ARLINGTON, Texas — The seventh-seeded Green Bay Packers entered this postseason as the NFL’s youngest playoff team since the 1974 Buffalo Bills, and on Sunday on the road against the second-seeded Dallas Cowboys, they pummeled the home team 48-32. Green Bay led by as many as 32 in the fourth quarter before head coach Matt LaFleur took his foot off the gas.
The victory made the Packers the youngest team (average age: 25 years, 214 days) to win a playoff game since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger. First-time starting quarterback Jordan Love’s “wow” performance — throwing for 272 passing yards and three touchdowns on 16 for 21 passing, with a 157.2 passer rating, 1.1 points short of a perfect rating — was obviously a crucial component to the Packers’ victory. His 157.2 passer rating is the new single-game Packers postseason record, as are his 13 yards per pass attempt.
However, in a time in which the NFL sentiment is that one running back isn’t more valuable than another, Aaron Jones, one of the offense’s elder statesmen at age 29, served as the Packers’ tone-setter. Green Bay’s RB ran for playoff career-highs of 118 yards and three touchdowns on 21 carries, an incredibly efficient 5.6 yards per carry. That output tied the NFL all-time record for rushing touchdowns in a road playoff game, rushing touchdowns in a wild-card round game and rushing touchdowns in a Packers postseason game. Jones’ seven career playoff rushing touchdowns are the most in Green Bay history.
“You guys see it, right? Just his ability to put his foot in the ground and just be explosive, make people miss,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said of Jones postgame. “I can’t say enough great things about the guy, the football player. What he means to our team. The leadership he brings. He’s a rare guy. There’s not many like him. Just how he encourages his teammates, how he uplifts his teammates. But I think you’ve got to give it up for the offense line, too. It’s not just those guys, it’s really the other 10 men on the field. But it starts up front. I thought our tight ends really did a great job. I know on the one touchdown, (tight end) Josiah (Deguara) had a great cut block on the backside. I think he got the Parsons down. And the receivers, their willingness to go in and dig out safeties, and block at the second level. They’re usually the difference, in my opinion, of springing an explosive gain into a touchdown. Those guys bring it. They battle and they fight for one another.”
Jones dominating the Dallas Cowboys isn’t anything new. The El Paso, Texas native now has over 100 rushing yards and at least one touchdown in all four of his career games against his home team, joining Pro Football Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson as the only other player in NFL history to begin his career with four such games in a row against a single opponent, including the postseason, per OptaStats. Tomlinson’s victim was the Cleveland Browns.
“You know, it was a full circle moment,” Jones said of his historic domination of the Cowboys. “I feel like this is kind of how we got into football. This was my dad’s team. This was my team growing up. You always want to be like your father, so that’s how it became my team. Emmitt Smith was my running back. My first jersey was a No. 22. I got the chance to speak to him before the game, so that was special to me as well. My dad did get to see me play here my rookie year and I know he was in here tonight. Dallas is a special place to me. It was a first circle moment. It feels like home.”
What’s different for Jones now following this Packers victory over the Cowboys (Green Bay has won 10 of the last 11 games against Dallas) is that, at 29 years old, he’s positioned as the offensive leader to help cultivate the growth of his offensive skill position teammates, just about all of whom are younger than him:
2023 fifth-round pick wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks (22 years old)
2023 second-round pick tight end Luke Musgrave (23 years old)
2023 third-round pick tight end Tucker Kraft (23 years old)
2023 second-round pick wide receiver Jayden Reed (23 years old)
2022 fourth-round pick wide receiver Romeo Doubs (23 years old)
Undrafted wide receiver Malik Heath (23 years old)
2022 second-round pick wide receiver Christian Watson (24 years old)
2022 seventh-round pick (by Seattle Seahawks) wide receiver Bo Melton (24 years old)
2020 first-round pick quarterback Jordan Love (25 years old)
2020 second-round pick running back AJ Dillon (25 years old)
2022 seventh-round pick wide receiver Samori Toure (25 years old)
“I’ve had to become a little bit more vocal,” Jones told CBS Sports back in July when talking about his role in Green Bay’s youth movement. “We have a very, very young team. I was more of a lead-by-example guy, but now I’ve had to become more vocal because we don’t have those vets that we have had like the Randall Cobbs, the Aaron Rodgers’ and the Marcedes Lewis’ on the offensive side of the ball. I have to [become more vocal]. It’s only right. Those guys did it for me, instilled the confidence and so many other things in me, so it’s only right that I give it back to these young guys.”
He is living up to his preseason promise to lead his younger teammates with words and actions. In years prior, future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers likely would have led the offensive pregame huddle with a speech. On Sunday, it was a different Aaron but the same result against the Cowboys.
“This our shit. We are going to take it over,” Jones said in a pregame huddle to the Packers offense prior to their win at the Cowboys on Sunday, via “Inside The NFL.” “We already set our standard. We are going to punch the frontrunners in the mouth. We are going to set our tone. It’s going to be four quarters of locking them in a cage and giving them that G Way ball.”
Quarterbacks are typically positioned as a football’s team primary leader, but Love fully embraces Jones as the offense’s vocal and on-field center for a unit whose plays revolve around their success in their under-center, zone-blocking ground game.
“You get so much. Obviously, just the leader he is on the team and then you add his playmaking ability when he gets the ball,” Love said on Sunday. “He’s the total package right there. I love Aaron Jones. He brings a huge spark to the team just the way he carries himself, the way he handles his business and shows up ready to work every day. I can’t enough about him.”
Love may not be able to say enough about him, but the records can. Jones has run over 100 yards in four consecutive games, tied with Ahman Green in 2003 for the such longest streak in Packers history
“We’re playing all together as one,” Jones said when asked about his success. “The blocking unit is doing their thing up front. They make it easy for me to pick and chose which hole I want to run through…I think it’s a credit to them and the play calling as well.”
Playing together for Jones means also uplifting his young teammates. Rookie fifth-round pick Dontayvion Wicks struggled to find a role in the Packers’ crowded, young attack early in the season. After a drop against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 9, Wicks’ head drooped as he trudged back toward the Green Bay sideline. Jones stopped Wicks in his tracks and physically lifted his head up.
Wicks has basically been en fuego since this moment pic.twitter.com/MaqdWXMfoy
— Shanahannigans™ (@Ferd_Turgeson) January 16, 2024
That type of encouragement eventually paid dividends for Wicks and the Packers. The rookie caught three touchdowns in his last two games played in the regular season, Week 16 at the Carolina Panthers and Week 18 against the Chicago Bears. He also hauled in a 20-yard receiving touchdown on Sunday against the Cowboys in an incredibly pivotal moment. Green Bay faced 3rd-and-7 from the Dallas 20. The Cowboys showed they were going to blitz as the play clock dropped under 10 seconds.
Love quickly made an audible before snapping the football with a second remaining on the play cock. Wicks cooked 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore off the line of scrimmage and corralled Love’s scoring strike that essentially functioned as a Cowboys kill shot with the Packers going up 20-0.
JORDAN LOVE DELIVERS. PACKERS UP 20-0.
📺: #GBvsDAL on FOX
📱: Stream on #NFLPlus https://t.co/Ut3BRhC2CE pic.twitter.com/NdIftoEEW9
— NFL (@NFL) January 14, 2024
“Yeah, yeah. I’m happy for him (Jones),” Wicks said Sunday when asked about Jones’ performance. “One-hundred-yard games back to back, that’s hard. He’s just our fire starter, and we keep the flame going.”
Fellow rookie wide receiver Jayden Reed, a second-round pick who led the Packers in catches (64), receiving yards (793) and receiving touchdowns (8, tied with Romeo Doubs for the team lead), didn’t register a single catch on three targets in the Packers victory on Sunday. However, he didn’t pout. Instead, he put everything he had into blocking for Jones because of the way he has poured into the Green Bay youngsters this season.
“You’re the reason I go hard bro,” Reed said to Jones during the team’s win on Sunday, per Inside The NFL. “You somebody to look up to bro. You somebody to play for. I want to go out there and block for you. I feel fu–ed up when I don’t make the block.”
Jones has a similar effect on his young offensive linemen.
“It motivates us for sure,” Packers offensive lineman Zach Tom, a 2022 fourth-round pick, said Sunday when asked about how hard Jones runs. “We know all you have to do is give him a tiny little crease and he’ll make something happen. It motivates us.”
Now, the Packers degree of difficulty ratchets up considerably as they head west to take on the NFC’s top seed, the San Francisco 49ers, on Saturday night. The 49ers are the first team since the 2004 Indianapolis Colts — who an offense compromised of three Hall of Famers (QB Peyton Manning, RB Edgerrin James and WR Marvin Harrison) and a 2024 Hall of Fame finalist (WR Reggie Wayne) — to have a 4,000 yard passer (Brock Purdy) and four players with at least 1,000 scrimmage yards (RB Christian McCaffrey, WR Brandon Aiyuk, WR Deebo Samuel and TE George Kittle).
“Because we believe in each other,” Jones said when asked why the Packers can to continue having success this postseason. “We have faith in each other…we have all the weapons we need on this team. People can continue to doubt us. That’s fine. We love the underdog mentality. We love the underdog approach.”
LaFleur clearly believes in Jones, giving him 19 more carries after his first two went for negative-3 yards against Dallas on Sunday.
“I think that was huge even though the first two run plays they stopped,” Jones said. “I’m glad we stuck with it. Like I said, when you’re able to run the ball, it opens everything else up. We were able to set them up pretty nice on Luke’s touchdown. We had
seen a lot of outside zone all game and we hit them with that.”
As for those who still don’t believe in the Packers after their demolition of the Cowboys, all Green Bay does is smile, laugh and let their play on the field do the talking.
“Just a little chuckle,” Jones said when asked about his reaction to those still doubting his Packers. “You know it’s in your memory bank and you go tell your teammates…We talk about how we feel and if you feel disrespected, you go do something about it.”