The night began with everyone wondering if the Cowboys were taking too big a risk playing their starters.
It ended with the home crowd chanting for a Tony Romo mop-up appearance and everyone from Lions beat writers to ESPN color commentator Jon Gruden recommending that Detroit pull QB Matthew Stafford, lest he take any more punishment in a blowout loss.
The Cowboys promised they would not let up Monday, despite having the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed sealed. And even while limiting the workload for superstar RB Ezekiel Elliott (a season-low 12 carries), they held mostly true to their word. Tied 21-21 at halftime with a Detroit team in need of a win to clinch a playoff spot, Dallas steamrolled through the final 30 minutes with as complete a showing as it’s had all year.
The result: A 42-21 Cowboys win that made clear, yet again, how lethal their attack can be now that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan isn’t afraid to turn Dak Prescott loose. The rookie QB picked apart a depleted Detroit secondary for 212 yards and three touchdowns, two pretty connections with Dez Bryant and an absolute dime to Brice Butler early.
Bryant also threw a touchdown pass, believe it or not—the first of his career. With the Cowboys up 28-21 and taking total command, Linehan dialed up a trick play, with Bryant taking a reverse flip from Prescott and then lobbing one to TE Jason Witten for the score.
The Lions’ defense, noticeably overmatched due to the absence of starting CB Darius Slay, had no answers. None.
And aside from the Giants, no defense has yet figured out how to stop Dallas. The offensive line was its usual, dominant self Monday, a fact most evident on a brilliant 55-yard cutback touchdown run by Ezekiel Elliott. With that front protecting him, Prescott was free to pick out his targets, which he picked up with a 75% completion rate (15 of 20).
“I thought we did a good job maintaining our balance there on offense,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. “For us, it starts with controlling the line of scrimmage and running the football, everything we got off that. ... We didn’t throw the ball much in the game, but we were productive throwing it.”
For awhile, the Lions managed to keep pace. Paced by the surprise emergence of RB Zach Zenner (two TDs) and a hot start from Stafford, Detroit answered each blow in the first half, only for Stafford to throw a boneheaded interception on a 2nd-and-31 to open the third quarter.
One mistake. That’s all it took to swing the game in Dallas’ direction for good. Elliott scored on the ensuing possession after Stafford’s miscue, then the Cowboys also found pay dirt on their next two drives as their defensive front began pummeling Stafford.
Dallas can spend the next few days contemplating just how much work its first-teamers need in the season finale at Philadelphia. Detroit’s situation is far more dire.
The Lions, off back-to-back losses to the Giants and Cowboys, will play for the NFC North title next Sunday night vs. the surging Packers. Lose there and their once-promising season could be over, unless the Giants (with nothing to play for) can knock off the Redskins to hand Detroit a wild-card spot.
“Guys are hurting right now, that’s how it is when you lose a game,” said Detroit coach Jim Caldwell. “But I think our guys are resilient, it’s a tough-minded group. They’ll be fine.”
We’ll see. Suffice it to say, the Lions’ defense will have little chance of slowing down Aaron Rodgers if it is not better than it was Monday. If their loss to the Cowboys was any indication, then getting Slay, who is fighting a hamstring injury, back on the field may be their only hope. Against the Cowboys, the Lions failed to generate a consistent rush and were vulnerable to big plays downfield through the air.
Rodgers will carve them up if those developments hold true in Week 17, especially if Ty Montgomery can provide anything close to what Elliott and Darren McFadden gave the Cowboys.
The Lions had to feel good about where they were halfway through Monday night’s contest, having battled the NFC’s top team to a deadlock. Stafford was dealing, too, complete with one of his signature sidearm darts, to Eric Ebron.
Then, it all unraveled. The Lions were unable to keep pressure off Stafford, be it from Benson Mayowa outside, Maliek Collins inside or David Irving from ... well, seemingly everywhere. Stafford never clicked back into a comfort zone after his interception, and Zenner’s playing time dropped after LB Sean Lee ran through him to disrupt a Stafford pass.
It will be a frustrating loss for the Lions, because they all are this year. But it is not necessarily a bad one. At least the second half simply looked like the best team in the NFC piling it on a borderline playoff contender.
The Cowboys deserve to be atop the conference. The Lions showed why they are still fighting for their playoff lives.