percent. Some people happen into the 5 percent. And some people happen into the 1 percent, and the 1 percent is where you've got really good teams.

"And if you are really good enough, I think you get into that 0.1 percent, that small percentage where not a lot of people go."

Here is another facet that must be better: A consistent offense. Sure, the Cowboys have scored 10 of their 20 touchdowns in the past two games, and don't dismiss the correlation with Dak returning to start those two after his five-game absence. But in the first six games of the season, the Cowboys scored no more than two touchdowns in any of those game, including not a one in the 19-3 loss to Tampa Bay in the opener.

Now comes the other meat of this game. Can the Cowboys produce a consistent offense? Get back to, and not necessarily leading the league in points scored as they did last year, but at least kicking their scoring average up from the 18.3 in the first six games.

They've done it twice now, scoring the 24 in a struggling win over Detroit after scoring just six in the first half, and then the 42 produced against the Bears. That comes to 60 in the past six quarters Dak has played for the offense.

Hmmm, that's an average of 10 a quarter.

"To make sure we take the next step," Daks says of what this offense must accomplish going forward. "Can't just go out there and have a game like (Chicago) and come back and not score any points. That's not who we are, not the standard we're going to have, and the expectation we have for ourselves.

"So it's about building off what we did last week."

That, and winning. That's all that counts come Sunday, be it Green Bay or some Greenville.

The rest of that stuff can be left out there on McCarthy Way.

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