• PACKERS VS. COWBOYS / SUNDAY 1:05 P.M. EST
WHEN TONY ROMO stayed calm amidst a clean pocket in the final minutes against the Lions on Sunday and threw an eight-yard back-of-the-end zone strike to Terrance Williams, he did three things: He put the Cowboys ahead for good, he further discredited the ridiculous narrative about his supposed crunch-time ineptitude, and he helped (again) to build the case that his offensive line is the best in football.
The Williams touchdown was far from the only play this season on which Romo was afforded unbelievable pass protection. That's why, with 13 wins including the wild-card round, the Cowboys have more than doubled the victory total that many pundits (including this one) projected for them back in August.
The key to Dallas's overachievement has been the mobility of the O-line, which is anchored by two jewels who each turned 24 within the last seven weeks and another who does so in March: left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin. All three deserved first-team All-Pro honors (Smith and Martin got it, Frederick was edged out by the Steelers' Maurkice Pouncey), and they've individually made the blockers around them better. Left guard Ronald Leary has been tremendous, right tackles Jermey Parnell and Doug Free have been more consistent, and tight end Jason Witten is enjoying the best run-blocking season of his career.
The line's mobility has been showcased in zone and man blocking. The former approach requires the type of collective lateral movement and dexterity that many coaches believe can only be achieved if the scheme is used full-time. But the Cowboys also control games with man blocking, which relies on pulling linemen and double-teaming at the point of attack.
The chief beneficiary of all this: DeMarco Murray, who is a laudable ballcarrier but by no means the NFL's most dynamic runner. In his fourth NFL season he has shown patience, sound vision and the powerful athleticism to fall forward on contact. This steady style makes Murray an ideal back to run behind an elite front.
One could argue that Romo is the type of quarterback who needs an elite front. The 34-year-old has become more of a complementary component of Dallas's offense; he benefits from a stronger play-action game and, more important, from often operating ahead in the down and distance game—though against Detroit, with Dallas's line uncharacteristically struggling against the league's top run defense, Romo had to make several plays on third-and-long.
As we were reminded on Sunday, Romo will always have a sandlot nature to his game. At times, there's a franticness in his movement when he first eyes a blitz, the opposite of the pocket footwork that the Bradys and the Mannings of the league display. Typically an O-line doesn't enjoy blocking for this sort of quarterback, because it's tough to protect a guy who might not be where you expect. But Dallas's line has so often been able to maintain its pass blocks late in the play, allowing Romo to scratch his sandlot itch. And Romo, to his credit, has not scratched that itch as often, thanks to a newfound trust in the men protecting him.
What a difference a great offensive line can make on an overachieving team.
Frequency with which Dallas ran on first down in the regular season, the highest in the NFL.
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ROMO)
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DALLAS'S PASSING OFFENSE
While everyone focuses on the Cowboys' No. 2--ranked ground game (and really it's No. 1; roughly 500 of Seattle's rushing yards came out of the passing game on Russell Wilson scrambles), it's easy to overlook an aerial attack that finished 16th in total yards but first in yards per attempt (8.4). The Cowboys have a perfectly balanced collection of receivers: Dez Bryant demands safety help over the top, putting defenses in a tough spot because safety help usually makes using an eight-man box against the run unfeasible. Tight end Jason Witten has an excellent feel for separating at the top of his routes. Terrance Williams brings speed and fluidity, especially in midrange routes. And Cole Beasley is emerging as one of the NFL's most proficient slot weapons. This will be a revealing game for Beasley: The Packers have two excellent slot defenders in Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward.