Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) throws a pass during the second half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Bill Kostroun
December 22, 2016

ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) The Detroit Lions are struggling offensively at the worst possible time.

A series of injuries has caused problems for coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter as the Lions (9-5) try to finish off their first division title in 23 years.

Last Sunday against the New York Giants, Matthew Stafford wasn't able to put together another fourth-quarter rally in a 17-6 loss, and now the Lions are headed to Dallas for a Monday night matchup with the Cowboys (12-2).

A loss against Dallas, or even a victory combined with the Green Bay Packers defeating the Minnesota Vikings, and the Lions will have to win the division in their season finale against Green Bay at home on New Year's Day.

The most obvious injury is the torn ligaments in the middle finger of Stafford's passing hand. He wore a one-fingered black glove against the Giants, and while he threw for 273 yards, it took 39 attempts and he threw a key interception with two minutes to play.

This week, Stafford is wearing a white glove that is designed for the expected weather conditions in Dallas.

''It's the same basic design, but the black one was set up for the rain we were getting in New York,'' he said Thursday. ''This one is for dry conditions. I don't know how exactly they are different.''

While Stafford is the highest-profile player with an injury, he will at least be in the lineup on Monday. Two other key members of the offense are expected to be sidelined again, and that could create much bigger problems.

The first injury is to Theo Riddick's wrist. While Caldwell won't give any injury updates, he didn't practice on Thursday and isn't expected to play in Dallas.

Detroit hasn't had much of a running game all season, ranking 29th in the league in yards on the ground, but losing Riddick adds to the problem. He leads the team with 357 yards rushing, and with Ameer Abdullah out since Week 2 with a broken foot, Riddick's absence leaves the running game in the hands of the inexperienced pair of Dwayne Washington and Zach Zenner.

Against the Giants, Washington gained just 31 yards on 14 carries, while Zenner lost a fumble at the goal line. If they can't take a big step forward against the Cowboys, and that's not likely against the league's best rush defense, it puts more pressure on Stafford to make plays with his injured hand.

The Cowboys don't have a spectacular pass defense, and Stafford should have his full complement of receivers - wideouts Marvin Jones, Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin along with tight end Eric Ebron. However, Riddick might be the NFL's best pass-catching back, with 53 receptions for 371 yards in 10 games.

''He's obviously one of our playmakers, because he can make guys miss as a runner or as a receiver,'' Stafford said. ''He's great in pass protection and he can do anything we need. He's just a good NFL running back.''

The Lions are also expected to be missing center Travis Swanson, who has missed the past two games with a concussion. Swanson had a poor season in 2015, his first as Detroit's starter, but has probably been the team's most-improved player this season. Not only has he solidified the center of the line, but he's gotten much more comfortable making blocking calls for the rest of the line.

Now that task falls onto rookie Graham Glasgow. Stafford was sacked three times on Dec. 11 against Chicago, and while he was only dropped once by the Giants, he was constantly having to make plays on the move.

If the Packers beat Minnesota on Saturday, the Lions will know that the New Year's Day home game against Green Bay will decide the NFC North title no matter what happens in Dallas. Caldwell, though, said he wouldn't use that opportunity to rest players.

''We're not going to worry about any of that,'' he said. ''We're going to try to win that game, so if players can play, they will play. If they can't, they won't be out there either way.''

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