The Dallas Cowboys (4-3) come into town this week fresh off of two big divisional victories. The Detroit Lions (4-3), however, just lost a heartbreaker to the Cincinnati Bengals at home. The two teams have a lot in common in addition to overall record. Both quarterbacks rank in the top 10 in most categories. Both defenses have been giving up a lot of yards, while also tallying a lot of turnovers. So which team is going to head into the halfway point of the season with a big conference win? We must face the almighty charts first.
Lions pass offense (5th) vs. Cowboys pass defense (30th)
The Lions have faced two very good pass defenses in the past two weeks and have handled both of them pretty well. Matthew Stafford is 53 for 94 for 605 yards, 7 touchdowns and 1 interception in those games. That's a 96.3 passer rating against two top 10 defenses. Overall, Stafford is enjoying his most consistent season, having earned a passer rating no lower than 83 and no higher than 109 each week.
The raw numbers continue to show Detroit's dominance through the air. They're ninth in passer rating (95.3), t-second in touchdowns (15) and t-fourth in interceptions (4). Their yards per attempt (t-16th) and completion percentage (14th) rankings are somewhat pedestrian, but that hasn't stopped the offense from being highly productive.
The Cowboys defense isn't exactly as tough as Detroit's last two challengers. They have given up 400 yards of passing offense three times already this season, and four of seven opponents have surpassed their passer rating averages against Dallas. However, in the past two weeks, the Cowboys have decisively stumped their opponent's pass offense, holding both division rivals below a 60 passer rating.
However, the overall numbers are not impressive for the Cowboys. They rank 17th in passer rating allowed (87.4), t-17th in yards per attempt allowed (7.3) and 19th in completion percentage allowed (62.2%). They aren't as bad as their overall ranking suggests. That ranking is more a result of having faced the second-most passing attempts in the league. Still, this is an average pass defense at best.
Player to watch: Jason Hatcher. Dallas' secret weapon on the defensive line is their tackle, Hatcher. According to Pro Football Focus, Hatcher has the second-most quarterback pressures in the league among defensive tackles (trailing, of course, Ndamukong Suh). His 6 sacks also rank ninth overall. Larry Warford did a decent job holding Geno Atkins at bay last week, but Hatcher won't be a cakewalk, either.
Advantage: Lions +2. This is not a sign of disrespect of the Cowboys defense; I think they are better than most people believe. I just have a lot of confidence in the Lions passing offense after what they did to both Cleveland and Cincinnati in the past two weeks. The Lions are spreading the ball well, Stafford is making mediocre receivers look like all-pros and Calvin Johnson looks as dangerous as ever. I'd be absolutely shocked if Stafford doesn't at least reach 320 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Lions run offense (21st) vs. Cowboys run defense (13th)
The Lions run offense's inconsistencies continue. Just look at Reggie Bush's yards per carry stat each week: 4.3, 2.8. 7.7, 3.4, 4.6, 2.5. He's been all over the place, as the offensive line has been. You never really know what kind of performance you're going to get each week, and it hasn't mattered how good opposing defenses have been. The Lions were highly successful against a good Browns defense on the road. But the Lions didn't get anything going against one of the worst run defenses in the league in Washington.
Though the Lions rank just t-23rd in yards per carry (3.6), they are gaining first downs on 23.5% of their rushes, which ranks them eighth-best.
The Cowboys' run defense has been similarly inconsistent. They have allowed four different 100+ yard rushing games thus far, but have also held two teams at or below 50 yards.
Here's the good news: Dallas is giving up 4.3 yards per carry, which ranks 25th in the league. The bad news is they've only given up two rushes of 20+ yards (t-20th) and 3 rushing touchdowns (t-22nd).
Player to watch: Sean Lee. Lee is an extremely well-rounded linebacker. He's a force to be reckoned with in the passing game (2 interceptions, 4 passes defended), but his specialty may be his run defense. He leads the team with 71 total tackles, including 3 for a loss.
Advantage: Draw. Both units here are a little too inconsistent to make predictions with any sort of confidence. As I type this, news is coming out that Bush missed Friday's practice with an apparent knee injury. That will obviously hurt the Lions, but Joique Bell has been more than serviceable when Bush hasn't been able to go. (UPDATE: Bush says he's playing.)
Cowboys pass offense (8th) vs. Lions pass defense (28th)
Not many teams have been able to slow Tony Romo this year. While he's only surpassed yardage averages in two of seven games this year, only two teams have held him below passer rating averages this year. In other words, Romo may not always put up huge numbers, but he's almost always been very efficient in games.
The Cowboys rank sixth in passer rating (101.6), fourth in completion percentage (68.3%) and t-third in yards per attempt (7.6). Despite his poor reputation, Romo only has 5 interceptions this year (t-ninth) to go with his 15 touchdowns (t-second).
The biggest threat the Cowboys have is clearly Dez "Megatron Jr." Bryant. Bryant ranks 11th in receiving yards and second in receiving touchdowns. Other Dallas threats include veteran Jason Witten (five 20+ yard receptions) and Terrance Williams (averaging a whopping 15.8 yards per catch).
The Lions' bend-don't-break strategy of the first half of the season seems to have broken in the past two weeks. Though they have consistently been giving up an above-average amount of passing yards each week, they had been holding opponents below passer rating averages. In the past two weeks, however, they have been unable to do so. Last week, the Lions made Andy Dalton look like a Pro Bowler.
I think it may be time to declare this pass defense as below average. Though they rank 12th in passer rating allowed (83.0), they are only t-24th in yards per attempt allowed (7.7), 20th in completion percentage allowed (62.5%) and have given up 25 plays of 20+ yards (t-fifth most).
The one positive for the Lions pass defense has been the play of the safeties. Glover Quin and Louis Delmas have combined for 11 passes defended and 4 interceptions. Pro Football Focus called them "the top safety duo in the league" in terms of pass coverage.
But as I outlined earlier in the week, the Lions' pass rush has been quite disappointing thus far. Their 13 sacks are the sixth-fewest in the league.
Player to watch: Bryant. Last week, the Lions had no answer to A.J. Green, who tallied 6 catches (on 8 targets) for 155 yards and a touchdown. Dez may be even better than Green, and he has a better quarterback throwing him the ball, so Chris Houston will have to up his game from last week
Advantage: Cowboys +1.5. If it isn't obvious by now, I've lost a lot of confidence in the Lions pass defense in the past two weeks. The Cowboys will be one of the best pass offenses the Lions face this year. The one reason I give the Lions pass defense a chance this week is because the Cowboys don't quite spread the ball around like the Bengals did last week. Though they have some emerging threats in Williams and Cole Beasley, the main threats remain Bryant and Witten. The Lions are well equipped to stop tight ends with solid covering linebackers and safeties. Still, Romo is going to get his yards.
Cowboys run offense (24th) vs. Lions run defense (23rd)
The Cowboys run offense has been pretty underwhelming all season. They've only surpassed the 100-yard mark once this season. However, they've outgained defenses' yards per carry averages in three of seven games. In other words, Dallas is somewhat efficient running the ball, but they don't do it much. The Cowboys are averaging 3.9 a carry (t-16th), but have the seventh-fewest rushing attempts in the league.
The biggest factor in this matchup may be DeMarco Murray's availability. Murray is averaging 4.7 yards a carry and has 3 touchdowns. He has practiced a couple times already this week, and it seems this week will likely be his week to return.
The Lions finally had an above-average performance last week against the Bengals. That game aside, the Lions have been one of the worst run defenses in the league. Five of seven opponents have averaged over 4.7 a carry, five of seven opponents have reached 100 yards. It just hasn't been pretty.
The Lions are ceding the highest yards per carry in the league (5.1), and have given up the most rushes of 40+ yards in the league (4).
Player to watch: Nick Fairley. Congrats, Fairley. You will own this spot in my preview every week until you break out of your perceived slump. Fairley only has 12 total tackles on the season and none for a loss. I am convinced he will eventually get his stats up, but it hasn't happened yet.
Advantage: Cowboys +0.5. Dallas doesn't have a great running game and barely runs the ball at all. But Detroit's run defense is bad enough that they are susceptible to one big game-changing play in almost every matchup this year.
Revenge? I'm sure Dallas fans have not forgotten the amazing comeback the Lions made against the Cowboys in 2011. The Lions turned a 27-3 deficit early in the third quarter into a jaw-dropping 34-30 victory in Dallas. That game likely still irks Romo, who threw two pick-sixes in the second half.
Last week's prediction:
Last week I predicted a close Lions win (27-23). Had the Lions been more successful on their last offensive drive, my prediction may have been spot-on. But unfortunately, I did not factor in the likelihood of a Sam Martin shank-punt in the most crucial time of the game. However, for the second straight week, we had a perfect prediction in the comments section. User LondonLion, who is likely having a great week, correctly predicted a 27-24 defeat. Great job, LondonLion. You are definitely not a traitor who caused the Lions to lose that game, and I definitely haven't been cursing your name since Sunday night.
This week's prediction:
Again, the charts have resulted in an unsatisfactory draw. These two teams are shockingly similar. Both have stellar pass offenses, while they have neglected, mediocre rushing attacks. Both teams' defenses are sub-par, but have been great at forcing turnovers.
My general procedure when the two teams are so evenly matched is to simply pick the home team. But there are other reasons to be optimistic for a Lions victory this week. Despite the scare at offensive tackle during the game against the Bengals, the Lions are coming into this game fairly healthy. Dallas, on the other hand, will likely be without DeMarcus Ware and starting safety J.J. Wilcox. Both of those injuries should help the Lions pass offense be dominant. I'll take them in yet another squeaker: Lions 34, Cowboys 31.