Wednesday November 28th, 2007

Our top 10 reasons why Thursday night's titanic Green Bay at Dallas game rates as must-see TV (the key stipulation being, of course, that you have access to the NFL Network) ...

1. It's a quarterback's world: Were it not for a man named Brady, the seasons being turned in by Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and Packers quarterback Brett Favre would be 1-2 (in some order) in the MVP race. Romo and Favre rank in the league's top five in almost all the major passing categories, which seems to prove at least two things: Romo's career didn't disintegrate after he bobbled that hold of a potential game-winning field goal try in the playoffs at Seattle last season, and at the moment, retirement doesn't seem to be the right call for Favre, now does it?

At the risk of pointing out how much fun both Favre and Romo are having these days, have you noticed how much fun they're having these days? Sometimes the comparison game is so over-done and tiring, but in this case, Romo's gift for improvisation and play-making creativity really does remind me of a younger Favre. Without quite so many forehead-slapping underhanded throws.

2. We haven't seen many matchups this good, this late: This is only the fourth time in the Super Bowl era that teams with 10 or more wins and one or fewer losses are colliding. The last time it happened, when the 10-1 Giants met the 10-1 49ers in San Francisco on Dec. 3, 1990, Bill Parcells was still in his first NFL head coaching gig (that's a while ago), and Joe Montana was still comfortably holding off that pesky start-Steve Young movement.

The 49ers won that highly anticipated showdown 7-3, but the game that everyone remembers came in that season's NFC Championship, when the Giants knocked Montana out of action and got their revenge in a 15-13 nail-biter.

3. We all love a good anniversary retrospective: Green Bay and Dallas are playing for huge stakes a month and two days shy of the 40th anniversary of the Ice Bowl, the nickname for their famous meeting in the 1967 NFL Championship Game at a rather frosty Lambeau Field. How cool is that?

You know the essential details: Game time temperatures of minus-13, with a wind chill of minus-46. Bart Starr. Jerry Kramer's block of Jethro Pugh. A 1-yard quarterback sneak for the game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds remaining. Three straight NFL titles for the Pack. All that great NFL Films footage of people who can see their breath while wearing really hideous ski masks. It's the stuff of legend.

And the best part is, Thursday's game might only be an appetizer for the real throwback treat: A rematch in January's NFC Championship Game, dare we dream, back at Lambeau? Be still our symmetry-loving hearts.

4. The unsung head coaches are getting it done: Before January 2006, when you brought up any mention of the McCarthy era in Wisconsin, it wasn't exactly a source of state-wide pride. But Packers second-year head coach Mike McCarthy is changing all that. McCarthy lost eight of his first 12 games, but since then he's a ridiculous 14-1, with winning streaks of eight and six games sandwiched around the Packers' Week 5 home loss to Chicago. His 27-game record leading the Pack is 18-9, a .667 winning percentage. Some guy named Vince Lombardi is in second place among fast-starting Green Bay coaches, at 17-10 (.630).

And then there's a man named Wade. He might look like a tire salesman who eats donuts two out of every three meals, but the guy is coaching circles around the Cowboys' opponents. There were plenty of snickers when Jerry Jones hired Wade Phillips to replace the retired (again) Parcells, but by leading Dallas to a 10-1 start this season, Phillips has done something that Tom Landry, Jimmy Johnson, or the Big Tuna himself never accomplished.

5. The Great and Powerful Oz exposed?: Now that we've had that quick glimpse on Sunday night of the Patriots furiously working the levers behind the green curtain, maybe, just maybe, the monolith from New England isn't the unbeatable machine after all. And that means that Green Bay at Dallas looks a little more important today than just deciding which NFC team will have a leg up on ruling the NFL's junior varsity division.

Am I saying I'd like the Packers or Cowboys' chances of beating the Patriots at this point? No. But NFC-dwelling Philly did puncture a little of New England's aura of invincibility last weekend, and that should give the conference's two best teams -- the Cowboys and Packers -- some hope for the inevitable showdown to come in Super Bowl XLII.

6. Brett Favre's Texas Stadium curse: Favre is 0-8 in his illustrious career in the stadium with the big hole in the roof. But there are telling statistics, and then there are meaningless bits of information that get passed off as telling. Upon further review, seven of those eight losses at Dallas came from 1993-96, when the Cowboys were in the midst of their Super Bowl glory era and the Packers were the persistent challengers whose time was almost at hand.

So unless Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin jump into the way-back machine and somehow take the field again in their prime, Favre's winless record at Texas Stadium is just ancient history that will have no bearing on Thursday night's outcome. How ancient you ask? Consider this: The last time No. 4 even played in Dallas was November 1999, when Ray Rhodes was in the process of going 8-8 in his one and only season as the Packers head coach.

7. The kids are all right: The Cowboys and Packers both have rookie kickers who don't seem to have any clue about the size of the stage they're succeeding on this season. Dallas drafted Nick Folk (Hero) in the sixth round out of Arizona, and he has solved the revolving-door approach at the position that the Parcells era featured. Folk has nailed 17 of 20 field goal tries (85 percent) and he's an impressive 7 of 9 from 40 yards or longer, including that memorable 53-yarder that he had to kick twice to win a Monday night classic at Buffalo in Week 5. And don't forget his picture-perfect onside kick that gave the Cowboys a chance to beat the Bills.

Green Bay counters with Mason Crosby, who like Folk was selected in the sixth round, out of Colorado. Crosby has been a steady 22-of-28 (79 percent) on field goals, and his long is also 53 yards. Though he's a so-so 6-of-11 from 40 yards-plus, Crosby has been money from 39 yards in, going 16 of 17 and keeping the points coming whenever the Packers reach the red zone.

8. Getting that game-day rush: It's not going to be Ice Bowl II conditions in Dallas, and maybe that's because on defense both the Cowboys and Packers can really bring the heat. Packers defensive end Aaron Kampman -- who is now one of those guys who is widely heralded for being unheralded -- leads the NFL in sacks with 11. Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware isn't far behind with a team-best nine sacks.

It's actually wrong to just think of Ware as just a pass rusher. He's good in coverage, run defense, whatever the Cowboys ask of him. And the pass pressure that he and fellow outside linebacker Greg Ellis (8½ sacks) generates is key, because it helps cover up for Dallas's shaky secondary. As for Kampman, Romo's knack for escaping should provide Kampman his toughest test of the season. Green Bay needs to get to the quarterback on occasion so that the productive Cowboys receivers don't have all day to roam free downfield.

9. Throwing to the big guys: Both Dallas and Green Bay have tight ends made for the fantasy football era. Romo loves having Jason Witten as his go-to guy, and Witten's 59 catches for 750 yards and six touchdowns ranks him among the NFL's elite at his position. Witten is great over the deep middle -- with or without a helmet -- and his 10 catches of at least 20 yards and 35 first downs produced have been instrumental in opening up the field for the Dallas receivers.

As for Donald Lee, how can I not like the guy? My parents named me Donald Lee Banks long before they knew the fifth-year Packers tight end would emerge as one of Favre's favorite targets midway through the 2007 season. Lee has 39 catches for 468 yards and four scores, but three of those touchdowns have come in the past three games.

10. It's a matter of time for T.O.: There hasn't been a mis-step all season, and he's looking great in all those argyle-sweater driven outfits in his postgame press conferences. But you just have to know that Terrell Owens will have at least one moment this year when he gives in to the urge to shine the spotlight on himself in typical T.O. fashion. Maybe it'll be an end zone celebration we haven't seen now that Chad Johnson is back in the game, or maybe a sideline rant if the going gets tough against the Packers, but Owens has to give us something to talk about other than his spectacular on-field success.

After T.O. not getting the best of things in that Week 6 showdown against New England and Randy Moss, what bigger or better stage for the original No. 81 to show back up if the Cowboys ride herd on the Packers?

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