After clinching the NFC North division last week with a win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Detroit Lions came up short against the Dallas Cowboys on Saturday night. It was a back-and-forth game where both offenses were struggling early on until the second half when things started to work for both teams.
Dallas needed to win to keep their division title hopes alive as they are battling the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC East crown and a top-three seed in the NFC playoff race. The Lions needed to win to keep their hopes alive for a number one seed and possibly a two seed in the playoffs.
The loss now makes it very unlikely the Lions get the top seed as they would need the San Francisco 49ers to lose both of their final two games and the Eagles to lose one of their final two. Check out my winners and losers from the loss against the Cowboys.
The third time is the charm for Lions safety Ifeatu Melifonwu as he continues to play at a high level. After exploding onto the scene in his second start of the season against the Denver Broncos, Melifonwu had another big game last week against the Vikings with the game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter. Melifonwu continued his big play-making abilities with an interception in the first quarter against Dallas.
Dak PICKED— Barstool Gambling (@stoolgambling) December 31, 2023
Back-to-back games with an interception for Ifeatu Melifonwu
Melifonwu finished the game with three tackles, an interception, and a pass deflection. He is making a case to stay as the starting safety to the coaching staff with his high level of play right before the playoffs. It’s a tough decision that the coaching staff will have to make once safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson returns to the field next week or in the playoffs.
Melinfonwu isn’t the only player on the Lions' defense to step up in the past few weeks. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has seen more playing time over the past few weeks and this week he made his presence known on special teams. On fourth down and two on the Cowboy's side of the field, the Lions ran a fake punt where Reeves-Maybin threw a 31-yard pass to cornerback Khalil Dorsey.
While the fake punt drive ended with zero points, it is something for the team to trust a player like Reeves-Maybin to not just execute a fake punt play, but a fake punt pass on your opponent's side of the field trailing. Reeves-Maybin has also been contributing more on defense in addition to special teams and doing it well; he finished with a tackle on defense.
It’s been a while since he’s made this list, but defensive end Aidan Hutchinson picked the perfect time to have a big game. Against the Cowboys, Hutchinson had five tackles, four tackles for loss, and three sacks. Hutchinson helped lock down the Cowboys rushing attack (more on that soon) and he was able to get past Cowboys offensive tackle Tyron Smith for a sack.
The secondary was having a rough day, allowing Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott to throw for 345 yards and two touchdowns, but Hutchinson did his best to help them out by getting to him and creating pressure. Right before the playoffs is a great time for Hutchinson to get things figured out and light a fire under the defensive line.
While the Cowboys were able to sling the rock on the Lion's secondary, they couldn’t pound the rock. Detroit held Dallas to 60 yards on 21 carries, averaging 2.9 yards per carry and never allowing a rushing touchdown.
Keeping the Cowboy's rushing attack as a non-factor made the Cowboy's offense one-dimensional. Even if the Lions struggled with pass defense, expecting it to come is easier to defend compared to an offense that can both run and throw the football. Detroit has one of the best run defenses in the NFL and while the Cowboys aren’t explosive on the ground, doing it on a national stage in a big game can make this group even more confident in continuing to do what they do best.
As usual, this was another game where defensive back Brian Branch was everywhere and making plays. This is why the coaching staff loves him a lot, put him anywhere you want and he will have an impact. Branch was a problem for the Cowboy's defense all game long, finishing the game with four tackles and two pass deflections. Branch made key tackles and stops in the passing game when it was needed.
It was not a good game for linebacker Derrick Barnes. Late in the first quarter, on third and long with the Cowboys backed up to the eight-yard line, Barnes rushed straight towards Prescott for a sack that could have potentially been a safety. As he went in to hit Prescott, he missed, giving Prescott a chance to find his favorite wide receiver, CeeDee Lamb wide open for a 92-yard touchdown pass to give the Cowboys a 7-3 lead.
If Barnes sacks Prescott, it’s either a fourth and even longer, forcing the Cowboys to punt inside their endzone, or a safety to make it a 5-0 lead for Detroit and the ball. Instead, the Lions were down by four in a nine-point swing. Barnes is someone who doesn’t usually make that kind of mistake, but he made it and it cost the team heavily. That play was one of two plays that changed the entire outcome of the game. Barnes finished with five tackles, one tackle for loss.
Playing injured, cornerback Cameron Sutton had a tough night against the Cowboys in the passing game. He was tasked to take on Cowboys wide receiver Lamb and he failed at the job for most of the night. Lamb had a great game for the Cowboys, finishing with 13 catches for 227 yards and a touchdown. Not all of the yards Lamb got were when Sutton was in coverage on him, but Sutton was struggling in coverage for most of the night.
He was tripping over his own feet, not sure if it was a turf issue or something with his toe injury, but Sutton just couldn’t keep himself in line tonight. He finished with a team-high 10 tackles and a tackle for loss. If Sutton needs to miss the game next week to prepare for the playoffs, it might be the best move for this team.
At a time when the Lions needed their starting quarterback to have a big game, Goff couldn’t do it. He had some impressive throws in the game like the deep shot to wide receiver Jameson Williams. That was the best throw of the night for him, but he had more bad throws than good throws. Goff finished the game 19-for-34 for 271 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions. It wasn’t just that Goff threw interceptions, it was how he threw them is the issue.
The first was a long, drawn-out screen pass to running back David Montgomery and instead of throwing the ball in the dirt, Goff risked the throw and turned it over. Goff doesn’t seem to want to give up on plays often, but that was a clear example of Goff trying to do too much. On the second interception, Goff just had a poor throw to LaPorta which was also a good play by the Cowboy's defense.
Goff did lead a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to put the Lions down by one point, but if he had played better earlier in the game, that drive wouldn’t have been necessary. Goff can’t play like this in the playoffs or Detroit could see a first-game exit.
Despite allowing just one sack on Goff, the offensive line had a rough game this week. It wasn’t just one player to point out either, it was a collectively poor showing by the group. Goff was under pressure for most of the night, getting hit seven times and evading defenders constantly. The Cowboys brought pressure and there were times when they just had players unblocked by an offensive lineman.
The Lions were able to have success on the ground, finishing with 125 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries, averaging 4 yards per carry. The issue with the run game and the offensive line was how many times unblocked players would hit the running back for a loss. Dallas finished with seven tackles for loss, forcing the Lions into obvious passing situations on longer second and third down plays. Perhaps the playcalling was responsible for some of the tackles for loss and set the running backs up for failure, but the group needs to execute the plays that are called.
It felt like it was 2015 all over again. A horrible call by the officials once again cost the Lions a victory in Dallas. The officials were missing calls a few times but the one at the very end on the failed two-point conversion was the dagger to the heart of Lions fans around the country. Let’s hope these officials aren’t picked for the Lions playoff game.