We lead off with a classic sports debate:
The Free Press gathered two writers form each city to debate which otherworldly wideout was better. Curiously, both Detroit guys picked Bryant and both Dallas writers chose Johnson. To wit:
Shawn Windsor, Detroit Free Press: Bryant. LeBron doesn't jump as high. Calvin Johnson doesn't run as fast. It happens. Johnson's size and strength keep him among the top two receivers, but he's no longer the scariest playmaker at the position. Dez Bryant is ... his hands, quickness and agility -- in a slightly smaller package than Johnson -- make him the best.
Tim Cowlishaw, Dallas Morning News: Johnson. Johnson is the only receiver who can't be ranked behind the Cowboys' new single-season touchdown leader at receiver. At least not yet. At 6-foot-5, 235 pounds with a 4.35 40-yard dash time coming out of Georgia Tech, Johnson is the rare receiver who is bigger, stronger and faster than Bryant. And he has led the NFC in yards receiving three times, even breaking Jerry Rice's single-season record, while Bryant has specialized in finding the end zone. Now if Bryant can have a 2008 playoffs-Larry Fitzgerald-type run in which he takes over games and leads his team to a Super Bowl? We will take another look at these two great receivers at that time.
It appears that we are in a transitional moment wherein Bryant is poised to assume the "best in the NFL" mantle worn by Johnson the last four years.
The Broad One's weekly look at key matchups offers Dez Bryant against the Lions' secondary and Orlando Scandrick against WR Golden Tate. Here's his take on the latter of these:
With so much focus on Calvin Johnson and the problems he presents, I actually believe it is Tate that can be just as dangerous due to his ability to execute routes at so many different levels....With Tate you have to play him more man-to-man due to his movement. This is where Scandrick is at his best -- when he can track a receiver around the field because of his skill set. Scandrick is comfortable with receivers that have speed and quickness, which is why the last several ball games we have seen him match the opponent’s faster player and been able to handle that assignment well.
The Sturminator's latest must-read offers an elegant summary of the Dallas defense's fine work in 2014 (improvement across the board, often to an impressive degree). Here's the stat that I found most striking:
They have taken the ball away 31 times which is 2nd best in the NFL. Since 1995, do you know how many times the Cowboys have ranked in the top 5 in takeaways in the NFL? Try never. This is the very first time. So, is it a flukey odd year or is this the new Cowboys defense under Rod Marinelli?...impressive and such a massive improvement...
He also takes a look forward to the Lions game..
A pair of solid reads from Jean-Jacques Taylor on Garrett's mentally tough bunch:
Starting with the premise that there's no better indication of a team's mental toughness than its ability to answer an opponents' scoring drive with one of their own, JJT compiles a list of those moments to substantiate his thesis. The topper, of course, was the eight-play, 78-yard drive after Philadelphia took a 24-21 lead in week 13. DeMarco Murray's two-yard scoring run gave Dallas a 28-24 lead they never gave up - and, by extension, an NFC East lead they never relinquished.
Taylor points out that the Cowboys were 6-3 in 2013 when leading after three quarters, including losses to San Diego, Denver and Green Bay. In 2012, Dallas was 3-1 when leading after three quarters, and they were 3-3 in 2011. In 2014? They are 10-0 when leading after three quarters. What is different?
"It's a mentality and a mindset," Garrett said. "You hear me emphasize it a lot. When you're ahead in the game, you have to go after it. You have to go finish the job the right way. Any kind of relaxing is not good for anybody.
"The idea is that this matters. This play matters. This series matters. Don't look at the scoreboard -- play this play to the best of your ability. That goes a long way in instilling that killer instinct that you want."
Although Number Nine ranks 23rd in the NFL with only 75 play-action passes attempted, his production has been impressive: a league-leading 10.7 yards per attempt. His coach explains:
"Typically the play-action passes are more chunk plays," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "One of the real things Tony does is you have a chunk play called -- all these routes down the field, but they might be covered -- and Tony throws it to the back. There was a good example of him doing that in the Washington game and we got a good gain from DeMarco on the play."
Archer tells a tale of two practice weeks. Before Tony Romo began to sit ot each Wednesday's practice:
Romo did not skip a practice in the first two weeks of the regular season. He was sacked seven times in 73 dropbacks and hit an additional nine. He completed 63.6 percent of his passes and simply did not look comfortable.
After opening the season with two touchdown passes and three interceptions in the first two games, Romo had 32 touchdown passes and six interceptions the rest of the way. He had a higher completion percentage in 10 of the final 13 games of the season than he had in the first two, and one of the three in which he didn't came on the quick turnaround on Thanksgiving.
As C-Will writes, the 50 voters for the league's official postseason awards submitted their ballots Wednesday, with Romo a contender for MVP honors. But Romo's best season will ring hollow if it ends before Feb. 1.
"That's the only reason you play the game," Romo said about winning the Super Bowl. "As players, we all want to be playing in that game and holding that trophy at the end of the year, just hoist it up and know that you accomplished your goal that you set out.
"I know that's my goal. I mean, everything else is just peanuts compared to it. Nothing else is comparable to that goal. I'm going to do everything I can to help us get there, and that's my job."
When asked by the assembled media to point out a play that encapsulates Murray’s season, Garrett replied:
"One of the plays for me that sticks out as much as any other with DeMarco was when he came back off the hand surgery and on the sixth or seventh play of the game he had to go back and have protection against a free safety blitz,’’ Garrett said. "He butted the guy up and had his hands in there and just blocked his ass.
"To me, that tells you about DeMarco Murray more than anything else.’’
That and the countless 4-, 5- and 6-yard "dirty" runs that have become his stock-in-trade
Here is Garrett’s blueprint:
Turnover differential — This is line one in Garrett’s mind.
Explosive plays — This is not simply about how many the offense collects, but how the defense limits the opponent. The barometer the Cowboys use is runs of 12 or more yards and pass plays of 16 or more yards.
Win the fourth quarter — Points scored is how most will look at this category, but it’s about much more.
As Moore explains, the Cowboys won two of these three in 2014, enjoying a +6 TO differential, a +25 advantage in explosive plays. And Moore makes a case that they won the final category as well; even though they were -4 in points, they held the ball and scored when they needed to in close games.
It's Friday, and you know what that means: game previews!
ESPN's weekly question and answer preview piece, with Toddzilla and his Detroit counterpart. Here's Archer on Scott Linehan's offensive system:
It’s not really his system. The Cowboys are running the scheme that Jason Garrett brought here in 2007 and have added some of Linehan’s wrinkles. Linehan has been terrific and he also has helped by the fact that he has Tony Romo, Murray, Bryant, Jason Witten and that offensive line we talked about....Linehan has brought it all together. But what makes this offense different is how well Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams and even Gavin Escobar have come up with big plays at big moments. The history Linehan had with Garrett has helped both sides. Garrett has a guy he trusts. Linehan has a guy he knows will let him coach. But the system really hasn’t really changed.
And here's Rothstein on Detroit's formidable defense:
Suh is the guy this defense revolves around. His ability to consistently take on and break through double teams makes him one of the most valuable players in the entire league. If he doesn’t take up that space, Ezekiel Ansah, George Johnson and other defensive linemen don’t have the single blocks they’ve had to make plays. He also clears space for linebacker DeAndre Levy to have rush lanes. Suh’s presence has accentuated the talent of Levy, allowing him to shed blockers easier. But Levy and the secondary -- highlighted by safeties Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo -- have all been really good to elite this season. Quin has had the best season of his career and is turning into a dominant safety as he leads the NFL in interceptions. If Detroit is going to win, it’s going to need another consistent performance from Suh, but the safety play of Quin and Ihedigbo -- two ball-hawks who play well off each other and are good in run support -- is going to be equally critical.
In an article that I linked in yesterday's news post to highlight the segment on the Cowboys, I'm linking again to point you toward what opposing coaches, players, scouts and team personnel had to say on the Lions. Here, someone shares tips on how to control Matthew Stafford:
"You've got to get in his face, get some pressure, get him off the spot. When I say off the spot, I mean you can't allow him to sit there in a clean pocket. You've got to get some push in the pocket so he's not able to step up, and that's when he gets more erratic with his throws, when he doesn't have that ability to step up in the pocket. I think you want to get him on the move. He's the opposite of Aaron Rodgers that way. You don't want Aaron Rodgers on the move, but you do want Stafford on the move because he's not that accurate when he's got to move in the pocket."
And, finally, several reports from the enemy camp:
"Buckle your chin straps tight — it's going to be one of those hard-hitting football games and be very physical, and we're taking that mindset that it's going to be," safety James Ihedigbo said. "The way they run the ball and the way we stop the run. It's going to be that type of matchup."
Meinke points out that Linehan was not appreciated by the Lions fan base, particularly in his final days there, but his departure (and Joe Lombardi's comparatively moribund offense offense) has some longing for his return:
The Lions' offense ranked among the top six in each of the last three years under Linehan. In their first season without him, they ranked 19th. They had one two-game stretch where they couldn't manage a single offensive touchdown. They scored at least one in each of Linehan's final 66 games.
The moral of this story: be careful what you wish for.
In a somewhat surprising move, a local beat writer calls for the Lions to bench Ndamukong Suh against Dallas, largely to show him that he's not above the team:
It isn't asking too much that Suh limit his disruptiveness to fighting through double teams, busting up running plays and relentlessly harassing quarterbacks prior to the whistle. Instead, Suh unnecessarily created a distraction as the Lions prepare for the defining moment of their season...The primary issue remains Suh's stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge that he's not above the team, drawing even more attention to whether his immense talent is worth the truculent behavior once his contract expires following the Super Bowl.
In a seeming counter-point to Sharp's piece, Wojo writes (with at least part of his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek):
The obvious truth is, the Lions desperately need Suh Sunday in Dallas, which is why they were ecstatic his suspension was overturned. Do they still need him for all the Sundays next season and beyond? Yep, unless Martin Mayhew got a shiny new Pro Bowl defensive tackle under his Christmas tree.
The Lions have a puncher's chance against the Cowboys primarily because they have a punchy defense, which will have the dual task of pressuring Tony Romo and stuffing NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray. Suh is at the heart of it, so I guess they actually have a stomper's chance.
A set of takeaways from the media's sessions with Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and OC Joe Lombardi. Here's one that caught my eye, and hopefully has caught the Cowboys' as well:
3. The Lions recently changed their practice schedule to include a run period where offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi walks through different looks and gets about 30 extra run reps into practice. The Lions have averaged 106.6 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry over their last five games.
And how awesome a name is Tim Twentyman, btw...?
After thinking they might not have to face either of the Lions' playmaking defensive tackles, it now looks like they might see both on Sunday. Although Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell said earlier in the week that it would take "a miracle" for Fairley to be available for the Lions' first playoff game since 2011, he went out on the field with trainers and did some running and cutting on Wednesday and then practiced in a limited fashion, going through individual drills on Thursday.
Of course, none of this matters to the Cowboys. Nameless, faceless opponent, right?
We're kicking off our own Playoff Pick 'Em challenge here on BTB. Like we did during our Pick 256 Challenge during the regular season, we're going to ask you to pick the straight up winners for each playoff weekend all the way through to the Super Bowl. And to spice things up, we're using a Confidence Points scoring system where you have to give each game you pick a specific point value based on how strongly you feel about the accuracy of your selection.
You have until kickoff on Saturday to submit your picks, but why wait until the last second? Here's the link to the entry form.
If the link above doesn't work for whatever reason, use the following alternative, which does not autofill your BTB user name into the entry form.
As of this morning, we have 190 votes logged. In early voting, the following trends have emerged:
|Game||Proj. straight up winner||% of BTB Vote||Avg. Confidence Points|
|Arizona @ Carolina||CAR||84%||9.1|
|Baltimore @ Pittsburgh||BAL||88%||9.4|
|Cincinnati @ Indianapolis||IND||59%||9.4|
|Detroit @ Dallas||DAL||97%||14.3|
The contest is open to everybody, and everybody starts with a clean slate into the playoffs. So go ahead and submit your picks.
Also, a gentle reminder that you have to assign a different Confidence Points number to each game and cannot assign the same number to multiple games. We've got people assigning 16 points to all games, people only using 8s and 12s only and all sorts of other tomfoolery. If you're unsure about what you did, go back and resubmit your pick, or your Confidence Points will be adjusted - and perhaps not to your liking.