NFL Playoffs: Packers-Cowboys NFC Divisional Playoff preview: Ice Bowl II, or something new?
The last time the Cowboys visited Lambeau Field in the playoffs, the Packers were an aging team of champions, playing in Vince Lombardi’s second-to-last game as coach in Green Bay. An unprecedented era of success was nearly over. The Cowboys were four years away from their first Super Bowl title. The Packers were about four decades away from their next. The Ice Bowl’s imagery and importance make anything about that day a timeless artifact. Everyone has a story, knows about the sneak. The game is eternal. The yellow helmets with the Gs, the silver ones with the stars, the breath in the air: From that day forward, the Packers and Cowboys were going to be connected forever. There have been many important clashes between the teams since. The Ice Bowl remains unmatched.
We don’t know how we’ll remember Sunday’s Divisional postseason showdown with Dallas. But what it won’t be is the second version of the Ice Bowl. It won’t be as cold as that unfathomable day on New Year’s Eve 1967. So you could start there. Additionally, it isn’t the equivalent of a conference title game, which essentially is what it was then, when an invite to Super Bowl II was on the line. Ice Bowl II is just too simple for 2015’s contest. It doesn’t really apply to this one in the present day. And the original won’t have a sequel.
A big difference (and similarity) between the Ice Bowl and Sunday? There are current Packers, notably the braintrust of general manager, coach, and quarterback, who are also Super Bowl champions. The current era is a fantastic one in Green Bay. As is the case each postseason, they could be on the verge of rewriting history again. They aren’t the Lombardi Era Packers, though. Especially not those Packers circa 1967 – they were setting like the sun as a dynasty entering the Ice Bowl. And they still had enough left to burn a couple, final, exclamation points into the sky.
For a look back at the Ice Bowl, from a photographer’s perspective on the frozen sidelines that day, read the Packerland Pride magazine story here.
It’s impossible to separate, but the Ice Bowl should stand alone. And this Divisional playoff should be allowed the same space. The teams have morphed significantly since the last postseason meeting. They were in different positions on the food chain in the 1990s, when Dallas made a habit of ending visiting Green Bay’s season on the Super Bowl’s doorstep.
The Cowboys haven’t been to Lambeau for a playoff game since the Ice Bowl. That adds to the scene. But these more contemporary trends add to the weight: Dallas just won their second playoff game since 1996, and the Packers have lost three of their last four postseason contests. With history all over the place, each team is meeting in Green Bay trying to run from, in some way, the recent past. Whatever happens, we’ll probably need a new nickname when it’s over.
Nothing like this was expected from Dallas this season. That may sound crazy for the Cowboys, but consider this: Jerry Jones, of all people, tried to temper expectations. But the defense, projected by some to be historically horrendous, continues to hold leads and make plays. They won in Seattle. The offense has a clear identity: Pound DeMarco Murray behind an imposing run-blocking unit, let Tony Romo find sure-handed receivers, get the ball to Dez Bryant, then watch the carnage. The Cowboys went from last place whispers to what is probably their most complete team in a long time.
We can keep waiting for the spectacular failures. The ones that feel like they’re just so Cowboys. It’s easy to do. But these Cowboys need to be beaten. They can’t be relied upon to do it themselves. We don’t believe this will be an issue with players or anything. But while Dallas’s perception as a team always on the verge of implosion could reemerge at any moment, right now that image feels more like a smokescreen shielding the qualities of a dangerous opponent.
As far as current storylines go in Green Bay, it’s hard not to start with recent postseason results. Cross out a home victory over the Joe Webb-led Minnesota Vikings, and the Packers haven’t won a playoff game against an actual postseason-caliber opponent since the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.
A flawless season in Lambeau Field would vanish with an opening playoff loss to Romo and the Cowboys. It would sting longer than last year’s near-miss against San Francisco. (Part of that is Dallas’s lingering perception, part of it is that most everyone hates them.) The Packers were hobbled all over the place last January. For any NFL standard (and especially their own), Green Bay will be rested and healthy this time. Aaron Rodgers, or anyone else, could get injured. And that would change things. But for now, even against a strong Cowboys team, this game sets up better for the Packers because of their relative health going in.
Entering the playoffs performing better than they were in early 2014, the Green Bay run defense will fittingly get its greatest test yet in Murray. In a few areas of emphasis the Packers defense will be getting its road evaluation on Sunday. They’ll need to limit the Cowboys’ time of possession. If given opportunities, they’ll need to capitalize on turnover chances. They’ll need to get off the field when they put themselves in good positions to do so. Romo has been one of the better quarterbacks this season at converting long third downs. Conversions are usually a crucial statistic anyway, but when they’re a play away – especially a long play away – the Packers need to kill drives. Rodgers and the offense need as many chances as possible. No one wants Dallas dictating pace. Put an early lead on them in Lambeau, and they’ll probably keep running because they’re really good at it. But it will no longer be on their exact terms.
And that bit about Dallas’s surprising defense? There’s still no reason to think, if Green Bay’s offensive line continues its stellar protection, that Rodgers and the receivers won’t be able to carve that secondary up. Following that performance against Detroit in Week 17, there’s no reason to believe Eddie Lacy and James Starks won’t find creases to hit along the line of scrimmage. The way the offense has played at home, it’s not hard to find reasons for confidence.
We don’t see this Packers season ending here. But we see the problems Dallas presents. We don’t think this will be easy or gift-wrapped in Cowboys mistakes. We hope it doesn’t come down to a special teams miscue, a combustive element that could have a massive impact on the result, good or bad.
All told, the game feels even. Yet each side appears to possess strengths and weaknesses over the other. It’s a game that could shine bright lights on soft spots or show where the Packers have gotten stronger along the way. It’s a game you want them to win not just because of the stakes, but because of what it means Green Bay likely accomplished in moving on. It’s a game we haven’t seen them win since 2010-’11.
It’s a game that hasn’t been seen in this particular configuration since ‘67. And the seventh all-time meeting of Packers-Cowboys in the playoffs will go into the same dense file as the Ice Bowl. The same as the four consecutive defeats in Dallas, the three straight in the ‘90s. Same as the ‘66-’67 NFL championship. Right now it’s the Packers latest chance with the best quarterback in the game. It’s the Cowboys’ best shot with Romo, too. The history is there as a precursor, a placeholder before kickoff. The best part about Sunday’s game, though, is that, if viewed in a vacuum, it could stand without the lush backdrop of the past. It marks the beginning of how this season will be remembered in Green Bay, when it’s remembered.
Now take the historical blinders off. Packers-Cowboys just reads and feels differently than Packers-Panthers. The same thing would have been on the line in either. But with Dallas the stakes go deeper. We can’t ignore that. And when it comes, history won’t mean anything on Sunday afternoon, either.
But it will afterwards, when the outcome becomes part of Packers-Cowboys. And when it does, the Ice Bowl will still be atop the mountain. It’s not the first story, but it’s the standard. The Ice Bowl still isn’t over today – it lives on through tales told, the title won. It’s not over, even though we know the finish.
What happens next only begins on Sunday, five minutes past noon. Before that it’s just a story without a start, or an end.