Cowboys @ Lions: How Important Is This Game?

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas and Detroit both go into the game with 4-3 records, trying to turn the first half of the season into a real success. How much does it matter for both teams at this point?

To mangle an old saying, all NFL games are created important, but some are more important than others. It is still quite early in the season, but for the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions, this Sunday's matchup in Michigan is already looming rather large.

This was pointed out today on ESPN Radio's SVP & Russillo show. Both teams sit at 4-3. There is a big difference between finishing the first half of the season at 5-3 or 4-4. The winner of this game comes out of it with a lot of momentum and should feel pretty good about the second half of the season. The loser will be back to that dreaded state of mediocrity that has plagued Dallas the past two seasons, and will be wondering how the season is going to wind up.

Dallas is currently alone in first place in the NFC East, but for the first time this season the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants both showed some signs of life last week. Washington had an offensive explosion against the Chicago Bears as Robert Griffin III looked like the offensive machine he was as a rookie. Their running game was potent, piling up 209 yards, and the team had one yard shy of 500 yards in total offense. The Giants may have only proven they are not the worst team in the league by beating the woeful Minnesota Vikings, but with a trip to play the Philadelphia Eagles this week, they have a real chance to make themselves at least a spoiler in the NFC East. If they fail, as seems more likely, the Eagles will climb to 4-4, and they are obviously the biggest challenge for Dallas within the division. The Cowboys have to win this week to ensure they remain alone in first place.

As significant as this game is for Dallas, it is more so for the Lions. They are tied in the win column with both the Green Bay Packers and the Bears. Da Bears have a bye week, so they will hold at 4-3. The Pack is going up against the Vikings, who essentially are playing a quarterback, Christian Ponder, they have already given up on. They are extremely likely to get their fifth win of the season, so Detroit is fighting to stay at the head of the NFC North. At least to some degree, the game is more important for the Lions, but neither team is in a position where a loss is immaterial.

We have looked at the PFF numbers for both teams (Dallas offense, Dallas defense, and Detroit overall). The teams are similar in a lot of ways. The Cowboys' chances are likely to come down to the following things:

  • Tony Romo and the passing offense have to get back on track. After the Duel with Denver and its astronomical numbers, the passing attack has basically sputtered. The Lions have a very exploitable secondary, but the pass rush, led by Ndamukong Suh, could be a challenge (despite some lack of success thus far this season). Romo is not likely to have a lot of time and must find his targets quickly. The minor flap over whether Dez Bryant thinks he can match Calvin Johnson means that the Lions may be overly focused on him. This could be a big game for Cole Beasley and Jason Witten, his matching set of safety blankets.
  • An effective running attack is one way to slow that pass rush. The Lions are not a heavy blitzing team, and nothing will get the linemen to wait a beat before getting after the quarterback better than gashing them a few times with your running backs. The Cowboys could have DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar both ready to go, joining Joseph Randle and Phillip Tanner. It will be very good to have Murray back, and everyone is waiting to see if Dunbar can live up to some of the dynamic play he flashed before he was hurt.
  • Rod Marinelli needs to get another strong performance from his Rushmen. Matthew Stafford is going to be more like Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning with his quick release, but pressure up the middle can disrupt his accuracy. Even if the defensive tackles are not getting sacks and hits, pushing the pocket back in his face may be enough to make a difference.
  • Brandon Carr is going to have to continue the great play he has had the past couple of games to keep Calvin Johnson from dominating. The Cowboys probably can't hope to completely stop Megatron, but they have to limit the damage. Jeff Heath will also likely be called on to help out as he steps up for the injured J.J. Wilcox.

If the Cowboys can get solid wins in a couple of these areas, they have an excellent shot at winning the game. It could be a very exciting one.

Of course, it would be a lot easier on the heart if they cruise to an easy win. But as long as it winds up a win (and the injury report doesn't get much longer), then all will be well.

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