Live Blog: Packers-Cowboys, November 29th

I’m live blogging this both because I enjoy it and because I know people will want to watch the game and don’t have NFL Network. I know, it’s a fantastic public service by a daring man in defiance of NFL game account reproduction regulations.

Standard return gets the Packers out to the 30. Green Bay comes out in their Big 5 and Brett Favre completes to Ruvell Martin for 12 on the first play from scrimmage. Favre airmails the first-down pass over a falling receiver. Gift offsides call wipes out a possible Favre fumble. Excellent catch by Jones, who cradles a low ball at the Dallas 43. Favre fires deep and misses a diving James Jones, who had a step on Jacques Reeves. Ryan Grant’s first run of the night gains six. A toss left gets two. A long ball to Driver is thwarted by good coverage from Terence Newman. The Mason Crosby field goal from 47 is plenty long and down the pipes. 3-0, Packers.

Nice return up the sideline will give the Cowboys good field position to start their first possession. (Are we going to be watching the same seven commercials over and over tonight? If so, I see why most of us can’t get NFLN.) Julius Jones gets bottled up after two yards up the middle. Terrell Owens rips down a jump ball over Al Harris; Harris comes out with the ball and gestures wildly, drawing a five-yard delay of game flag. On replay, he obviously strips the ball cleanly. And the Packers challenge as we go to commercial. (Question of the moment: Is Mangini throwing his phone at Belichick’s car? Or Pennington’s?) Green Bay loses the challenge, which was apparently only about whether Owens made the catch, but all NFLN viewers heard was the loss of the Packers’ timeout. A soft Tony Romo screen to Julius Jones nets about twenty. And then Jones plunges for another five over left guard. The third-down draw only gets three, and Dallas will be forced to kick. Nick Folk is true from 30, and it’s 3-3.

Winding return only gets to the 19. Favre hits Koren Robinson on a drag for 7. A toss to Grant gets nothing as Roy Williams greets him rudely at the line of scrimmage. Favre’s pocket collapses on third down and he throws the ball at the feet of Jones. The punt return by Patrick Crayton brings the Cowboys to about their 30.

Marion Barber III sees his first action of the night, and gets five. Romo hits Owens on a curl and he scampers out of bounds for the first down. Another two-yard run by Barber, and Bryant Gumbel welcomes the online and mobile viewers. Barber goes right, finds daylight, and carries Atari Bigby for five yards on the tail end of a twenty-yard run. Romo throws high and misses a well-covered Owens to his right. Barber cuts back and gets two, then Romo finds an open Owens on a slant, only to have him lose focus and drop the ball. Folk is good from 51; Dallas takes a 6-3 lead.

Tramon Williams runs into a few Cowboys and is stopped at the Green Bay 22. Favre steps back on a play-action, has to throw off his back foot, still gets slammed, and throws a pick. All in all, an inauspicious play.

Romo rolls right and finds a wide open Owens, who secures this one and gets all the way down to the Packer 7. Jones churns for three underneath. Romo steps back, waits, and rifles one to Patrick Crayton in the back of the end zone. And the Smile Bowl is 13-3, Cowboys.

Koren Robinson works his way to the 30. Interesting to see how Green Bay responds to a larger deficit than they’ve had in weeks. A screen to Grant gets three. Play-action, again, and Favre scrambles to get away, then overthrows Driver on corner. Favre’s pass on third down caroms off a receiver’s hands, but a 12 men on the field penalty erases it. Dallas calls timeout, their first. Shocker on third down: Ryan Grant bursts through the line and streaks, untouched, all the way to the pretty blue painted area. It’s 13-10 after the extra point. There’s a second left in the first quarter, and this has the makings of a shootout.

A surprise Green Bay onside kick and recovery is negated by an illegal touching penalty on John Kuhn, the fullback whose crushing block created room for Grant on the touchdown run. They’ll re-kick; Dallas gets to the 50 on the return, but a holding penalty will bring it back as the quarter ends.

It’s Dallas 13, Green Bay 10 after fifteen minutes of play.

To start this drive, Romo cocks back and delivers to Owens for a 48-yarder; only a good open-field tackle by Bigby saves the touchdown. The first-down run gets two. Romo waits, lofts one just over a leaping Jarrett Bush, and finds Anthony Fasano, who stumbles into the end zone. The PAT makes is 20-10, and we have one punt between the two teams.

(That Verizon commercial was funny; the Venus (like its big brother, the Voyager) is the first of many iPhone killers to hit the market, and it’ll be interesting to see how that works out.)

Green Bay kick return: good yardage, yes; holding penalty, yes. They start with a run to the left, and gain three. Deion Sanders commences talking to nothing and no one again; that’s going to be fairly annoying. Grant goes left and picks up a first down. A flea-flicker goes deep to a double-covered Driver and falls harmlessly; the Packers seem to have abandoned their short passing game that got them here and are bombing Dallas with no success. Another deep ball bounces out of one Cowboy’s hands. Then, miraculously, a slant to Greg Jennings gets a first down. Grant’s run on the first down is sniffed out by Chris Canty, who stops him for a loss of two. Favre is hit as he throws on second and 12, and the duck is snatched by Terence Newman on an impressive dive. Possession changes hands, and Favre walks off the field holding his wrist and wincing.

Romo airs it out for Terry Glenn, and Jarrett Bush pulls him down by the shoulder; the interference call gets Dallas down to the 5. A false start backs them up to the 10. A Romo lob to an airborne Fasano squirts out of his arms as gravity does its work. Dallas challenges, and fails. An obviously distressed Romo can only answer with a gunned pass to Owens, nice and open in the end zone. It’s now Dallas 27, Green Bay 10.

Uh-oh for Packer fans: Aaron Rodgers is now in the game, probably because Favre’s ailing. (Update: while Favre could justifiably been yanked for poor play early, obviously, a separated shoulder and an elbow injury that left him unable to grip the football made return impossible.) His first pass skitters harmlessly away. Grant gets three on his carry. Rodgers gets helicoptered as he worms his was upfield for the first down. DeMarcus Ware, in coverage, bats down a Rodgers pass on first down. A throw to the right flat nets three. On third and 7, Rodgers’ pass flies over Brandon Jackson on a screen. But on the punt, Green Bay gets their best bounce of the night; Dallas will get the ball at the 4.

Of course, Romo flicks a ball to Owens that rectifies the field position problem: Dallas will be at the 40. Then, a snuffed-out run, and two incomplete passes, and Green Bay’s punt return team sees the field for the first time. Williams get the ball to the Green Bay 26.

Rodgers calls the “Far Luuh” play and loses one as his line goes left while he goes right. A short out to Greg Jennings, a pretty stop-start move, a few good blocks, and Jennings gets the Packers into field goal range. Another pass to Jennings gets nine. Grant works his way for a first down. Rodgers squirms out of a collapsing pocket, and Ware collapses on him after a gain of one. A screen to Grant is stoppered quickly, but the offsides call may explain that. Green Bay will have second and 4 after the two-minute warning. Grant keeps his legs moving and gets a first down at the 10. Rodgers is pressured and throws into a lineman’s back, which will back up the Packers to the 15. A underneath throw to Driver yields three. Rodgers throws to Jennings, who weaves back towards the center of the field and dives in for a score. The score, post-PAT, is 27-17, Dallas.

ESPN.com is reporting that Favre’s injury is to his right elbow. Dallas’ return is only to the 25, and they’ll take a knee to end the half.

Our score is Dallas 27, Green Bay 17.

Halftime review: Owens already has six catches for 147 yards and a score, and the Packers have shown no ability to cover him; Grant has 90 yards on the ground and has been effective at gashing up the middle; Rodgers, minus one overthrow and the pass into a lineman’s back, has been excellent in relief; Favre’s poor showing is a product of both him forcing throws and excellent pressure while he was in; Romo has made nearly every throw necessary and has had plenty of time to locate receivers and loft the ball to the right spot.

We begin the second half with a holding penalty on the Packers that gets Romo and Co. to near midfield. It seems likely Favre, just shown in the tunnel with his arm still wrapped, will not return. A Julius Jones run gets another first down, but an overthrow, a failed run and a false start set Dallas back to a third and 17. The pass to Witten gets Dallas a fourth and (not really) 2, but they’re stuffed on the dive by Jones. Green Bay will have the ball.

Green Bay is spreading the ball around and moving the ball effectively; Rodgers scrambled, then found Donald Lee open downfield at the 21. A Grant run brings them to the 20; another pass to Lee will get the Packers to the 15. Third and five, and Rodgers goes down under duress, but there’s a five-yard facemask that will give Green Bay first and 10 from inches outside the 10. Driver catches one and digs under two Cowboys to the 3. Second down, Rodgers rolls right, completes to Kuhn, and a Dallas linebacker prevents him from getting six points. Still, it’s first and goal from within the 1, and Grant plunges across the line to score the touchdown. The margin is three: Dallas 27, Green Bay 24.

Romo tried to juke Aaron Kampman on the first down; it didn’t work, but Romo got the ball away, only to lose a couple. Then, Kampman steams in on second down and forces a screen pass out too soon, and Dallas has third and 14. Texas Stadium is obnoxiously loud thanks to thousands of Packer Nation citizens, and a false start is the result. It’s third and 19 from the 11, but while Romo is flushed from the pocket, Crayton runs into a chasm between Green Bay defenders and catches and runs for a sizable gain. Romo overthrows a double-covered receiver on first and 10, but Barber turns the corner on second down and gets eight, plus the 15 from Bigby’s facemask penalty. Romo lofts a perfect ball to Owens, which gets called a catch, but replay reveals some bobbling; Mike McCarthy will challenge. And it’s overturned; from the 30, with the crowd quite loud, Romo hits Owens on a crossing route, and he stutters his way to third and 1, taking on Harris and winning. Barber gets the call on the third down, and he slashes into the secondary, all the way to the Packer 5. Another whistle before the snap, but Dallas is picking a different poison, and this one will be a delay of game, taking the ‘Boys back to the 10.

Time runs out in the third quarter, and Green Bay has cut the Dallas lead to 3. It’s Dallas 27, Green Bay 24.

Barber runs right, swipes at Ryan Pickett, and gains just three. Romo slings one into Owens’ chest, in the end zone, and he alligator arms it into the waiting hands of Al Harris. Incredibly, it will be Green Bay ball, six points evanescing into a turnover.

Rodgers hits Jennings for 15, and on the next first down throws a wobbler that skips off a hand to snap a string of 11 straight completions. On third and 10, DeMarcus Ware then abuses Chad Clifton and records a sack that forces a Green Bay punt, fair caught by Crayton at the 24.

America’s Team opens with a pass to Witten for 12, then another for 11 more, but holding erases the latter. Jones to the right finds no room. Romo, under pressure, nails Witten over the middle to make it third and 8. From the shotgun, with four wide, Romo hits Witten for the fourth straight pass play; Witten’s been uncoverable, as the Packers have linebacker A.J. Hawk on him. A bomb to Terry Glenn falls incomplete, but Tramon Williams, on in place of Jarrett Bush, gets called for interference, and Dallas will be within the 10. First down is a low pass that reaches no one in the end zone; second is the obligatory Marion Barber run that gets two. Third down is the dagger, a zig route to Clayton, who boxes out Harris for his second score of the night. In a blink, it’s 34-24, Cowboys.

Koren Robinson returns the kick to the 25. Aaron Rodgers begins his first-ever fourth quarter comeback attempt with a short completion to Driver, then wheels around end for 10 on second down. Driver catches a first down ball and smartly stretches out his arm for an extra five feet at the end of the play. Deep ball for Jennings is just too long on first, but second down is a quick out to Robinson, who jets for nine. Third down is a run for Ryan Grant, who motors against Cowboys, plural, and doesn’t quite reach the marker. Crosby trots on for a 50-yarder, which clears the bar handily. It’s a one-possession game at 34-27.

Jason Garrett’s endgame apparently involves doses of Marion Barber. He runs left for four, but Garrett spikes the punch with a throw to Witten for a first down. Then, another Barber run ends with an Atari Bigby facemask. Time is draining swiftly for the Packers; Barber stays in bounds on a five-yard off-tackle run, and the clock gets to 2:57, as Green Bay calls timeout. Barber bounces back and forth for four yards and a first down. As we reach the two-minute warning, Dallas has second and 8 from the 15, and Favre is walking back into the locker room, arm free of wrap. (To answer my earlier question, yeah, we are seeing the same commercials, and no, they’re not getting any better.) Barber runs right for four yards and goes down in bounds; Green Bay takes their final timeout with 1:51 left. Third and three: Barber gets it again, and will not get the first down. Folk jogs on for the potentially icing field goal; it will be taken after the Cowboys’ timeout. He drills it from 25, and it’s Dallas 37, Green Bay 27.

Tramon Williams gets earholed on the return, which ends before the 20. Rodgers throws to Driver for 15, then Jennings for 9. After a spike, the third down pass misses a slipping Ruvell Martin, and it’s fourth and 1 for the game; it’s incomplete to Brandon Jackson, and the Cowboys will be able to spike it and end this game.

Your final: Dallas 37, Green Bay 27.

Post-game thoughts:

Jason Witten is practically uncoverable and should be considered the best tight end in the NFL; it’s a wonder Dallas doesn’t use him more near the end zone, especially with Terrell Owens still leading the league in drops. Tony Romo continues to mature as a quarterback, and didn’t make a bad throw all night; don’t be fooled by his interception, the ultimate hard-luck pick, on an inexplicable drop by Owens, who consistently found holes in zone coverage, but had two drops, including the one described above, and a bobble on what would have been a first-down catch. Terry Glenn and Patrick Crayton were minimally used, but Glenn drew two interference calls and Crayton caught two TDs; also, they spread a thin Packer secondary and created mismatches underneath for Witten. The duo of Julius Jones and Marion Barber were less effective than usual against a fairly stout run defense, but Barber, as usual, was able to impose his will on a defense late in a game, grinding out tough yards that kept the chains moving. The Dallas defense yielded 94 yards and 2 TDs to Ryan Grant, but the pass rush kept both Favre and Rodgers off balance and the secondary prevented everything deep and only allowed one big play, Jennings’ excellent effort after the catch. DeMarcus Ware stepped up late and the defense made timely stops.

Brett Favre was ineffective early as the Packers tried to bomb out the Cowboys; pundits will say his picks were a return to former risk-taking, but while the first was an ill-advised back-foot throw, the second was just a batted ball that the defense made a remarkable play to intercept. Further, the gunslinger mentality resurfaced for short stretches, as on the showy flea-flicker that landed incomplete; it was through and through a bad read, as Favre had Greg Jennings wide open with nothing but green ahead of him. Had Favre been dinking and dunking as Rodgers proceeded to do in his absence, his numbers would have been much better, but the Packers strayed from their bread-and-butter spread offense and failed to connect early, leaving them in a hole early. Rodgers acquitted himself admirably in his first extended non-mop-up action; though he was unable to complete much deeper than 20 yards, he was composed and had enough arm to make the throws necessary. He fits well in the spread system Green Bay uses, and makes accurate throws underneath, letting receivers chip away with yardage after the catch, as on the drive when he got his first career NFL touchdown. Grant was very effective, including a romp that was the longest run for the Packers this year, and John Kuch’s blocking, as well as a close-to-excellent offensive line, gives Green Bay a two-dimensional offense that makes this team much more dangerous than they were a month ago. However, the defense, without Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, was less effective against the run on the edges and almost incapable of pass rush, and, without Charles Woodson, was incapable of stopping Tony Romo and Dallas’ aerial assault.

The game itself wasn’t short on drama, though Dallas never trailed after taking the lead midway through the first quarter and the soporific Bryant Gumbel did everything in his power to suck all the joy from the field; intensity was high throughout, and both teams’ fan bases, especially the Packers’ large contingent, which helped forced multiple penalties on Dallas’ young offense, kept Texas Stadium cacophonous. The Cowboys are now definitively the best team in the NFC, but the Packers are clearly second, even nicked up, and the gap isn’t very wide; if this isn’t the NFC Championship come January, I will be genuinely surprised.

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