NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers

FRISCO, Texas -- Mike McCarthy, even as the current head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, typically lights up when a topic related to his 13 seasons as the Green Bay Packers head coach from 2006-2018 comes up. 

Whether that was comparing Cowboys cornerback DaRon Bland during his run toward the NFL's single-season pick-sixes record  and up the NFL Defensive Player of the Year odds list to Hall of Fame cornerback Charles Woodson, who he coached during his 2009 Defensive Player of the Year season with the Packers, or talking about how Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott's 2023 in which he led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes compares to some of the years he had with future Hall of Fame Packers passer Aaron Rodgers up in Green Bay, McCarthy is typically an open book. 

Why wouldn't he be? McCarthy went 125-77-2 in his 13 seasons with the Packers, sporting the third-highest win percentage in the entire league in that span, trailing only the Tom Brady-Belichick New England Patriots dynasty (162-46) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (133-74-1) across the final year of Hall of Fame head coach Bill Cowher's tenure and Mike Tomlin's time with the Steelers. Only the Patriots (20) and the Seattle Seahawks (11) won more playoff games than McCarthy's Packers (10) in that span. 

He and Rodgers teamed up to help lead Green Bay to the Super Bowl XLV title in the 2010 season. Following that victory, the city named a street after him, Mike McCarthy Way. That run concluded with a victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers at AT&T Stadium, which is the site of Sunday's NFC Super Wild Card Weekend matchup between McCarthy's second-seeded Cowboys and the seventh-seeded Packers. Dallas versus Green Bay on Sunday will be the ninth time the two iconic franchises square off in the postseason, tied for the most playoff meetings between two teams all time. 

The last playoff meeting between the two teams came when McCarthy still donned the Green and Gold in the 2016 NFC divisional round. Rodgers led a game-winning drive that allowed kicker Mason Crosby to drill a 51-yard field goal as time expired for a 34-31 Packers victory, upsetting the top-seeded Cowboys and the then-NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Prescott, McCarthy's current pupil. 

This week, McCarthy is refusing to take a trip down memory lane when comes to talking about that game or his Packers emotions in general. 

"I am not reflecting," McCarthy said Monday when asked about Prescott's first playoff game when McCarthy's Packers upset the Dallas Cowboys in the 2016 NFC divisional round. "A great game. Dak and I have spoken about the particulars of the game time and time again, and even more so when you go through different situations. There were situations in that game that came up, and now that we're in the same offense, he can see the similarities and why we do what we do, and really the history about it. We've talked about that game a number of times."

Ahead of Week 10 last season, McCarthy indulged questions about his Packers tenure since he was getting set to face them for the first time as the head coach of the Cowboys with the game set to be played in the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field on Nov. 13, 2022. His attitude about his homecoming soured after the Cowboys blew a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, 28-14, to lose 31-28 in overtime against the Packers. 

Rodgers, playing through a broken thumb on his throwing hand, connected with then-rookie wide receiver Christian Watson for 107 yards and three receiving touchdowns, tying him with Hall of Fame wideout Randy Moss (1998) for the most receiving touchdowns in a game all-time against Dallas. Green Bay running back Aaron Jones, a fifth-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft -- McCarthy's penultimate class as the Packers head coach -- ran wild for 138 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, 5.8 yards per rush. After speaking to the Cowboys a year ago prior to the matchup about what it meant to him, McCarthy won't be looking back at his time with the Packers again. However, he won't be able to stop his wife Jessica, who is from Green Bay, and his children who were born and raised there from doing so this week. 

"I've got a wife and three daughters, obviously two sons, but I can't win in that house," McCarthy said when asked how he stops his family from being nostalgic and if his family is Packers or Cowboys fans. … "That's a great question. Yeah, I think the biggest thing is playoff time, and we talked about it at the team meeting today [on Monday], this is a time for all of us to be selfish. Every player. Every coach. Every support staff member. Because we've put so much into this season, getting ready for the season. We're right where we need to be. We need to take full advantage of that. That's just really the tightness that we want and the commitment.

"Because last year, I thought it was important for me to talk about Green Bay in the beginning of the week. I did with the team. I regretted it. I don't think … That doesn't even need to come into our energy base. So, you live and learn. This game's about our commitment. It doesn't matter who we're paying, and it really doesn't. I have no stake at it. I didn't watch one [Packers] game prior to yesterday's contests in preparation. So just started last night [on Sunday] on the plane, and that's where I am. I think that's clearly where our team is. Our team, it's just no time for that. I answered the questions honestly in here last year about my experience up there. It just will not help us win. So if it doesn't help us win a game, I'm not interested in it. I apologize."

Even though McCarthy is making NFL history as just the third head coach to coach a playoff game against the team he previously won a championship with -- joining Mike Holmgren against the Packers when he was with the Seattle Seahawks and Weeb Ewbank against the Colts when he was with the New York Jets -- he was crystal clear that Sunday isn't going to be about him over on the Cowboys sideline. 

"It's a players' game," McCarthy said when asked about why he regretted talking about his time in Green Bay before last year's matchup. "It always has been, always will be. That's all it should be focused on. I believe there's 24 hours in a day, seven days to prepare and if we're not working on winning then it's a waste of time. To put that on their hearts, and they needed to speak on my behalf in the locker room, I won't do that again."

McCarthy's Packers tenure ended abruptly with Green Bay team president Mark Murphy firing McCarthy before he left Lambeau Field after a 20-17 home loss in Week 13 of the 2018 season against the struggling Arizona Cardinals, who had started rookie Josh Rosen in that contest. Returning back there in 2022 helped him flush some of the bitter taste from his last game he coached in the historic venue. 

"Personally, it helps me," McCarthy said on having gone up to Lambeau Field to play the Packers last year. "It was good to go back there, frankly. I think the biggest thing I got out of going back there was I got to see a lot of people I didn't get to see at the end. So, I was thankful for that. We would've liked to have won the game, and at the end of the day, this is my team. I'm a Dallas Cowboy. This is our opportunity, and I just want to make sure I'm doing my part, and that's supporting everything in winning this game."

His players still have the personal importance of what Sunday's game means for their head coach near the top of their minds even with the continuation of their 2023 season hanging in the balance, hinging on the outcome of the game against Green Bay. 

"It's huge, I'm pretty sure there's going to be a lot of emotion with Coach McCarthy and rightfully so," safety Jayron Kearse said Monday on a conference call. "He won a Super Bowl there, had some great years there. To play them in this wild card game, I know it's going to be huge for him. I'm pretty sure he won't let that get in the way of the things that we have to do. Understanding that we're here for one reason, and it's not Mike McCarthy vs. Green Bay. It's the Dallas Cowboys vs. the Green Bay Packers. We want go out here and win this thing  for coach, but we understand this is just a team in our way. Let's not make this a bigger deal than what it is. It's the playoffs, it's huge enough. Let's not put anything else on it. Let's just go out there and handle business because that's what we have to do in order to achieve the things we set out to achieve at the beginning of the year."

Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn can relate to what McCarthy is going through. He spent six seasons as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, and like McCarthy he led them to a Super Bowl appearance. Also like the current Dallas head coach, Quinn was unceremoniously fired in-season back in 2020. McCarthy hired him the following offseason. However after getting one meeting out of the way, he said it's a lot easier to see your former team in the meetings following that first matchup on the other sideline. 

"I think anybody knows, you put so much into it that you feel connected to the team and the organization," Quinn said Monday. "There's a lot that goes into that. He's done a lot of great work there and the history has shown that. At the end of it, you're able to compartmentalize that was a different time and place and you go back to reflect another time. This time, you're just thinking about 'how do you go with it and play your best?'"

No one blames McCarthy for having layered emotions entering the postseason against his longtime football and family home, and they all know his message for the Cowboys this time around will be all about ball. 

"Yeah, we had a lot of time to talk about it, but I would imagine what he said is very true, maybe it was good last year to kind of get one under his belt out of the way," Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel said Monday. "I think that's human nature that all of us go through whether it's playing the Rams [where Fassel coached in the same role for eight seasons] or the Packers. We've all probably been on teams who we played against in the year following leaving that team. I feel like from Coach's perspective, the message is going to be about winning the football game regardless of who we're playing against. I really believe that. So, I'm looking forward to a great football game man."