IRVING, Texas – When the Detroit Lions are mentioned around Valley Ranch, the heartbreaking loss in 2013 is the first thing that springs to mind. Considering Calvin Johnson torched the Cowboys and Matthew Stafford scored the game-winning touchdown, that's where we have to start.
There are other aspects of this matchup that have to be considered as well, though.
Weapon: Calvin Johnson, WR
When fans get together and the discussion turns to the top five players in the NFL, regardless of position, Calvin Johnson is usually one of the first names mentioned.
What I see in Johnson are those similar types of qualities and traits that we saw earlier in the season when the Cowboys faced J.J. Watt. Both are capable of flipping a game in their club's direction on a single play, and that's what makes them so difficult to face.
As impressive as Johnson is physically on tape, he is even moreso when you see him on the field in person. If there is an advantage for these Cowboys corners, it is that they have faced Johnson before and have an idea of what they are going to have to deal with. In watching him play against Green Bay last week, I felt like Sam Shields did an outstanding job of being physical with him at the line of scrimmage. Shields never allowed Johnson to get a run on him to build up speed. He made Johnson have to start, stop then start again -- which threw him off. Johnson was targeted 11 times in the game but only managed four receptions. The touchdown reception he had before half was for 20 yards, but they gave him free access in the route up the field.
Johnson is a weapon for the Lions -- not because of his speed or quickness, but how he uses his body when he runs these routes. These corners have to be ready to fight that.
Nemesis: Matthew Stafford, QB
Matthew Stafford has faced the Dallas Cowboys twice during his NFL career with both of those games resulting in victories for the Lions. What is interesting is when you go back and study those victories, how vastly different his play was from one to the other.
In that first meeting, Stafford struggled with his accuracy for three quarters of the game before putting it together in the fourth and sealing the victory with two clutch touchdown passes. In 2013, he was on fire from the opening snap and the Cowboys defense had no answer for his passing and Calvin Johnson. Stafford finished the game by throwing for 488 yards, which was only behind his career-best effort of 520 yards against the Packers to end the 2012 season.
If it wasn't enough for opposing defenses to have to deal with Johnson, the front office went out and secured the talented Golden Tate from the Seahawks to play on the other side, and no one has benefited from this more than Stafford. During the season Tate had 99 receptions to lead the team, which took a ton of pressure off Johnson but also gave Stafford a reliable play maker to go to in any down and distance situation.
Tate is a different dynamic that this Lions offense didn't have the last time that these two teams met, and where this Cowboys defense has to be careful is trying so hard to take Johnson out of the game and letting Stafford and Tate go to work in this game.
Under Radar: Andre Fluellen, DT
On a team that has several outstanding defensive linemen, if there was a guy that really jumped out last week against the Packers and could play a key role on Sunday, it would be Andre Fluellen.
With all the talk of Ndamukong Suh and his possible suspension, Fluellen was going to be that player that filled his spot. Now with the league overturning that ruling, Suh is back in the starting lineup -- which means Fluellen will be coming off the bench.
What I especially like about his game is how quick that he is off the ball. The Packers offensively had a hard time, when he came into the game, containing his ability to get up the field. When you watch him play, he is very similar to how Terrell McClain plays for the Cowboys. Like McClain, Fluellen can line up at a couple of different spots along the defensive line. He has seen time as the under-tackle but is also capable of playing the nose with equal skill. He does a really nice job of playing on his feet and staying active.
The motor and effort is always running. As quick as he is off the ball, if he does get in trouble it is trying to redirect back to the ball when he gets up the field. Both Ronald Leary and Zack Martin need to be ready with on his first move and be in position to handle that.