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NFC Wild Card Preview and Prediction: Detroit Lions vs. Dallas Cowboys

Jason Garrett

Jason Garrett

The day your five-year-old has waited for his whole life for is finally here — the Dallas Cowboys are back in the postseason. Behind the record-setting offensive trio of Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant, Dallas won the NFC East with a 12–4 record and has returned to the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2009. A 4–0 showing in December has helped erase a stigma that surrounded a Cowboys franchise that could not win in the last month of the year, particularly under coach Jason Garrett and Romo. Dallas entered this season 8–11 in December in four seasons with Garrett, and Romo had gone 14–22 in the month.

Meanwhile, Detroit (11-5) is back in the postseason for the second time in three years after previously not having made it since 2000. The Lions are still looking for their first playoff win since a 38–6 Divisional Round win over Dallas on Jan. 12, 1992. That win was the first postseason victory for the franchise since 1957, with only two appearances in between.

Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys

Kickoff: 4:40 p.m. ET

TV Channel: FOX

Spread: Dallas -7

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[inline_team_schedule team-id=24 date=20141204 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=6][/inline_team_schedule]

Detroit’s Key to Victory: Stafford to Johnson

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford carries this unfortunate bit of baggage into this game: He is 0–16 as a starting quarterback in road games against teams that finished the season with a winning record, the third-most losses without a win in such games for any quarterback since the 1970 merger. But he’s 2–0 against Tony Romo, which gives the Lions a glimmer of hope. Both wins featured dramatic comebacks, including a 31–30 win in 2013 in which Stafford threw for 488 yards and Calvin Johnson caught 14 passes for 329 yards, the second-best yardage total in NFL history. Johnson’s yardage total of 1,077 this season marks his lowest since 2009, but expect Stafford to look Megatron’s way early and often.

[inline_team_schedule team-id=19 date=20141204 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=6][/inline_team_schedule]

Dallas’ Key to Victory: Unleash DeMarco Murray

It’s been a season-long theme for Dallas: Use a powerful running attack to set up Tony Romo for success in the passing game. This week, the Cowboys are facing the NFL’s top rushing defense (69.3 ypg), but it’s critical that DeMarco Murray find some running room against the Lions' defense to open things up for Romo and Dez Bryant — a job that gets tougher with the unexpected availability of leg-stomper Ndamukong Suh. The grind of a long NFL season seemed to catch up with Murray, whose 1,845 rushing yards broke Emmitt Smith’s franchise record and were the third most in the NFL over the last eight seasons. In Weeks 15-16, Murray could muster only a combined 139 yards on 2.6 yards per carry, including a season-low 58 yards in a Week 16 win over Indianapolis. He recaptured some of his early-season form with 100 yards on 20 carries against Washington, his 12th 100-yard game of the season (second most in NFL history). We’ll see if the wear and tear of 392 carries hampers him on the postseason stage. 

Final Analysis

In an unexpected turn of events for two somewhat downtrodden franchises, both the Detroit and Dallas saved some of their best football for late in the season, combining to go 7–1 in the month of December. So which one is prepared to take the next step and win in January? Jerry Jones sees something he likes in his Cowboys, saying that, “This team has a uniqueness to it that could serve us well in the playoffs.” We tend to agree.

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Prediction: Dallas 27, Detroit 21