GREEN BAY – Playoff jitters are the last thing on the minds of the Dallas Cowboys’ rookie offensive stars.
The Cowboys have been led all season by quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, and that won’t change on Sunday against the Packers in the NFC Divisional round.
The former finished third in the NFL in passer rating (104.9) while the latter led the league in rushing (1,631 yards) and was second in rushing touchdowns (15).
In hearing from Elliott on a conference call with Green Bay media on Wednesday, it sounds like the Dallas veterans are dropping reminders here and there that the playoffs are a little different, but no one is making a big deal out of the bigger stage for the rookies.
“You just hear from everyone that the game kind of picks up in the playoffs,” said Elliott, who was involved in an inconsequential fender-bender near the Cowboys facility on Wednesday morning. “But we’re not worried at all. We’re going to go out and play ball like we’ve been doing all season. That’s about it.”
It’s the same approach with Prescott, who has been as poised and composed as any rookie quarterback in recent memory.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said all the reports out of Mississippi State were about how mature Prescott was, and in Dallas he’s been like that since rookie minicamp, long before he took over the starting job due to Tony Romo’s back injury.
“Certainly you’d like to help your players develop the right mindset leading into a ballgame, but as much as anything else, you want them to be themselves, and he’s done an outstanding job doing that with every new experience he’s had up to this point this year,” Garrett said.
“Once the game starts, obviously, there’s a heightened sense of urgency because it is a playoff game, but at the same time, it’s important for everyone to just settle in and play.”
For the Cowboys, that means pounding the ball with Elliott, who may have benefited as much as anyone from the playoff bye last week after rushing a league-high 322 times in 2016. No other running back in the league hit the 300 mark.
Back in Week 6 at Lambeau Field, Elliott rushed 28 times for 157 yards in a 30-16 victory over the Packers. Green Bay held him in check reasonably well early, but he got free for runs of 25 and 29 yards in the second half that both led to scores.
“We just won the line of scrimmage,” Elliott said. “That’s what it came down to. We wore them down early in the game, and in the second half we started to see runs break open.”
While Elliott’s the obvious workhorse in the backfield, Prescott’s passing weapons are more diversified. There isn’t a 1,000-yard receiver amongst Cole Beasley, Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and tight end Jason Witten, but each of those four has at least 40-plus catches, nearly 600 yards and three TDs.
In the first meeting with the Packers, Bryant didn’t play, but Beasley had two TD receptions and Williams had 75 yards, including a 42-yard grab.
“Teams know we’re going to run the ball, and that’s that,” Elliott said. “They’re going to take their chance to load the box at times and that’s when you see Dez and (Williams) make those big plays downfield. They just have to kind of pick their poison at the moment and maybe guess right.”
On the defensive side, the Cowboys led the league against the run, allowing just 83.5 yards per game, but they faced the fewest rushing attempts (340) by a decent margin, thanks to playing with a lead most of the season.
Their 3.9-yard average per rush allowed, which ranked 11th, is probably a better indication of a defensive front that is effective while not dominant.
The wild card in that unit, though, could be pass-rusher David Irving, a second-year defensive lineman with an atypical body type (6-7, 273) that has been tough to handle at times. Irving has just four sacks as a part-time player, but he forced three fumbles in the Green Bay game back in October.
“He’s someone we used sparingly over the course of the season, but he always flashed some things,” Garrett said. “I just think with experience, playing more, playing different positions, being in different situations, I think he‘s grown to benefit from that. He’s improved in all areas.”