FRISCO, Texas – This is to be expected, so do me a favor and don't whine.
The Dallas Cowboys have the best record in the NFC. They boast an all-world offensive line, a dynamic duo of rookie skill players, an efficient offense and a surprisingly effective defense. They won 11-straight games en route to a division title and the No. 1 seed.
You know all of this. If you're reading this site, you follow the team intimately. You were following along in training camp and the preseason. The chances are pretty good that you watched Dak Prescott play three preseason games before he ever took a snap against the New York Giants on Sept. 11.
But this is the playoffs, and this is the time for big, national narratives and a more casual fanbase. For every serious NFL fan that has watched at least two or three Cowboys games this year, there's a dozen more who are tuning in for the first time – specifically for the high drama of the playoffs.
Of course the general public views the Cowboys as the underdog. This is just the second time they've been on this stage in recent memory, and they're doing it with a remarkably new cast. Rookies at quarterback and running back, and a defense that is lacking in the way of household names.
On the other sideline is the hottest quarterback in the league – arguably the best active quarterback in football, or at least second-best behind Tom Brady. Aaron Rodgers has led Green Bay to the playoffs every season since 2009, and football fans are used to watching him slice and dice opponents on the biggest stages of the game.
Nobody cares that the Cowboys won this matchup in convincing fashion in October, because nobody can be bothered to think back that far.
Of *course *the obvious (perhaps lazy) opinion is to side with the hot All-Pro quarterback and the franchise that has played in 13 playoff games and a Super Bowl over the past seven seasons. After all, they're going up against a rookie quarterback leading a team with two playoff wins since 1995.
Now, don't mistake what I'm saying. None of this is to say that the Packers are guaranteed to win this game. The Cowboys are 13-3, and they have proven over and over again that they're up to these types of challenges. They're very capable of winning this game.
But this narrative shouldn't surprise you. It's obvious, and it's not worth getting upset about. Fortunately for the Cowboys and all the people who root for them, the game still has to be played. At the end of the day, the court of public opinion won't factor on the field.
1.That was as boring as I can remember wildcard weekend being in recent memory. We knew we were going to get some clunkers, given that Houston-Oakland and Miami-Pittsburgh were on the schedule. I wouldn't have guessed that all four games would be utter trash.
Even Green Bay-New York, which started with so much promise, devolved into an unholy blowout. At least we got a cool Hail Mary touchdown out of the deal.
If there's a silver lining to be gained, it's that the better team won in all four games. However boring it might have been, it set the stage for what should be a fantastic divisional round. Maybe I'll have to eat my words, but I'm thinking three of these four games will be up for grabs heading into the final minutes – which would more than make up for last week's garbage.
2. Houston at New England, 7:15 p.m. Saturday:So I might as well start with the least enticing matchup of the weekend.
The Patriots won this matchup, 27-0, back in September – with third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett taking the vast majority of the snaps at quarterback. Obviously, a ton has changed for both teams since Week 4, but man if that isn't an indictment on the Texans' chances.
I honestly don't expect this to be a laugher from beginning to end. Houston has the best defense in the NFL when it comes to yardage allowed, and I think guys like Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus can make life difficult on Tom Brady.
But I'm sorry. I'm taking Brady and his quarterback rating of 112 this season – as well as a paltry two interceptions in 12 games. However long it might take him to solve the Texans, are you really going to give the nod to Brock Osweiler – the guy with a passer rating of 72, who has thrown 16 picks compared to 15 touchdowns? Not to mention, who is on the road against the AFC's best team?
This is playoff football, so the Texans will probably find a way to frustrate Brady and keep it respectable for a while. I still think New England pulls away for a 34-13 win.
3.No pressure, Dan Bailey. But I think your moment might be coming in these playoffs.
Aside from a few hiccups, Bailey has been his usual, reliable self this season. He's 27-of-32 on the year, and he's perfect from within 40 yards. He has not missed an extra point, and three of his five misses are from distances of 56, 55 and 52 yards.
But what's been missing for Bailey? Late-game drama.
You can thank the Cowboys' efficiency for that. Dallas has been scoring touchdowns this season, and as a result they've been winning games by wider margins.
But did you know, this is the first time in Bailey's career the Cowboys haven't needed him to kick a game-winning field goal? In fact, it's the first time since 2009 this team hasn't needed a late-game field goal to win.
Going back to his rookie season, Bailey's done it a total of 10 times. Back in 2011 and 2012, when Jason Garrett's Cowboys were mediocre, he tallied seven total game-winners.
In 2014, he kicked the Cowboys to an overtime win against the Texans. And even during the awful 2015 season, his leg delivered a last-second win against Washington.
That hasn't been the case in 2016. Bailey has been crucial to the Cowboys' success, with 127 total points on the year. But he hasn't been needed at the final gun.
It's got to be a matter of time, though, right? Would it surprise anyone if the Cowboys' hopes of advancing this weekend rested on a kick?
Like I said: no pressure, Dan.
4. Seattle at Atlanta, 3:35 p.m. Saturday:Speaking of game-winning kicks, that's exactly how the last playoff meeting between these teams finished – a 49-yard field goal from Matt Bryant with 13 seconds remaining, to lift Atlanta to a 30-28 win over Seattle back in 2012.
This is honestly developing into a fun little BirdGang rivalry. The Falcons sent the Seahawks home back then, and then there was the controversy this past October when the refs opted not to call pass interference on a physical exchange between Richard Sherman and Julio Jones.
The pass breakup came on a critical 4th-and-10 with 1:39 to play in a two-point game, and an interference flag would have set the Falcons up near the Seattle 35-yard line with a chance to take a lead.
Clearly, there's a history here.
I have a hard time pegging this game. This is not the dominant Seahawks from the 2013 and 2014 seasons, especially with Earl Thomas sitting out with a broken leg. They're also a different team on the road, given that they're 3-4-1 when they travel as opposed to 8-1 at home.
I also don't trust the Falcons completely, considering that the 2012 win over Seattle is the only playoff win of Matt Ryan's career. He's put up some clunkers on the way to a 1-4 career record. The Seahawks should be able to exploit their defense, which is ranked 25th in yards per game and 27th in scoring.
Still, Ryan is likely going to win NFL MVP this month, and his offense has been nearly unstoppable all season. I'm going to put my trust in him to win a home game against a depleted opponent -- though I don't think it will be easy.
Give me Atlanta by a score of 28-24.
5.Not to make everything about the Cowboys, but thinking back to that 2012 Atlanta-Seattle playoff game reminds me of this Cowboys team, and how bright the future appears in Dallas.
If you'll remember, the Seahawks were moving in the right direction under Pete Carroll. They had drafted well, they had acquired Marshawn Lynch, and it had been enough to win a playoff game over the New Orleans Saints in 2010. But it was their decision to draft Russell Wilson that jump-started what was already a talented roster.
With a rookie under center, Seattle lost its season opener – but then rebounded to go 11-4 the rest of the way, thanks to a dominant running game and a rock solid defense. After dispatching Washington in the wildcard round, Wilson and Co. pushed the NFC's No. 1 seed to the brink in the Georgia Dome.
Obviously, you know the rest of the story. Seattle rebounded to win the No. 1 seed and the Super Bowl the next season. They made it back to the Super Bowl the next season, and they came up one yard short of a repeat. They've become synonymous with success in the NFL, and they're not showing signs of fading away.
The situations aren't identical. Seattle built a fearsome defense, rather than an awesome offense, and the Seahawks' quarterback was a third-round pick, rather than a fourth. But if you can't see the corollary between the Russell Wilson Seahawks and the Dak Prescott Cowboys, I don't know what to tell you.
6. Pittsburgh at Kansas City, 12:05 p.m. Sunday:For all the talk about Dallas-Green Bay, this might be the sneaky contender for game of the week.
The Steelers are the hottest offense in the NFL right now. No, Ben Roethlisberger isn't quite torching opponents at the same clip as Aaron Rodgers, but he doesn't need to when he has Le'Veon Bell cutting through tackles for franchise rushing records.
Sidebar: Le'Veon Bell runs like he's playing double dutch jump rope. He's always moving, even when he's not making progress – and I have no idea how he's hopping and skipping around without getting hit, but it sure does look cool.
Anyway, the Chiefs have a reputation as a rugged defense. It's justified, given that they play at cold, loud, Arrowhead Stadium, and they employ beastly players like Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Eric Berry. They also finished seventh in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing just 19.4 points per game.
Despite all of that, Kansas City is surprisingly bad against the run, giving up an average of about 121 rushing yards per game. That's a bad place to start against one of the hottest ground games in the league. Not only could it mean big things for Bell, but the Chiefs' focus on stopping him could prompt some big gains from Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.
The Chiefs have the talent to keep things in check, but I'm not banking on Alex Smith to keep up with Pittsburgh's Big 3 for a full game. I say the Steelers score late to ice a 34-20 win, setting up a third-ever AFC Championship Game between Pittsburgh and New England.
7.By now you should know just how quickly an NFL roster turns over, but I found a pretty handy way to illustrate that point.
Wednesday actually marked the two-year anniversary of the Cowboys' 26-21 loss to the Packers in the 2014-15 playoffs. It's flown by in the blink of an eye, at least relative to the grand scheme of life.
But that's an eternity in the NFL, evidenced by some quick math.
Of the 22 guys who held starting jobs for the Cowboys during that loss at Lambeau Field, only 12 remain – roughly 54 percent. Per NFL rules, the Cowboys made 46 players active that chilly afternoon – and only 24 of those 46 are still here.
Lastly. Of the 53 guys who comprised the Dallas Cowboys for that game, only 26 remain. That's less than half the members of a team that suited up just two years ago.
Some of those are obvious. Tony Romo is no longer the starting quarterback, but he's still here. James Hanna isn't currently on the roster, but he's still a member of the team while he recovers from injury.
But, man. Memory lane is pretty trippy if you reflect on some of the names and faces who have come and gone: DeMarco Murray, Dwayne Harris, Jeremy Mincey, George Selvie, Jermey Parnell, Joseph Randle, Bruce Carter.
Where have you gone, Cameron Lawrence, Dekoda Watson and Anthony Spencer – all of whom played a role in that game? How about Tyler Clutts, who actually scored one of the Cowboys' three touchdowns?
8.It's ironic what else stands out to me from that game. Let's go back to that list of 12 returning starters and see who stands out.
Most of them make total sense. The offensive line, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams – these are all valued assets who proved themselves that season, on top of dozens of other occasions. Of course you'd keep them in the fold.
You know who else is still here, though? The much-maligned secondary.
The Cowboys' starting secondary from that day was Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick and Sterling Moore – who was playing in place of an injured Morris Claiborne.
Throughout these past two years, fans and media alike have tried to cut or bench most of these guys – and they're still out here earning paychecks and playing at a high level. The front office drafted Byron Jones to upgrade the talent level, and Claiborne returned from injury to claim his old job.
Other than that, this unit is largely the same as it was back then. And for the most part, the Cowboys' defensive backs have enjoyed a solid season – despite the insistence of many that it could never happen.
Props to them for shutting a boatload of people up, including myself.
9.Maybe it's because I didn't watch the game with the full-bridled passion of a fan, but I just don't care about the Dez Catch Controversy – and I think you're about 16 months overdue in letting it go.
In the heat of the moment and in the following offseason, I get why it was a sticking point. Had it stood, the catch could have set the Cowboys up to play a Seahawks team they had already beaten that season. It's not a stretch to say they could have gone to Super Bowl XLIX.
But none of that happened, and we've had two seasons worth of material to cover in the time since. Like I said, only 26 of the 53 guys on that team are even here now. The quarterback is different, the running back is different – half of the defense is different.
The same can be said for the Packers, who have undoubtedly turned their roster over to a similar degree. Beating this team wouldn't even be genuine retribution for a game that happened 731 days ago.
As time goes by, and the game fades further into the past, it'll be fun to reminisce. For this team, with what they're capable of accomplishing, it feels like an unnecessary add-on.
10. Green Bay at Dallas, 3:40 p.m. Sunday:Why on Earth would I give away my weekend pick in a Thursday column? That just seems counterintuitive. Y'all are going to need to read our Gut Feeling feature to get the goods.
I will say this, though. The Packers come to AT&T Stadium with arguably the best quarterback in the world at the helm. But I would argue that the Cowboys have the edge at the vast majority of the positions in this game.
The Packers' edge rushers are probably better than the Cowboys', and their receiver corps might be deeper. For the most part, though, I think Dallas holds the edge in most areas of this matchup. That's why they have the best record in the NFC, and that's why they beat Green Bay convincingly earlier this season.
Do with that information what you will, but it's probably going to influence my pick on Friday afternoon.