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That Cowboys-Packers Game Was As Great As It Seemed

After two more blowouts Saturday, the NFL playoffs were doing little to improve upon last weekend’s yawn-worthy games. But Sunday finally delivered the thrills. The Steelers outlasted the Chiefs 18-16 in a hard-fought game, and the matchup we’d all been waiting for — the Dallas Cowboys against the Green Bay Packers — ended up being an instant classic, one of the best playoff games in pro football history. It had a finish so gripping — dueling drives that ended with a Mason Crosby field goal as time expired — that we’d better spend some time reliving it through the numbers.

Rare seesaw finish

Packers-vs-Cowboys became only the eighth playoff game in NFL (or AFL) history to feature at least four fourth-quarter ties and/or lead changes. But beyond that, it was also one of only two games in which a team entered the fourth quarter down by double digits but stormed back to tie or take the lead, then gave up another score and then fought to re-gain the tie or lead again.1

Dallas entered the fourth trailing Green Bay by 15 points2 and had a mere 7 percent chance of winning.3 They then scored twice and converted a two-point conversion to tie the game at 28, raising their win probability to 46 percent. Then, after Crosby knocked down a 56-yard kick to re-take the lead for Green Bay with 93 seconds left, the Cowboys’ win probability was bumped back down to 18 percent.

But the game wasn’t done yet. Cowboys QB Dak Prescott led a 6-play, 42-yard field-goal drive to tie the game again, raising Dallas’s win probability to 49 percent. That number rose even higher, to 54 percent, after an Aaron Rodgers sack on the following drive appeared to kill any hope of another Packers response. But with 12 seconds left, Rodgers hit Jared Cook for a 36-yard completion, Cook dragged his feet to barely stay in bounds, and Crosby gave Green Bay the 34-31 victory with another long kick.

Here’s what all that back-and-forth in win probability looked like, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information:

packers-cowboyswinprob

There’s a reason these kinds of games are so uncommon: NFL teams almost always seal the deal when they carry double-digit leads into the fourth quarter. Only 25 teams have ever fought back from a double-digit hole after the third quarter to tie or lead a playoff game — much less give up another score afterwards and come back yet again. Even though they lost, what the Cowboys did Sunday showed the best of what the NFL playoffs have to offer.

Historic QB duel

Another factor that places Sunday’s Packers-Cowboys tilt among the best in playoff history: Rodgers and Prescott played incredibly, and historically, great football.

Both QBs eclipsed 300 passing yards, and it was only the 32nd playoff game of the Super Bowl era (since 1966) in which both teams’ primary passers posted a quarterback rating over 95. It didn’t happen at all in last year’s playoffs; before this season you’d have to go back to Super Bowl XLIX between Tom Brady and Russell Wilson to find a postseason game where both quarterbacks broke a 95 passer rating.

Digging deeper, only 20 games at this stage of the postseason (the divisional round or later) featured a matchup of such stellar passing. And only one of those — Super Bowl XXXVIII between Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme — also had as many late-game twists and turns4 as Green Bay and Dallas provided.

DATE TEAM QB RATING OPP. QB RATING
Super Bowl
1/21/79 PIT Terry Bradshaw 119.2 DAL Roger Staubach 100.4
1/24/82 SF Joe Montana 100.0 CIN Ken Anderson 95.2
2/1/04 CAR Jake Delhomme 113.6 NE Tom Brady 100.5
2/1/15 SEA Russell Wilson 110.6 NE Tom Brady 101.1
Conf. Championship
1/17/88 DEN John Elway 114.4 CLE Bernie Kosar 105.3
1/18/09 ARI Kurt Warner 145.7 PHI Donovan McNabb 97.4
1/20/13 SF Colin Kaepernick 127.7 ATL Matt Ryan 114.8
Divisional Round
12/28/75 OAK Ken Stabler 121.2 CIN Ken Anderson 110.3
1/4/81 DAL Danny White 104.9 ATL Steve Bartkowski 95.5
1/2/82 MIA Don Strock 118.7 SD Dan Fouts 99.0
1/7/90 PIT Bubby Brister 101.1 DEN John Elway 97.7
1/15/94 LAR Jeff Hostetler 125.0 BUF Jim Kelly 113.2
1/4/97 JAX Mark Brunell 112.0 DEN John Elway 99.2
1/16/00 STL Kurt Warner 143.0 MIN Jeff George 104.0
1/15/05 ATL Michael Vick 125.5 STL Marc Bulger 99.6
1/12/08 NE Tom Brady 141.4 JAX David Garrard 100.3
1/13/08 SD Philip Rivers 133.2 IND Peyton Manning 97.7
1/11/09 SD Philip Rivers 105.4 PIT Ben Roethlisberger 98.4
1/11/15 DAL Tony Romo 143.6 GB Aaron Rodgers 125.4
1/15/17 DAL Dak Prescott 103.2 GB Aaron Rodgers 96.7
Best passing duels in the divisional round or later, 1966-2016

Playoff games in the divisional round or later where both primary passers had a Quarterback Rating of 95 or higher. The highest possible rating is 158.3.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

For the Cowboys and their fans, Prescott’s pinpoint passing and the team’s furious comeback probably don’t feel very special right now. But the game they played with Green Bay was exceptional. And in a postseason otherwise packed with duds, we need all the games like this one that we can get.

Check out our latest NFL playoff predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The other game also involved the Packers. In a 2010 wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals, Green Bay went into the fourth quarter down two touchdowns to Arizona on the road, forced overtime and later lost on a Rodgers fumble that was returned for a game-ending touchdown by the Cardinals’ Karlos Dansby.

  2. That margin was also tied for the fifth-biggest fourth-quarter margin ever overcome in a playoff game, however briefly.

  3. According to ESPN Analytics’ win probability model.

  4. In terms of fourth-quarter ties or lead changes.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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