Sunday’s NFC Divisional Round showdown between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers is packed with Pro Bowlers, All-Pros and former MVPs, but the most overlooked player to the game’s outcome might be a tight end playing his second career playoff game.
That X-factor is Green Bay’s Jared Cook.
His impact for Sunday is two-fold. Not only has Aaron Rodgers’ MVP-like run coincided with Cook’s return from injury, but the Cowboys are also heading into the game as one of the worst defenses against tight ends.
Cook came back from an ankle injury to play the Redskins on Nov. 20. Since that time, Rodgers has thrown 22 touchdowns and zero interceptions—with a passer rating over 120.0 (including playoffs).
Just having No. 89 on the field has made all the difference.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Rodgers has thrown 21 touchdowns and just one interception with Cook on the field this season.
Rodgers and Cook now have a great opportunity to do serious damage to the Cowboys’ defense. According to Pro Football Reference, only one team has allowed more receptions to opposing tight ends in 2016:
Adding to Cook’s significance for Sunday is the likely absence Jordy Nelson, who is dealing with broken ribs suffered against the New York Giants. Nelson led the Packers in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns this season, but Cook should shoulder much of the burden on the passing game with Nelson unlikely to play.
The Packers might be underdogs in Dallas, but Cook has helped turn the Green Bay offense into a scoring machine. If Rodgers and Cook can get going early and often, the Packers may be able to score enough points to get out of AT&T Stadium with a win.