The Detroit Lions ended a two-year playoff drought by posting an 11-5 win-loss record during the 2014 NFL season. By doing so, they were able to lock up the sixth seed in the NFC and a Wild Card Game showdown on the road against the third-seeded Dallas Cowboys.
Jim Caldwell's first year as Detroit Lions head coach has been a success. The bigger question is this: Do the Lions have what it takes to advance to Super Bowl XLIX?
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The Lions have long shaken the stigma of their 0-16 debacle in 2008. Under former head coach Jim Schwartz, Detroit made the postseason in 2011 only to lose, 45-28, to the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card round. After two consecutive seasons where the Lions managed just a combined 11 wins, they have clawed their way back to respectability behind quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver par excellence Calvin Johnson.
Mike O'Hara of DetroitLions.com stresses the team was able to get contributions during the 2014 NFL season from just about everybody: Stafford, Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, Glover Quin, Golden Tate, Joique Bell, Ahlee Palmer, Ziggy Ansah, Corey Fuller, Theo Riddick, George Winn and Cassius Vaughn, just to name a few.
Caldwell weighed in on this in his Dec. 29 interview with O'Hara:
"I don't think we're at this point if we don't have the guys that contributed for us. We've had a number of guys, when you think about it, in subordinate roles initially that ended up being starters for us or contributed a great amount, whether it's on special teams or scout teams or our look teams.
"All of that is extremely important. What we try to do is try to make certain we press the point that there is a role for everybody on this team."
In order for the Lions to get to the next level, they have to plug some holes in their offense, which has been inconsistent since Week 2. The Detroit News' Josh Katzenstein says the team "suffers from a similar selective accountability problem" under Caldwell as it did with Schwartz.
Detroit finished just 22nd in the NFL with a 20.1 points-per-game average, according to ESPN stats.
Unless this issue is rectified, the Lions will be hard pressed to win just their second postseason road game against the Dallas Cowboys since 1957, per Katzenstein.
One factor behind the Lions' lack of firepower on offense has been the play of Stafford, who hasn't had his greatest statistical season to date. Katzenstein points out Stafford finished just 25th in completion percentage (60.3), 19th in yards per pass attempt (7.07) and just 21st in passer rating (85.7). He also threw for 12 interceptions.
The saving grace for Detroit has been its second-ranked defense -- only the defending Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks (4,274 yards allowed) topped the Lions' 4,815 yards allowed during the 2014 NFL season.
For the Lions to advance to the NFC divisional round, they have to contain the Cowboys' Big 3: quarterback Tony Romo, wide receiver Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray. Bryant, in particular, has been on a tear. According to ESPN Dallas' Jean-Jacques Taylor, Bryant, who set the Cowboys' franchise record for receiving touchdowns during the 2014 season with 16, has caught for 685 yards and 10 touchdowns on 38 receptions in Dallas' last seven games.
On the other hand, ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer says the Cowboys are still not leaving anything to chance in spite of Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's suspension. The NFL suspended Suh for the Wild Card game against the Cowboys on Jan. 4 for stepping on the leg of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in Week 17.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett gave props to Suh and the Lions' defensive line, per Archer:
"We've played against him and the defensive front of the Lions before. They're very challenging. They've got a lot of first-round picks, a lot of talented guys on that front, so excited to get into the film and start our preparation against them. He's obviously been one of the better players at his position since he's been in the league."
The Lions' defensive line needs to get past the Cowboys' solid offensive line which boasts of three Pro Bowlers in Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Tyron Smith. This is the same O-line which allowed Murray to gash opposing defenses all season long for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns, per DetroitLions.com's Tim Twentyman.
For his part, Suh returned the compliment to Dallas' vaunted offensive line when he spoke with Twentyman on Dec. 31. He said,"I think they have some great individual talent, but as an offensive line as a whole group of guys, how I look at it is they really work well together."
This is what this Wild Card matchup all boils down to: Offense (Cowboys) vs. defense (Lions). Something's got to give.
In the end, as solid as the Lions are, their issues on the offensive end will eventually come back to haunt them. This is no knock on Dallas' defense, but Stafford has yet to prove he's a game-changer in the postseason. His counterpart, Tony Romo (3,705 passing yards, 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions), is a legit MVP candidate.
Granted, Romo has yet to be a difference-maker in the postseason as well. But at 34 years old, he's peaking at just the right time. Bryant, Murray and the Dallas O-line are at the op of their game, too. That being said, there's no better time than now for the Cowboys to win their first Super Bowl title since 1995.
Prediction: Cowboys 38, Lions 17
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