Happy New Year, everybody. While I would have liked to wait another week to write a Detroit Lions preview, the fact of the matter is I'm here writing a preview after the regular season ended. That's only happened once before.
After losing the regular-season finale, the Lions head to Dallas to face the Cowboys. Dallas closed out its regular season with a dominant December, grabbing the NFC East crown and laying their foes to rest. Despite the current, opposite trajectories of the two teams and the high Vegas betting line, this actually looks like a pretty intriguing matchup. Let's dive into the details.
Lions pass offense (12th) vs. Cowboys pass defense (26th)
As criticism for Matthew Stafford grows, the Lions' pass offense remains in neutral. Detroit has outgained passer rating averages in just six of 16 games. Although three of those six games are from the past five weeks, Stafford and the Lions' offense have not looked very good over the past three weeks.
The Lions rank 21st in passer rating (85.9), t-17th in yards per attempt (7.1) and 23rd in completion percentage (60.4). A large part of their issues has been on the offense line, where they have allowed the 11th-most sacks (45). That problem probably won't go away with the Lions down another starting offensive lineman this week. Larry Warford is the latest casualty to injury.
Luckily for the Lions, the Cowboys haven't been particularly good at defending the pass. They've held only six of 16 opponents below their passer rating average and only six of 16 below yardage averages, too. However, in the past three weeks, they've been fantastic, holding all three quarterbacks well below their teams' passer rating averages.
Dallas ranks 13th in passer rating allowed (88.5), t-20th in yards per attempt (7.5) and 28th in completion percentage (66.5). They haven't been particularly efficient at getting to the quarterback. Their 28 sacks rank 28th in the league.
Player to watch: Golden Tate. Tate has been a bit quieter since Calvin Johnson has been healthy, but as Justin Simon pointed out, the Cowboys rank 29th in defending No. 2 receivers. Tate has already drawn the spotlight to himself with his war of words, so expect him to try and let his play do the talking, as well.
Advantage: Draw. Both sides of this matchup have been defined by inconsistent, erratic play. Both units are below average, so this matchup could really go either way.
Lions run offense (28th) vs. Cowboys run defense (8th)
In the past few weeks, the Lions have been inching their way toward a real running game. Still, the charts don't lie: this is a terrible running team.
Detroit ranks t-28th in YPC (3.6) and 29th in percentage of rushes earning first downs (18.2). The only real reason for optimism is that Joique Bell has averaged 4.5 YPC over the past five weeks, which is actually quite higher than DeMarco Murray over that same stretch (3.9).
The Cowboys have been average at defending the run. They've held seven of 16 teams below their YPC average and nine of 16 below their rushing YPG average. Again, however, they've been dominant recently. Only one of their past seven opponents has managed to outgain YPC and YPG averages. And, no, that isn't a typo. The Cowboys only allowed 1 rushing yard against the Indianapolis Colts.
The Cowboys rank t-15th in YPC allowed (4.2) and t-17th in percentage of rushes allowed that earn first downs (21.9).
Player to watch: Travis Swanson. Swanson had an impressive debut as the starting center last week. However, this week he'll slide to guard to replace the injured Warford. For an offensive line that has struggled to create holes all season, more patchwork won't be good for the unit.
Advantage: Cowboys +0.5. The Lions may have looked better in recent weeks and the Cowboys may not have a dominant run defense, but with the offensive line being shuffled around for another week, it's hard to imagine the Lions having a lot of success on the ground again.
Cowboys pass offense (16th) vs. Lions pass defense (13th)
While they haven't exactly racked up the yardage (below average in eight of 16 games this year), the Cowboys have been amazingly efficient at passing the ball this season. Tony Romo has beaten the defense's passer rating average in 10 of 16 games and has posted a passer rating of above 95 in 12 of 16 games. In comparison, Stafford has done that in just four games all season.
Dallas ranks first in passer rating (110.9), first in yards per attempt (8.4) and second in completion percentage (68.9). They're also very good at protecting the quarterback, allowing just 30 sacks all year (tied for ninth-fewest).
Detroit has been pretty good at defending the pass this year, but not great. They've held nine of 16 opponents below their passer rating average and seven of 16 below yardage averages. Against elite offenses, they've had mixed results. They dominated the Green Bay Packers the first time around, but things didn't go great last week. They held the New England Patriots below their averages, but they didn't exactly play well in that game, either.
Overall, the Lions rank ninth in passer rating allowed (83.0), t-eighth in yards per attempt (6.8) and 24th in completion percentage (64.7). Most of the Lions' success is based on creating pressure and forcing interceptions. They rank eighth in sacks (42) and t-third in interceptions (20).
Player to watch: Terrance Williams. Obviously, Dez Bryant is the better, more dangerous receiver. However, the Lions have been very good at bottling up teams' No. 1 receiver. Williams could challenge the Lions' cornerback depth in a way very similar to how Randall Cobb exploited them last week.
Advantage: Cowboys +1.0. Though the Lions pass defense has been good all year, they've also been a bit inconsistent at times. The Cowboys have one of the best offensive lines in the league, so getting pressure on Romo will be a difficult task.
Cowboys run offense (2nd) vs. Lions run defense (1st)
And here's the matchup of the game. The Cowboys running game has been the staple of their offense, outgaining the defense's YPG allowed in 12 of 16 games this season. Interestingly enough, however, Dallas has outgained YPC allowed averages in just eight of 16 games this year.
The Cowboys rank t-third in YPC (4.6), but 20th in rushes that have earned first downs (20.9 percent). The Cowboys run offense is effective, but it is not quite as efficient as most people think.
Leave it to the Packers to ruin a completely perfect column. Still, the Lions actually managed to hold the Packers well below their YPC average last week, the 14th time they've done that this season. The Packers remain the only team to have outgained their yardage average against the Lions this season.
Detroit ranks first in YPC allowed (3.2) and first in rushes allowed that earn a first down (16.9 percent). Despite one mediocre week, the Lions' run defense is still dominant.
Player to watch: Ndamukong Suh. I'm not sure if you've heard of this guy, but he's been in the news a little lately. I hear he's pretty good. You'll see plenty of him this week, regardless of how he's playing, because this is FOX's theme song for Suh:
Advantage: Lions +0.5. The Lions run defense is the best in the league. The Cowboys may have a formidable run offense, but they aren't quite as efficient as they've been leading on. I don't expect the Lions to completely shut them down, but don't expect a 200-yard day from DeMarco Murray.
PLAYOFFS!!!! The Lions' playoff history is brief and horrible. The Cowboys' more recent playoff history is equally as bad. Both franchises have been defined by their late-season collapses, but someone has to overcome the narrative this week.
Last week's prediction:
On Paper unfortunately notched another correct prediction last week. My prediction of 24-20 was somewhat close to the 30-20 final. But in the comments section, Twitter-friend Big.AL almost nailed the score perfectly with his 31-20 prediction. Here's your prize, Al:
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This week's prediction:
The Cowboys edge the Lions with just a +1 advantage. Like last week, I see this game being a little closer than most pundits are expecting. The Lions have a good possibility of slowing the Cowboys' running game, which could derail their entire offense. The Lions' offense will likely struggle, but the Cowboys' defense isn't particularly scary, either. I do think the Cowboys are the better team, and they have certainly played better recently, but the gap between these teams isn't too large. With a few fortunate bounces of the ball, the Lions could come out victorious. But this column doesn't factor in luck. Cowboys 27, Lions 19.