FRISCO, Texas – Here's a look at what I think are the two biggest factors in determining a winner Monday night when Dallas and Detroit face off:
Dallas Cowboys Win If:
One of the strengths of this Cowboys defense has been their ability to tackle. Where they have been especially good is dealing with receivers on the run after catch. The one bad moment was in the Giants game, when Barry Church took a bad angle and missed Odell Beckham Jr. for what turned out to be the game-winning points.
The Lions struggle to run the ball with any consistency, so that means the majority of their offense comes on the arm of Matthew Stafford. Where they hurt their opponents is with a ball control offense. They're just behind the Cowboys when it comes to five-minute drives and 10-play drives. The Lions might be behind them in those two areas, but where they're better than the Cowboys is in the length of their scoring drives. Their 9.33 plays per drive is better than a full play per league average.
For the Lions offensively, it's a different offense without Calvin Johnson in the lineup and defensively the Cowboys have to be ready for that. They're going to get a ton of crossing routes with Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin. If the ball is going up the field it's going to be with Marvin Jones and Eric Ebron for first downs.
Where the Dallas defense has improved in the previous two weeks has been in their three-and-out stops. At one time they were right at 14 percent, which was near the bottom of the league -- but have since improved to 19 percent, which is good enough for 23rd. For Dallas to win this game it is going to come down to how well they tackle these receivers and find ways to get off the field.
Detroit Lions Win If:
The problem for the Lions defensively is that they really don't have anything they can hang their hats on.
They have been good in the last eight games at limiting opponents' plays of 20-plus yards (27 plays), which places them No. 10 in the league. But the Lions are poor in third-down defense -- especially in medium distances of 4-to-6 yards. Opponents have had success converting these 64 percent of the time. This is tied into their inability to affect
quarterbacks when passing. Opposing passers have a rating of 102.1, which ranks Detroit 31st in the league.
What has hurt the Lions is that their best defensive player – Ziggy Ansah -- has had a poor season rushing the passer. Generally, by this time of the season, Ansah has had double digit sacks and is in the conversation for league Defensive MVP. But Ansah has struggled this year with the one-on-one battles he has traditionally won.
Things will not be any easier for Ansah in this matchup with Tyron Smith. Despite being injured the majority of the season, Smith has been outstanding. He has faced his share of quality pass rushers and he has been up to the task each and every time. For the Lions to win this game they are going to have to be better on first-down defending the run, thus putting Dak Prescott in some long yardage situations and come after him with Ansah, Devin Taylor and Kerry Hyder.
When Prescott has been at his worst is when he is affected in the pocket with edge rushers mainly from his blind side. If they are able to get home with their pass rush they've got a great shot of getting the victory.
Some of our favorite shots from practice at Ford Center at The Star on Friday, December 23.