The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys face off in what could be a matchup we see a little later down the line in the NFC playoffs. Both teams have already punched their postseason ticket. That said, the Cowboys are the more desperate team, needing to catch up to the Philadelphia Eagles to win their division. The Lions have already taken care of that business.
But our On Paper preview puts aside things like “desperation” or “intangibles.” Give me all that tangible info.
So which team is decisively and objectively better? Let’s break it down in our Lions vs. Cowboys On Paper preview.
Lions pass offense (9th) vs. Cowboys pass defense (8th)
By looking at this chart, you would barely notice that the Lions had a bit of a dry spell a few weeks ago. Outside of a few divisional games and the horrible, no-good Ravens game, this passing game has been on point. Perhaps most promisingly, Jared Goff and company have put together back-to-back solid performances against a couple of the best—and most aggressive—passing defenses in the league.
Overall, the Lions passing unit ranks seventh in yards per attempt (7.4), fourth in passer rating (98.3), ninth in EPA, and sixth in success rate.
Pass protection has been on point with the Lions’ starting five offensive linemen back in the lineup. Detroit ranks fifth in adjusted sack rate, fourth in PFF’s pass blocking grade, and they have the two highest-graded offensive linemen per PFF right now (right tackle Penei Sewell, 91.8 and center Frank Ragnow, 88.1).
The Cowboys’ pass defense has been both disruptive and opportunistic this year. They’ve also just been flat-out good. They’ve allowed over 275 net passing yards just twice all season, and only over a 100 passer rating three times.
Overall, they rank 14th in yards per attempt allowed (6.8), sixth in passer rating (82.4), fifth in EPA, and 11th in success rate.
HOWEVER, if you look closer at that chart, some of their early success can be attributed to some pretty awful passing offenses: Giants, Jets, Cardinals, Patriots, and Panthers. They’ve had to go up against much better quarterbacks over the past four weeks, and their success has taken a pretty big hit. Let me borrow some of the research I did for this week’s Pride of Detroit Direct newsletter.
Here’s where the Cowboys pass defense ranks over the past four weeks:
- 21st in passer rating allowed (95.3)
- 22nd in yards allowed (230.3)
- T-28th in sacks (4)
- 25th in pressures (25… Lions have 50)
- T-25th in interceptions (1)
- 29th in dropback EPA
- 30th in success rate
- 16th in DVOA
Player to watch: Micah Parsons. Yeah, I can’t talk about this matchup without mentioning the absolute game-wrecker that is Micah Parsons. The All-Pro defender leads the NFL in pressures and is seventh in sacks. Parsons vs. Penei Sewell may be a matchup between the two best players on the field, but unfortunately for Detroit, Parsons moves around enough that other offensive linemen will have to handle him, as well.
Advantage: Lions +1.5. Considering current trends, I think this matchup clearly favors Detroit right now. It’s as simple as this: against some of the best defenses, the Lions passing offense has still found success. But against the best passing offenses, the Cowboys defense has struggled.
Lions run offense (4th) vs. Cowboys run defense (12th)
I am running out of adjectives to describe how good the Lions rushing attack is right now. Simply put, with a healthy offensive line and both Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery at the top of their game, this is almost certainly the best rushing attack that doesn’t rely on a mobile quarterback.
For the season, they rank fifth in yards per carry (4.7), fourth in EPA, seventh in success rate, first in adjusted line yards, and second in yards after contact per rush. They’ve rushed for over 110 yards in eight straight games, and they haven’t been held below 4.0 yards per carry in a single game since Week 6.
The Cowboys' run defense has been a bit all over the place. The last two weeks are a perfect example. After allowing a ridiculous 266 yards and 5.4 yards per carry against the Bills, they held the Dolphins 45 yards and 1.5 yards per carry under their season average.
Overall, though, they’ve allowed over 4.5 yards per carry in four of their last seven games and over 100 rushing yards in five of their last seven.
For the season, they rank 16th in yards per carry (4.2), 14th in EPA, 15th in adjusted line yards, and oddly 32nd(!!) in success rate. They’ll also be without defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins this week, as he continues to deal with knee/ankle injuries.
This run defense screams average to me, maybe even a little worse right now.
Player to watch: Jahmyr Gibbs. The rookie back is hitting his stride and hitting it hard. He now leads the league in both yards per carry (5.7) and yards after contact per carry (2.6). He also ranks second in rushing attempts per broken tackle (8.1). Since Week 8, Gibbs has the seventh-highest PFF rushing grade (83.2) in the NFL. Haven’t heard much from the fantasy or draft community as of late.
Advantage: Lions +2.5. The Lions get a significant advantage here not just because they’re clearly the better unit, but because Detroit will likely try to rely heavily on the run game on Saturday. It will keep the pace slow, give their defense some rest, and keep the hands out of the explosive Cowboys pass offense. Speaking of which...
Cowboys pass offense (10th) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)
Dak Prescott is in the middle of arguably his best career season. Armed with an array of weapons, Prescott is nearly top-five in just about every important statistical measure.
- Completion percentage (68.4): 4th
- Yards per attempt (7.5): 6th
- Passer rating (104.2): 3rd
- QBR (71.5): t-2nd
- EPA: 2nd
- Success rate: 3rd
You likely already know about the crazy home/away splits, too, so I won’t bore you with another statistical breakdown there. Just know: Prescott’s comfort at home is unfathomably good.
If there’s any sign of a minor weakness with this unit, it’s pass protection. Prescott has been sacked 36 times, which is the fifth most of any NFL quarterback. Dallas ranks 15th in PFF pass blocking grade, but they also have the fifth-lowest pressure percentage. So while it’s a weakness relatively speaking, it’s not a major weakness.
The Lions pass defense is starting to level off a bit, but there are still some pretty major concerns with the unit. They’re getting more disruption numbers—six sacks, four interceptions in the last two games—but opposing quarterbacks continue to be largely efficient against Detroit’s shuffling secondary.
Since Week 7, the Lions pass defense ranks:
- 32nd in EPA
- 30th in success rate
- 28th in DVOA
- 29th in passer rating (99.8)
- 22nd in yards (244.0 per game)
I know a lot of you are probably thinking, “What if you take out the Ravens game?” It’s certainly better, but it’s not good. Since Week 8:
- 27th in EPA
- 30th in success rate
- 20th in DVOA
- 22nd in passer rating (93.7)
- 17th in yards (230 per game)
Player to watch: CeeDee Lamb. The Lions have struggled against No. 1 receivers, and that could be even more the case this week with top corner Cam Sutton battling a toe injury. Lamb ranks first in the NFL in catches (109), second in receiving yards (1424), and tied for fourth in touchdowns (nine).
Advantage: Cowboys +4. This is easily the most lopsided matchup in the game, and it very well could be the one that decides the winner. The Lions have not fared well against good passing attacks with top-tier quarterbacks since the Week 1 opener against the Chiefs. While Detroit is figuring some things out with the emergence of safety Ifeatu Melifonwu, they could be in real trouble at the perimeters this week. I’m expecting Prescott to throw for well over 300 yards on Saturday.
Cowboys run offense (14th) vs. Lions run defense (4th)
The Cowboys rushing attack has been uncharacteristically mortal this season. They’ve found some sporadic success throughout the season, but they can’t seem to string together any sort of consistency.
Their backs, in particular, haven’t been very impressive. Tony Pollard is averaging just 4.0 yards per carry and his change-of-pace replacement Rico Dowdle—who has been ruled out of this game due to injury—has been worse (3.9 YPC).
Of course, we can’t completely overlook Prescott’s impact on the running game. He’s only averaging 15.8 rushing yards per game (237 yards overall), but his ability to scramble is certainly relevant this week against a Lions defense that struggles to contain mobile quarterbacks.
As a team, the Cowboys rank 10th in EPA, ninth in success rate, 10th in adjusted line yards, and 16th in yards per carry (4.1). Let’s call them slightly above average.
Detroit’s run defense continues to go a bit overlooked for how dominant they’ve been this season. Their ability to stop the run has consistently put them in advantageous situations and favorable downs... but those opportunities are often wasted by a bad pass defense.
Regardless, the Lions run defense deserves some love. They’re sixth in yards per carry allowed (3.7), fifth in rush EPA, 11th in success rate, and ninth in adjusted line yards.
Player to watch: Brian Branch. Branch leads all cornerbacks in run defense tackles (25), “run stops” (17), and ranks 11th among corners in PFF run defense grade (82.2).
Advantage: Lions +1. The Lions are clearly the better unit, but the reason I’m not giving them a bigger advantage here is because I don’t believe the Cowboys will run the ball a lot, and Prescott could move the chains a few times with his legs.
Last week’s prediction:
It was another strong effort from On Paper last week. My 27-24 prediction was only three points off the final score (30-24). I’m calling it a push against the spread (Lions -3), moving the preview series to 11-4 straight up and 11-2-2 against the spread. In all honesty, I think I pretty much nailed the conclusions of each matchup and don’t feel the need for any adjustments this week.
In the comment section, I first owe an apology to Quinny the Pooh, who was the rightful winner of the previous week’s On Paper preview with their 41-17 prediction for the Broncos game. They requested a GIF of Aaron Glenn. Here you go:
This week’s winner is MickeyFree, who predicted 30-25 Lions. Mickey did miss on the addendum prediction of six catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns for Jameson Williams, but I like the moxie of that prediction. Here’s your prize, MickeyFree:
Editor’s note: I’m so sorry, Taylor Decker. Please don’t kill me. You’re just clearly the leader of the “Old Guard.” I had to do it.
I love that Dan Campbell gathered the veteran Lions in the locker room after the NFC North clinching. And I love that he used the term “Old Guard” to group them. Little did I know there was some likely-terrible Netflix show about it [Editor’s note: I liked that movie]. You’re welcome.
This week’s prediction
The Lions come out with a +1 advantage overall. I don’t think my perception of this matchup could have been more different from Monday to now. I went in thinking this could be the best defense they’ve gone against all year, but the Cowboys are vulnerable right now, and Detroit has been rolling over good defenses all year.
The Lions have the advantage in three of four matchups this week, but that doesn’t guarantee a win by any means. As we saw last week, Detroit dominated in every phase but one, and the Vikings still nearly won with their passing offense. There is a very clear path to that happening again this week, and Dak Prescott is not going to gift the Lions with four interceptions on Saturday.
That said, I do like the Lions’ chances to hang close, control the game on offense, and if they can just get a disruptive play or two on defense, they can—and arguably should—win this game. Lions 34, Cowboys 31.