Lions vs. Cowboys preview: Stop the rookie stars
James Hawkins of The Detroit News breaks down Monday’s Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys game at AT&T Stadium (8:30 p.m., Channel 7, ESPN).
COWBOYS TO WATCH
Ezekiel Elliott, RB: A legitimate MVP candidate, the electric rookie out of Ohio State is having a year for the ages. Behind a dominant offensive line, Elliott leads the league with 1,551 rushing yards and 13 runs of 20-plus yards. He’s also tied for third in rushing TDs (13), averaging five yards per carry and is one of two players (Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell is the other) averaging more than 100 yards rushing per game.
Dak Prescott, QB: Along with Elliott, the rookie out of Mississippi State spearheads a unit that ranks in the top six in points (26.1) and total offense (389.8 yards). While Prescott is in the middle of the pack in passing yards (3,418), he has been flat-out efficient. He’s third in the league in passer rating (103.2), fourth in completion percentage (67.7 percent), and has thrown 20 TDs to four INTs.
Sean Lee, LB: The seventh-year veteran has been a mainstay and a menace in the middle of the defense. Lee ranks second in the league with 140 tackles and has recorded double-digit tackles in three of the past four games. He also has 12 tackles for loss, two QB hits, a pass defensed and a fumble recovery.
All the marbles: Despite the slip up against the Giants last week, the Lions still hold a one-game lead in the NFC North over the surging Packers, who have won five straight. Detroit will have a chance to clinch its first division crown in 23 years in a winner-take-all matchup against Green Bay in the regular-season finale at Ford Field.
Win and in: After holding the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye a week ago, Detroit fell to the No. 4 seed in a packed postseason race. However, following the Buccaneers’ loss to the Saints on Saturday, the Lions can lock up a wild-card spot and secure their third trip to the playoffs in six seasons with a win over the Cowboys.
Searching for answers: The Lions failed to score an offensive TD for the first time since Week 4 and a TD in a game since 2014. Granted, QB Matthew Stafford was dealing with an injured finger, starting RB Theo Riddick was sidelined and the play calling left much to be desired, but nothing seemed to work on offense. It will need to quickly get back on track if the Lions are to have any chance to keep up with the Cowboys.
All about the run: Since RB Ameer Abdullah went down in Week 2, the Lions have struggled all season to effectively run the ball and will face their biggest challenge yet against the Cowboys’ top-ranked run defense (80.9 yards). Meanwhile, the key for Detroit’s defense will be slowing down Dallas’ No. 2-ranked rushing attack (154.5 yards).
Where’s the push? Generating a pass rush and turning up the heat on QB Dak Prescott will be critical. The Lions’ defense has failed to put opposing QBs in uncomfortable situations on consistent basis, allowing the highest completion percentage (72.8 percent) and passer rating (102.1).
FACTS AND FIGURES
* The Cowboys are the first team to have a rookie QB (Dak Prescott) and rookie RB (Ezekiel Elliott) make the Pro Bowl in the same year since the 1970 merger.
* Since Week 7, the Lions have allowed 16.5 points per game, the second lowest total in the league over the past eight weeks.
* The Cowboys have won six straight at home and scored at least 26 points during the span. The Lions have scored more than 26 three times on the road.
* Matt Prater has made 19 straight FGs and is 30-for-33 on the year. He joins Jason Hanson (34 in 1993, 32 in 2012) as the only kickers in franchise history to make at least 30 FGs in a season.
* A’Shawn Robinson is the first rookie DT to record at least seven passes defensed in a season. He’s also the second Lions defensive lineman to do so, joining DE Robert Porcher (eight in 1994 and 2002).
* Per makenflplayoffs.com, the Lions have an 87.6 percent chance to make the playoffs and 50 percent chance to win the division.