Sunday’s matchup between the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys had enough storylines to make any football fan salivate. Which of Stafford or Romo would finally elevate their play enough to send their team to the next round of the postseason? Who makes more big plays, Calvin Johnson or Dez Bryant? Will the Lions be able to stop DeMarco Murray? Will former Lions’ offensive coordinator Scott Linehan come back to haunt his old team?
To add to the intrigue, the NFL dropped a bombshell on Monday when they announced the suspension of Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. Suh then fired one right back, winning his appeal and the 27-year-old is now reinstated for Sunday’s game despite stepping on the injured leg of Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It’s hard to prove intent, but it’s clear the league took Suh’s reputation into account. Suh has been fined eight times, and has now been suspended twice in his NFL career. The league sent a statement to Suh, on behalf of the NFL's Vice President of Football Operations, Merton Hanks declaring, “you unnecessarily stepped on your opponent’s unprotected leg as he lay on the ground unable to protect himself.” However it appears that there wasn't sufficient proof that stepping on Rodgers's leg was Suh's intent, hence why Suh won his appeal. His only punishment will be a fine worth $70,000.
That evens up the playing field a little in what will be the biggest on-field battle on Sunday. Dallas and Detroit have some of the premiere playmakers on offense in the NFL, but I truly believe that this game will be won and lost in the trenches, as any classic playoff game should be. There’s no doubt the Lions’ offense can keep pace with the likes of Romo, Bryant, Murray and company, but will the defense hold up their end of the bargain?
3 Why Detroit can win:
The key for Detroit will be to limit the damage on the ground and keep DeMarco Murray in check, which is easier said than done. In 16 games this season, Murray has been held to under 100 yards rushing just four times. The Cowboys like to get Murray the ball, and that shouldn’t change on Sunday. The 26-year-old has had at least 22 touches in each of Dallas’ games this season. So the Lions know what’s coming. When the Cowboys get Murray going, it makes Tony Romo and the passing game that much more dangerous.
Plugging the holes and filling the gaps will be huge for Detroit in this game. The Lions will likely be without Suh's fellow defensive tackle Nick Fairley because of a knee injury, but this is still the number one run-defense in the NFL in 2014. The Lions surrendered only 69.3 yards rushing per game, which is over 10 yards less than Denver who is second in that category. With Suh back in, the matchup between Detroit’s defensive line and Dallas’ offensive line will be an all out battle, which the Lions will need to win in order to move on to the next round.
On offense, the key for Detroit will be to sustain a balanced attack. That means getting their running backs some early touches so they could further exploit the Dallas secondary. Don’t get me wrong, Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate are as good a one-two punch as there is in the NFL, and they could probably beat up Dallas’s secondary regardless, but a balanced attack will help them even more. The Cowboys’ run defense ranks eighth in the NFL, surrendering 103.1 yards per game, while their passing defense gives up 251.9 yards per game, good for 26th in the league.
These two teams last played each other at Ford Field last season, and Calvin Johnson absolutely obliterated Brandon Carr that day. Megatron finished with 14 catches and 329 yards and Detroit went on to win 31-30. You have to believe that Dallas’s coaching staff won’t try to single cover Johnson again. Even if the Cowboys do manage to contain him, they still have to worry about Golden Tate, who wasn’t with the Lions when they last played. The 26-year-old receiver set career highs in receptions, yards, yards per game, and touchdown receptions in 2014. He proved to be one of the best free agent signings of 2014.
The keys for the Lions are simple. Controlling the line of scrimmage is key for their success on the road on Sunday. If they can fight through a tough Cowboys’ offensive line to bottle up the run, and they can get early down production from their running backs when they have the ball, that will go a long way in solidifying their spot in the divisional round next weekend.
2 Why Dallas can win:
For Dallas, much of the same is true. DeMarco Murray certainly is a playmaker, but one fact that is often overlooked is the dominance of the Cowboys’ offensive line. Dallas has invested three first round picks into their five-man unit up front and it has paid off. Tyron Smith is one of the premiere offensive tackles in the league, while Travis Frederick and Zack Martin bring stability to the interior of the line. The Cowboys formidable three on the offensive line of Smith, Frederick and Martin were all named to the Pro Bowl this year, and they are as important to Dallas’ success as anyone on the team. When DeMarco Murray gets rolling, he is as hard to stop as anyone in the NFL. Besides carrying the ball, he is also a receiving threat out of the backfield (he had 57 receptions this season). When Murray gets going, it freezes the oppositions’ defensive line and gives Tony Romo more time to make plays with his arm or his legs. Romo is at his best when he’s improvising, and if the ground game is going, it will give him the opportunity to do so even more.
On the defensive side of the ball, it won’t be easy (or likely) that the Dallas secondary shuts down Calvin Johnson or Golden Tate, but stopping the run game could go a long way in helping neutralize Matthew Stafford and Detroit’s passing game. Joique Bell may not be as good or as productive as DeMarco Murray, but he has averaged over four yards per carry in seven of his last eight games. If Dallas’s defensive line, which will be without Henry Melton (knee), could force Stafford into 2nd/3rd and long situations, it could allow Dallas to drop more defenders in coverage. Forcing the Lions into obvious passing downs will help the 26th ranked pass defense hold their own.
1 Who will win?
Both teams have solid passers with Romo and Stafford under center, but taking the pressure off the signal callers will be key. I realize that Detroit has the number one ranked run defence in the NFL, but Suh brings more than talent to the table. He brings a physical presence and an attitude to that defensive unit that can’t be replaced. The Lions are still without Nick Fairley, which doesn't bode well for them. I fully expect DeMarco Murray’s dream season to continue this weekend. When we look back on the running back’s career, 2014 will definitely be the peak of his career. Murray and the Cowboys’ offensive line will have the Lions’ defense scrambling for an answer.
While Calvin Johnson is widely regarded as the best receiver in the league, I have a feeling that Dez Bryant’s performance on Sunday will close the gap between the two receivers in people’s minds. The Cowboys are at home and their star receiver is playing for a new contract. Bryant has a knack for stepping up his game in prime time and the Cowboys haven’t played on a bigger stage in quite some time. While Calvin Johnson has Golden Tate who alleviates some of the pressure on him, Bryant doesn’t have a quality second option behind him, with all due respect to Terrance Williams. I fully expect Romo to keep leaning on his stud receiver, and it wouldn’t shock me if Dez leaves the home crowd (and the rest of the NFL) in awe.
The Cowboys have scored at least 31 points in six of their last seven games, and all signs point to this being a high scoring affair (covers.com had the over/under at 48.5 as of Tuesday). Dallas enters this game on a four game winning streak (they’ve hit 40 points in three games during the streak). Everyone criticized Tony Romo for falling apart every December, but there’s something different about this Tony Romo. He had the highest passer rating in the month of December at 133.7. He went 83-of-111 (75% completion rate), 987 yards, 12 touchdowns and just one interception. If we’re going to criticize him when things are going poorly, we have to give him praise when things go well. The Cowboys were 4-4 at home this season, which has me a little concerned, but the Lions 4-4 record on the road eases my fear. A perfect month of December has me believing that Dallas will get the job done against Detroit on Sunday.