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Wild Card Weekend preview: Lions-Cowboys

The backstory

Tony Romo manned the controls of a Dallas offense that wrecked this league during a perfect 4-0 December, but the Cowboys quarterback was quick to point out the truth about Detroit's stingy defense: "They're going to be as good a test as we're going to have all season."

He's right. This NFC Wild Card bout boils down to the trench war between a mauling offensive line for Dallas and Detroit's Ndamukong Suh-led defensive front. When the Cowboys attack the NFL's best run-stopping unit with the league's second-ranked ground game, fireworks are assured.

Dallas has worn down opponents all year by running the ball 50 percent of time, a figure notched behind only the Texans and Seahawks. Departing from their pass-heavy attack of years past, the 'Boys have put the ball in the hands of DeMarco Murray week after week. He's responded by leading the NFL with 1,845 rushing yards -- a franchise record -- but is he tiring? Murray has galloped for less than 4.0 yards per carry in three of his past five games.

Murray's production -- and his line's ability to blast holes -- will dictate this game from the opening whistle.

Under pressure

Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions: Let's start here: Stafford has never won a road game against a team that finished the regular season with a winning record. If he plans on making Sunday a first, he'll need help from an offense that dipped this season in every major statistical category from 2013. It's encouraging to see that Stafford's turnovers are down. His 16 interceptions are the fewest he's thrown in a complete season, with the strong-armed signal-caller tossing zero picks in four of his past five games.

While Stafford brings immense physical tools to the table, he remains one of the league's more frustrating passers. He misses too many throws and struggles against disguised coverages. Despite the talent surrounding him, Stafford doesn't emit the vibe of a clutch arm ready to carry Detroit on a three-game magic carpet ride through the NFC. In his court, however, is a ground game on the rise over the past four weeks. After just two 100-plus outings through Week 13, Reggie Bush -- who looks fantastic of late -- and Joique Bell have helped the Lions cross that barrier three times in their past four games.

A more balanced offense on Sunday would help keep Stafford out of dark corners. If Dallas can force him into mistakes, though, this affair will be an ugly one for Detroit fans to swallow.

Matchup to watch:

Golden Tate and Megatron versus Cowboys' secondary:

This game looms as a tremendous treat for viewers because of the star power on both sides. When Dez Bryant isn't on the field for Dallas, fans have a chance to watch Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate battle a Dallas secondary that ranks 26th in the league against the pass. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 66.5 percent of their throws against the Cowboys. Only the Bucs, Rams and Bears were more generous.

Tate has bloomed into a premier threat. The offseason's top free-agent acquisition ripped off five 100-yard outings in six games before returning to earth once Megatron regained full health. Since Week 10, Johnson has taken over with four 100-yard efforts. It's worth noting that Megatron shredded Dallas last season for 329 receiving yards in a Week 8 win over the Cowboys, the second-most receiving yards in a single-game in league history.

This pick-your-poison receiving corps promises to give Dallas all it can handle, but cornerbacks Orlando Scandrick and Sterling Moore are no pushovers. The duo has yet to allow a touchdown this season when lined up in primary coverage, per Pro Football Focus. Against a better-than-expected defense, it falls on Stafford to find open targets and make wise decisions. That is never a guarantee.

Mind-blowing stats:

The Lions are in the middle of an ugly playoff drought. Their last postseason win came during the 1991 season, when quarterback Erik Kramer and Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders led Detroit to a 38-6 victory over the Troy Aikman-led Cowboys. ... This year's Lions have seen improvement down the stretch on offense, averaging 24.8 points per game over their past five tilts after putting up 17.9 points over their first 11 outings. ... Joique Bell has never rushed for 100-plus yards in a road game. ... The Lions also have allowed 17 points or fewer in 11 games this season, the second most in franchise history (behind 12 of those tilts in 1934).

Sunday's game is at home, but history favors this Cowboys team that went a perfect 8-0 on the road this season: Four of the five other teams to finish the year with an 8-0 road mark went to the Super Bowl. ... Dallas scored an outrageous 41.3 points per game in December. Over the past 50 years, only the Broncos of September 2013 (44.8), the Patriots of October 2007 (43.4) and the Rams of October 2000 (42.5) have averaged more. ... This season, Romo became the first signal-caller in Cowboys history with 10-plus touchdown passes and zero picks over a three game stretch in a single season. ... Murray's 12 games with 100-plus rushing yards this season set a record for Dallas, topping Emmitt Smith's 11 such outings in 1995. ... Sunday will mark the eighth game pitting the NFL's leading rusher against the league's top run defense. The defense has won five of seven including three straight.


Detroit has the requisite talent up front to keep the Cowboys' offense at bay. Besides, Murray hasn't looked as fresh in recent weeks, suggesting that Dallas might be forced to go to the air. Still, that leaves the Lions to slow down Romo, who has displayed lethal chemistry with Dez Bryant all season. Whether we believe in the Cowboys as a Super Bowl threat, I fully expect them to take care of business at home to set up an Ice Bowl rematch with the Green Bay Packers.

Dallas Cowboys 27, Detroit Lions 20

The latest Around The NFL Podcast previews this weekend's four Wild-Card matchups and predicts who will advance. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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