The Dallas Cowboys come into the wild-card playoff weekend full of confidence. The team has had a spectacular December and rolled Washington in their final game, 44-17. Their opponent in this first playoff game, the Detroit Lions, are coming into this game with a much different vibe. They lost their chance to win their division and have a first-round bye after losing to rival Green Bay, 30-20. They have struggled in the past month to put together solid games even though they have won most of them, but the teams they beat were teams with losing records. And now they may be without their best defensive player because of a suspension. There is a lot of doom-and-gloom coming from Detroit.
Detroit's dominating force on the defensive line, Ndamukong Suh, has been suspended for the Cowboys game. He does have an appeal, so it is possible he could be reinstated. But if the Lions have to play without him, that is a huge problem. According to any observer of the Lions, Suh is the guy who makes that defense work. He makes plays in both the run and passing game, and he forces teams to commit additional blockers to handling him, freeing up other guys to make plays. He's the big force in the Lions league-best run-stopping unit. If the Lions don't have him, their task of slowing down DeMarco Murray and the Cowboys offense just got very difficult.
And they likely won't get help from defensive tackle Nick Fairly who has been out injured for quite a while.
Caldwell on if Fairley will play this week: "It'd be a mircale." Said he could play in the postseason.— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) December 29, 2014
The Lions are also dealing with an injury to guard Larry Warford.
[Warford] did have a hulking brace on that right knee, which he injured during Sunday's loss against the Green Bay Packers. Warford wouldn't reveal much about the injury, simply calling himself "day to day" and expressing hope he can contribute to the playoff run at some point.
"Hopefully I get my knee better," Warford said. "Whatever they say, whether I can go or not, is up to them. Day to day."
Lions coach Jim Caldwell says:
Caldwell on Warford: "Not ruled out yet but not certain" if he'll be available— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) December 29, 2014
There is also a question of just how good is this 11-5 Lions team. While an eleven-win season is usually validation of how good a team is, the Lions racked up their victories against losing teams.
Of Detroit's 11 wins this season, the Lions beat only one team that finished with a winning record -- a 19-7 win against Green Bay in Week 3.
It's also led to questions about their offense.
2. Is the Detroit Lions' offense for real? You really wonder if the Lions' success is a byproduct of an easy schedule. The Lions play the Cowboys in the divisional round. Matthew Stafford threw for 4,257 yards, but against teams who finished at .500 or better, the Lions were 2-4 and averaged only 314.5 yards and 14.7 points a game. That's 42 yards and 8.6 points fewer than they averaged against losing teams. The Lions went 9-1 against losing teams. To beat Dallas, Stafford has to get more out of the offense. The Cowboys average 29.2 points a game and have one of the best offenses in the conference. The Lions' defense may match up well in being able to contain Murray, but they won't be able to win if they can't score more than 20 points.
On the other hand, Lions observers believe they hold some advantages.
The Lions haven't played the Cowboys since last season, but should be eminently familiar with them. Their offensive coordinator is Scott Linehan, after all. And their defensive coordinator is Rod Marinelli. Linehan was Detroit's offensive coordinator from 2009-13 before getting axed with Jim Schwartz last offseason. And Marinelli was head coach of the Lions from 2006-08. Both former Lions coaches have been praised for their roles in helping Dallas (12-4) win the NFC East this year.
That's pretty thin, in my opinion. Knowing a coordinator doesn't seem to ever be a huge advantage in the NFL.
Even the vaunted rush defense of the Lions took a hit last week.
Detroit was historically good defending the run this season, and could have matched the NFL record for fewest yards allowed in a season had they held Green Bay to 13. But the Lions needed only one play to blow their chance at that record, allowing Eddie Lacy to rumble 22 yards on his first carry. Lacy went on to finish with 100 yards, becoming the first (and only) tailback to hit triple-digits against Detroit this season. The Lions will need to figure out what went wrong in a hurry, with NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray on tap this week.
Going on the road against a quality team hasn't really been something the Lions have handled well this season.
In the second half of the regular season, the Lions lost three games. All of those losses came on the road against teams with winning records (Arizona, New England and now Green Bay). I'm not going to sit here and harp on the stat about how Stafford is winless in road games against teams with winning records, because this is a team-wide problem; the Lions simply don't know how to win on the road against good teams. I'm not sure what is preventing them from playing well on the road, but every game seems to follow a similar script: Detroit gets down early and falls into too big of a hole to later climb out of. With the Lions headed to Dallas next week to play the 12-4 Cowboys, they better learn how to win big road games real quick. If they don't, they're headed for another one-and-done appearance in the postseason.
It's a lot of negativity coming out of Detroit right now. But if they get Suh reinstated, that will give them a huge morale boost. Also, they still have Megatron, who has torched the Cowboys recently. Joique Bell and Reggie Bush are a good running back tandem. The Lions are no pushovers.
And games are not won in the press leading up to the contest, they are won in those three hours when teams are on the field. The Lions may have issues, but any team is capable of putting it together for those three hours. I'm sure the Cowboys will be preparing for that.