LOS ANGELES: Dallas Cowboys and Dak Prescott face the sternest examination yet of their Super Bowl ambitions on Sunday (Monday in Manila) when they host a red-hot Green Pay Backers side led by Aaron Rodgers.
The Cowboys—the fabled “America’s Team”—emerged as the surprise package of the regular season after romping to a 13-3 record to clinch top seeding in the National Football Conference playoffs.
It marked a dazzling and largely unexpected turnaround following a dismal 2015 campaign, when they finished bottom of the NFC East with a record of 4-12.
The Cowboys transformation owes much to the superb form of rookie quarterback Prescott, who was thrust into the starting line-up after Tony Romo was injured in pre-season.
Prescott, only the 135th pick in last year’s draft, defied expectations with a remarkably assured season that saw him throw 23 touchdowns to just four interceptions during the regular season.
Prescott’s poised passing game has been matched by the Cowboys’ formidable rushing, where running back Ezekiel Elliott flirted with Eric Dickerson’s long-time rookie season best before finally coming up short with 1,631 yards at an average of 5.1 yards per carry.
‘Win or go home’
The Cowboys potent all-round offense makes them favorites to advance from Sunday’s divisional battle in what will be the first post-season game of Prescott’s career.
“I mean it’s my first run at it so I can’t tell you what I’m expecting,” Prescott said as he contemplated Sunday’s showdown.
“It’s a big game. Win or go home. I know the importance of that. It’s a great position we put ourselves in.”
Prescott’s phenomenal rookie season numbers have earned him comparisons to New England Patriots icon Tom Brady.
Prescott completed 67.8% of his passes for 3,667 yards while amassing 282 rushing yards which yielded six touchdowns.
He is only the second player in history —after Brady—to throw more than 3,500 yards and less than five interceptions in a single season.
“His instincts and understanding of the game is off the charts and way beyond what a rookie should be doing,” Dallas offensive co-ordinator Scott Linehan told USA Today.
Among Prescott’s legions of admirers is his opposite number on Sunday and the man who will hold the key to Green Bay’s chances of springing an upset – Rodgers.
The 33-year-old said he has liked what he had seen in Prescott this season, both on and off the field.
“He’s had a fantastic season,” Rodgers reflected. “The thing from afar … obviously he’s playing well, taking care of the football, he’s got the athleticism to extend plays when he needs to and he’s throwing the ball on time really well.
“But it seems from afar, just watching some of his interviews and postgame stuff, he just really handles himself with a lot of class and is a true professional. I give him a lot of credit for that.”
Rodgers meanwhile will lead the Packers at the AT&T Stadium on Sunday in the form of his life, having inspired his team to a comeback 38-13 victory over the New York Giants at frigid Lambeau Field last weekend.
Last weekend’s win saw Rodgers seal his status as the king of Hail Marys following his improbable 42-yard heave to Randall Cobb in the closing seconds of the first half. It was the third Hail Mary touchdown Rodgers has thrown in the past 13 months.
“I think we’re starting to believe any time that ball goes up there we’ve got a chance,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers hinted the Packers may hold an advantage by arriving in Dallas battle-hardened. The Cowboys have not played since benching most of their starters in a defeat to Philadelphia two weeks ago, a game with nothing at stake.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it, but you’re a top-seed and you’ve been off for a week,” Rodgers said.
“There’s added pressure of trying to hold serve at home and there’s the potential rust factor of haven’t played in a few weeks. A lot of starters didn’t play in that last game against Philly. We’re coming off a stretch where we had to win every game for the last seven to keep this thing rolling. There’s a lot to be said about momentum.”