NFL Playoff Preview - Detroit (11-5) at Dallas (12-4)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Playoff football is back in Big D.
The Dallas Cowboys knew it would happen before the season began by boldly sending out postseason packages to their season-ticket holders last summer.
It's unknown if Nostradamus had something to do with Dallas' audacious prediction to reach the postseason, but the Cowboys know they will have their hands full with the Detroit Lions Sunday in an NFC Wild Card Game.
Dallas captured the NFC East title and the third seed in the conference with a 12-4 record and are in the playoffs for the first time since winning the division in 2009. Cowboys quarterback and MVP candidate Tony Romo has only one playoff victory under his belt and looks to build on that.
"I'm playing at a level I'm proud of and hope to get better," said Romo, who passed for 299 yards and two touchdowns with an interception in a 44-17 drubbing of Washington in the season finale. "I'm just excited about the progression of improvement and want to keep this going in our next game."
Romo passed for 3,705 yards, 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He is 1-3 as a starter in the playoffs, completing 80-of-1,235 passes for 832 yards, four TDs and two INTs. Now that the running game has hit full stride, Romo won't have to carry the offensive load. In four starts against the Lions, Romo is 1-3 with 1,160 yards, 10 TDs and four picks.
In seven home games this season, Romo passed for 1,772 yards, 14 touchdowns and was picked off seven times. He dealt with a lingering back issue all season, but has received treatment prior to the last few games to deaden the pain. Romo has built a strong rapport with leading receiver Dez Bryant, who led the team with 88 catches for 1,320 yards and a franchise-best 16 TDs.
Bryant had six touchdown receptions over the last three games for the Cowboys, who ripped off four straight wins after an embarrassing loss at home to the Philadelphia Eagles. Bryant is the only player in the NFL with 12 or more receiving touchdowns in each of the past three seasons, and has five touchdown catches in three meetings with Detroit.
"Dez is really a remarkable player," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "As a teammate, as a leader, as a veteran guy, you take a lot of pride in seeing the growth of Dez and (running back) DeMarco (Murray) mature as players. Dez is a unbelievable player, he's a dynamic player, and it's great to see his growth."
The Lions are in the playoffs for only the second time in the past 15 years and ended a two-year drought with an 11-5 record in the first year of head coach Jim Caldwell. The Lions just missed out on an NFC North title and the Green Bay Packers claimed it with a 12-4 mark.
Detroit was hoping to close the regular season with five straight wins, but dropped a 30-20 decision to the Packers Sunday at Lambeau Field. Matthew Stafford passed for 217 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for the Lions, whose 11 wins are the most since a 12-4 record back in 1991.
Stafford threw for 4,257 yards with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and has eclipsed the 4,000-yard passing mark for a fourth straight season. He is 2-0 in his career versus Dallas and lost his only playoff appearance to New Orleans in 2011, throwing for 380 yards, three TDs and two INTs in a 45-28 setback in the Big Easy.
Wide receiver Calvin Johnson is Stafford's main target and he had 211 yards and two scores on 12 receptions against the Saints.
Stafford is focused on winning his first playoff game.
"I think, obviously, you watch every game and find ways that you can get better, win, lose or draw," Stafford said. "We're a battle-tested team and have won 11 football games this year. We found ways to win a lot of them and we'll continue to do that. We just have to move forward."
Golden Tate, not Johnson, led Detroit with 99 receptions for 1,331 yards in his first year with the team, while Megatron grabbed a team-high eight touchdown receptions. Johnson missed three games because of injury.
Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh almost missed this playoff game against the Cowboys after he stepped on the legs of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers while he was down on the grass. Suh was originally suspended for the game for violating playing rules prohibiting unnecessary roughness, but the penalty was reduced on appeal to a $70,000 fine.
Suh paced the Lions with 8 1/2 sacks and is a vital piece to the stout run defense, which finished first in rushing yards allowed (69.3). The Lions were second in total defense and held opponents to 100 rushing yards or fewer in 14 of 16 games, including five games with 50 rushing yards or fewer.
Murray led the NFL in rushing with a team-record 1,845 yards and 12 100-yard games. Murray was tied for the league lead in rushing scores with 13 and opened the season with eight straight 100-yard games for Dallas, which was second overall with 147.1 rushing yards per game.
"Controlling the line of scrimmage is important," Caldwell said. "Our defense has been really strong in that area throughout the year."
The Lions defeated the Cowboys, 31-30, on Oct. 27, 2013 and were aided by Stafford's 488 passing yards. Johnson caught 14 passes for a franchise-record 329 yards and a score in that one for Detroit, which has won two in a row in this series after losing five of the previous six encounters.
Detroit and Dallas have split two playoff matchups, while the Cowboys lead the overall series by a 13-12 margin.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Sunday's game features two great quarterbacks and two outstanding wide receivers. The Romo-to-Bryant connection has been on point the last few weeks and cannot afford to have a Thanksgiving flop. Romo threw for 199 yards and two interceptions, and was sacked twice in that Big D debacle
Bryant had 73 yards on six catches with no TDs. He has made great strides since that loss, however.
"We're just getting started and we're excited about the opportunity in front of us," Romo said about the postseason.
Romo led the NFL with a club-record 113.2 passer rating. He has to be aware of Detroit defenders Suh, Ezekiel Ansah, George Johnson and DeAndre Levy. Levy led the Lions with 151 tackles, while Glover Quin snatched an NFL-best seven interceptions.
Detroit had 20 INTs this season, second most in NFC. It will try to produce a few more turnovers and contain the likes of Bryant and Witten.
The Lions hope right guard Larry Warford will be available after he was carted off the field Sunday with a knee injury. Warford is day-to-day and hopes to be ready for the Cowboys.
"They haven't really told me what to say," Warford said. "Can't say anything about the injury right now, but hopefully I'll be back soon."
Lions rookie center Travis Swanson made his first start in Green Bay and replaced suspended veteran Dominic Raiola.
Dallas had four players with 70 or tackles in Barry Church (97), Rolando McClain (81), Anthony Hitchens (75) and J.J. Wilcox (74). Bruce Carter recorded five interceptions and Wilcox had three.
Church and Wilcox will have to help over the top with corners Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick lining up against Johnson and Tate.
The Lions have it tough facing the Packers two times a season and were able to split the NFC North series with each team winning at home. The Cowboys are just as talented, and the Lions will have to enter Dallas' den in hopes of keeping the season alive.
The Cowboys were a perfect 8-0 on the road in the regular season and 4-4 at AT&T Stadium. The house that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones built will be electric this weekend, and getting Murray going early is priority No. 1. As difficult as that will be for Detroit to stop, there's Romo and Bryant to worry about.
"We have a great defense, they've held us in games a lot of times," Johnson said of Detroit's stop unit. "Like they say, 'defense wins championships', so if we just step our game up on offense we'll be alright."
Detroit is facing a fine collection of talent and will need a complete effort to pull off the victory. It won't happen this year, unfortunately, as Romo and the 'Boys ride off into the NFC divisional round of the playoffs.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 34, Lions 26
01/04 10:22:49 ET