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Packers aren’t the same team that lost to Cowboys earlier this season

Aaron Rodgers’ hot streak and a defensive revival have Green Bay rolling.

The Cowboys, four-point home favorites, will have several advantages on their side when they host the Packers in the playoffs Sunday. They’ll have twice the amount of MVP candidates running their offense, a superior regular season record, and the comfort of playing in balmy Arlington rather than frigid Wisconsin.

But one advantage outweighs them all: Dallas has already beaten Green Bay. By two touchdowns, in fact. At Lambeau Field.

That win even came on a day the Packers defense was able to keep Dak Prescott’s biggest weapons out of the end zone. Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten combined to score zero points. Instead, the team’s leading scorers were:

  1. Dan Bailey (12 points)
  2. Cole Beasley (12)
  3. Brice Butler (6)

Of course, Elliott still carved up the Pack for 157 rushing yards and Bryant didn’t play, but that October victory showcased just how dangerous Dallas is. Jason Garrett has a number of ways to beat teams. Only the New York Giants, since eliminated from the playoffs, have really figured out a way to stem them all.

While Green Bay has been one of the league’s hottest teams recently, only one franchise in the NFC can match the Packers’ seven-game winning streak. That’s a Dallas team that won 11 straight in the middle of the season.

So why can Green Bay beat the Cowboys and advance to the NFC Championship Game?

Aaron Rodgers is a different player than the last time these two teams met

Rodgers leapt from mid-tier quarterback to MVP candidate midway through the season. Since a Nov. 20 loss to Washington, he’s’ thrown 22 touchdown passes without an interception. In his last three games — a win over the Vikings, a showdown with the Lions to determine the NFC North champion, and a Wild Card game against the Giants — he’s thrown for at least 300 yards and four touchdowns in each.

The two-time MVP was capable in the pocket the last time these teams met, but that 294-yard, one-interception performance is light years from the storm he’s kicked up when games have meant the most.

In the past two months, Rodgers has only had one game with a passer rating below 108. As good as Prescott has been this fall, he’ll be the second-best quarterback on the field Sunday.

Green Bay’s receivers are stepping up — even if Jordy Nelson can’t play

Nelson left last week’s win over the Giants with a rib injury and contributed just one catch for 13 yards, but the Packers receiving corps still managed to haul in 20 receptions for 310 yards and four touchdowns. Both Randall Cobb and Davante Adams finished the evening with 100-plus yards through the air.

For Cobb, the performance was an affirming explosion that proved he can still be an game-changing player despite a forgettable 2016. For Adams, it was validation his breakout 997-yard, 12-touchdown season was no fluke. Together, the pair can be the deadly receiving duo Rodgers needs even without Nelson in the lineup.

But those two aren’t alone. Geronimo Allison popped off for a game-high 91 yards in Week 17’s NFC North title game. Tight end Jared Cook is averaging nearly five receptions per contest over the team’s last four games. Ty Montgomery, the team’s de facto lead tailback, is a dynamic receiving threat after starting his NFL career at wideout.

Green Bay’s receivers and tight ends combined for 19 catches on 28 targets, 188 yards, and just one touchdown the last time these two teams faced off. Expect all of those numbers to rise Sunday.

The Packers’ run defense has been solid down the stretch

Green Bay hasn’t played a murderer’s row of great running teams, but it has done a good job of stemming opponent ground games in its seven-game winning streak. The Packers have held opposing running backs to just 80 yards per game in that stretch.

That mark that would be one of the NFL’s best if stretched over a full season — but also came against primary backs like Zach Zenner, Paul Perkins, Thomas Rawls, and Jerick McKinnon. There’s no one in that group, with the exception of possibly the BearsJordan Howard, you would mistake for Ezekiel Elliott.

For the most part, only elite runners have been able to gash Green Bay for big yardage. Only three players have run for triple digits against a fearsome front seven. However, that short list includes Elliott, who will be well rested and ready to go Sunday. While the Packers weren’t able to stop him back in October, they’ve had plenty of experience shutting down other backs and perfecting their craft in the interim.

The Packers secondary, against all odds, has been effective lately

Green Bay’s grab bag of hobbled cornerbacks and safeties won’t intimidate any playoff teams. The Packers kicked off their season by losing veteran starter Sam Shields for the year to a concussion. He was later joined on injured reserve by Demetri Goodson and Makinton Dorleant, a spot starter and a part of the team’s depth at corner, respectively.

But that’s not all. Cornerbacks Quinten Rollins and Josh Hawkins both missed chunks of time down the stretch. Damarious Randall missed a six-game span in the middle of the season. Even tight end-shadowing linebackers like Blake Martinez, Jake Ryan, Nick Perry, and Clay Matthews sat out significant periods thanks to injury this fall.

Opposing quarterbacks used these opportunities to feast during the regular season. Kirk Cousins shredded the Pack for 375 yards and three touchdowns. Marcus Mariota had one of the finest games of his budding career with 295 yards and four scores. Matt Stafford threw for 385 yards and three touchdowns the first time the Lions played the Packers.

Though several holes persist in the secondary, the Packers’ pass defense has been effective in its three biggest games of the season. Green Bay forced Russell Wilson into five interceptions in a 38-10 rout of the Seahawks in Week 14, then held Stafford in check until garbage time of a Week 17 win over the Lions.

Last week, that crew limited Eli Manning to a 52-percent completion rate and a single touchdown. Those are all good quarterbacks, and each struggled at times in a category supposed to be Green Bay’s weakest. Unless Prescott can outplay Super Bowl winners like Wilson and Manning Sunday, he may struggle in his first playoff appearance.

But the Cowboys have something the opponents the Packers have ripped through did not: an elite offense. Green Bay’s winning streak has come against teams with weak scoring offenses. As Blogging the Boys points out, the Packers are 0-5 against teams ranked in the league’s top half when it comes to points per game.

Dallas ranks No. 5 on that list.

The Cowboys, the NFC’s best team this season and coming off a bye week, are the favorites for a reason in this rematch. But don’t expect the Packers to look like the same team that rolled over in Week 6.