Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford returns to the metroplex he grew up in for a “Monday Night Football” clash with the Dallas Cowboys that will have an impact on the postseason picture for the visitors and could serve as a nice preview of what’s to come in January for both sides.
The Lions remain in tentative control of the NFC North but are suddenly looking to take advantage of a Cowboys squad that may be ready to take their foot off the gas after locking up the top seed in the conference. Stafford has been on the fringes of the MVP conversation thanks to his late-game heroics for a team that loves a fourth-quarter comeback but he’ll need to be on his game from start to finish if he wants to beat his hometown team in primetime.
As for the Cowboys, this may be the last time we’ll see them at full strength and playing with much fire until the middle of next month, wih the NFC East and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs locked up. The dynamic rookie duo of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were both named to the Pro Bowl squad recently and remain in the running to take home MVP honors as the focal point for the powerhouse of an offense. While those two get most of the attention nowadays, don’t discount the team’s defense either, which has been playing much better down the stretch and will be looking to prove doubters wrong heading into this one.
These two teams are no strangers with each other given their history in recent years, which includes a split of the last six meetings the past decade. Dallas won the last meeting back in a crazy 2015 NFC Wild Card game but the Lions claim victories in the past two regular season outings thanks to dramatic touchdowns in the final two minutes.
It should all make for a fun one at AT&T Stadium between two of the more electric teams in the league.
Detroit at Dallas
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 26 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Cowboys -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Cowboys Effort
Owner/GM Jerry Jones and head coach Jason Garrett have insisted that they will play their starters and go for the win on Monday despite clinching the top seed and securing home-field advantage all the way to the Super Bowl. Despite that message going out during the week, you do have to wonder how much the Cowboys will really push themselves, especially if they get behind early on. This has been a magical season in Dallas and you can bet they want to close it out with a nice home win, but we’ll see just how hard the pads pop come kickoff for the ‘Boys. If Garrett decides to pull the starters, one can’t help but wonder if these final two games will then serve as an audition for backup signal-caller Tony Romo and a possible offseason trade to a quarterback-needy franchise.
2. All-Purpose Tailbacks
Rookie Ezekiel Elliott continues to live up to high expectations by leading the NFL with in rushing yards and scoring 14 touchdowns (tied for third) entering this game. He has a chance at shattering several franchise and league records on the ground for a first-year player and is coming off a career-high 159 yards and a score last week. Not only is he good on the ground, but also he’s an all-purpose threat out of the backfield and is a dangerous player the Lions will need to keep track of on third down. Detroit’s Theo Riddick is one of the best running backs in the league at doing damage through the air (133 receptions since 2015) and could be back starting after missing the past two games with a wrist injury. The Lions’ offense has slowed since he left the lineup and a return would be huge for the team looking to top the league’s best on the road. At a time where the league is as pass-happy as ever, both of these teams have a guy in the backfield who rarely needs to come off the field and have to be a joy to have if you’re the offensive coordinator.
3. Marinelli’s Revenge?
Lions fans know Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli all too well as he was the head coach in Detroit back when the team went 0-16 back in 2008. Not surprisingly, he was fired shortly after that final game but bounced back quickly as a coach in the league and has done a fantastic job in Big D leading a group of mostly no-names to a nice resurgence. Might he have something special saved up for this one? After the Giants provided a nice game plan to beating the Lions last week, chances are high there are a few wrinkles that Marinelli has in store for his old team.
A little over a week ago, this loomed as a potentially gigantic game for each team as they made one final push toward the playoffs with a berth there for the taking. That’s not exactly how things have turned out since, as a must-win for Dallas has become more of an afterthought thanks to New York’s loss to Philadelphia on Thursday night, which sewed up the NFC’s top seed for the Cowboys.
That’s not the case for the Lions, which saw their fourth-quarter magic disappear in their last game and need to finish strong in order to stay ahead of those pesky (and red-hot) Green Bay Packers in the playoff standings. There is little margin for error and, thanks to injuries to starters like cornerback Darius Slay and center Travis Swanson, the pressure will be on Matthew Stafford to deliver a big-time performance and a win. Motivation may be a factor for the home team but it certainly isn’t for a hungry Lions squad that would love nothing more than to grab a win against a team they may face again next month.
Dallas may not have anything but pride to play for on “Monday Night Football” as a result but the Cowboys are still the better (and healthier) team heading into this one. They’ll showcase just that and secure a solid win in the end during yet another close game with the Lions that the latter will be kicking themselves for losing.
Prediction: Cowboys 28, Lions 20
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.