Going into the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the margin for error on offense for the Cowboys was very small. So much so that the team only crossed midfield three times, turning it over on downs twice and managing their only points of the night on a Brett Maher field goal. Most of this was with Dak Prescott at quarterback, and anticipating his return against the Detroit Lions, not much has changed when it comes to the need for #4 to carry this offense. Those expectations have stayed in sight because of Cooper Rush’s 4-1 record in five weeks as the starter though, and he hands the keys back to Prescott at just the right time.
The Cowboys margin of error for unexpected losses the rest of the way is small, with the Eagles getting to 6-0 against them on Sunday night and the Giants in second place at 5-1. If they need to make a statement that they’re in a not-so-distant third place, the Cowboys get a Lions team that’s allowed a league-high 34 points per game coming to AT&T Stadium this weekend. The Lions defense has struggled to keep Dan Campbell’s squad in games, allowing the most rushing yards per game and giving up 30 completions for 337 yards to Carson Wentz plus 320 yards to Geno Smith.
Up next? A team Detroit has not beaten since 2013, with a defense that’s allowed more than one touchdown in just one of six games this season. Dan Quinn’s defense gets the Lions off of a bye, which could make this challenge a bit harder considering they scored 36 in their win over the Commanders, 24 in a loss to the Vikings, and 45 in a wild three-point loss to the Seahawks, but most recently the Lions were shutout by the Patriots 29-0.
The Cowboys have a four-game winning streak against the Lions, dating back to their controversial win in the 2014 Wild Card playoffs when linebacker Anthony Hitchens wasn’t flagged for pass interference on a crucial Matt Stafford pass. Eight years is more than an eternity in the NFL, but it feels poetic the Cowboys have already beaten Stafford this season before facing a Lions team now led by Jared Goff - the quarterback taken first overall in 2016 and 134 picks before Dak Prescott.
Prescott beat the Lions 42-21 on Monday night football as a rookie, with Dez Bryant catching two touchdowns and throwing for another as he hit Jason Witten in the end zone. The Cowboys may not have established names like those around Prescott in this matchup, but seeing what unproven receivers like Noah Brown and tight end Jake Ferguson have done without him gives this team a chance to be complete with Dak in the lineup.
On the other side, the Lions top targets in the passing game have been Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, and tight end T.J. Hockenson. This is a group with good speed and athleticism, though their offensive line has rarely given Goff the time to get the ball downfield, and now face a defense that’s been at their best bringing pressure.
On the ground, both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard have benefited from running behind an offensive line that’s exceeded expectations, with Kellen Moore’s run action off of these power looks being effective under Rush. The added mobility, accuracy, and velocity on throws from Prescott will only help here, with the Lions allowing over 11 yards per completion this season.
Could this early Sunday afternoon play out like the Broncos game for the Cowboys last year, where a 30-16 loss was the beginning of the end for a team that stumbled into the playoffs? No NFC East team is in position to back into the playoffs this season, with the Cowboys needing to prove at full strength against the Lions they can match the Eagles and Giants the rest of the way. Prescott threw for 444 yards and three touchdowns in his last game against the Lions in Detroit two years ago, with Elliott and Pollard both being on the receiving end along with Randall Cobb for a score.
The Cowboys will continue to rely on their running game and elite defense, but expect the boost from Dak’s return to put them among the league’s best. If they are going to be considered on the same tier as the Bills, Eagles, or Chiefs - something that only fans with the thickest pair of silver and blue lenses possible saw coming this season - they need to separate from 1-4 teams like the Lions and the currently 2-4 Bears in week eight.