As great as it is that the Dallas Cowboys are in 1st place in the NFC East, the four wins they've accumulated so far in the 2013 season leave much to be desired, as they've yet to defeat a team with a winning record. Dallas hopes to end that trend this Sunday, when they head to Ford Field to take on the 4-3 Detroit Lions (1:00 EST, FOX).
While it may too early to think of the playoffs, if the season ended last week, the Lions would snag the final playoff spot in the NFC. They missed a huge opportunity to take over first place in the NFC North last week, as they fell to the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-24. Despite the loss, QB Matthew Stafford (28-51, 357 yards, 3 TD's) was able to hook up with WR Calvin Johnson (9 receptions, 155 yards, 2 TD's) for several highlight reel worthy catches, at the duo led the Lions back from a 21-10 2nd half deficit to tie the game. However, Mike Nugent's game winning 54 yard field goal gave the Bengals a win that moved them into a tie for 2nd place in the AFC with Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys picked up what was probably their biggest win of the season in Philadelphia last week. After a rough couple of weeks, the Dallas defense stepped it up in a big way at Lincoln Financial Field last week in a 17-3 victory. The Eagles accumulated just 278 yards, and most of those came late in the 2nd half when Dallas had the game in hand. The Eagles went just 4-18 on 3rd down, and were forced into three turnovers. The win gave the Cowboys sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
Dallas's offense did not have an awful game in Philadelphia, picking up 368 yards and 17 points in the win, but it's never a good sign when your punter is on the field nine times, as Chris Jones was last week. With the combination of Tony Romo (28-47, 317 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT last week) and Dez Bryant (8 receptions 110 yards) going up against Stafford and Johnson, this game has the potential to be on offensive shootout. Combine that with the fact that Dallas's defense ranks 29th while Detroit's ranks 31st, and we could see a team score 30 plus and still lose.
Obviously, all eyes will be on the Bryant vs Johnson matchup. Both are two young talented receivers who can change the course of the game with one reception. With the two engaged in a small war of words this week, it's going to be an interesting game to see which receiver will step it up. The Cowboys faced some offensive weapons last week in Philadelphia, and held them in all in check. LeSean McCoy entered the game leading the league in rushing, but picked up only 55 yards on 18 carries. Likewise, WR DeSean Jackson was held to 3 receptions for a season-low 21 yards. Perhaps the biggest difference, though is that unlike Philadelphia's God-forsaken quarterback situation (Nick Foles and Matt Barkley combined to go 22-49, 194 yards, 3 INT's), Detroit has the talented Stafford under center. So far this season, Stafford has completed 61.4% of his throws (of which there are many as his 290 attempts lead the league) has thrown for 2,129 yards, and 15 touchdowns, all of which are on pace to best his totals from last year.
Returning to the Bryant vs Johnson factor, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that Dallas and Detroit will use their respective secondaries to double team the two superstars. This means that somebody or somebodies are going to have to step it up. Despite DeMarco Murray scheduled to return from a knee injury, I'd rather take Detroit's healthy duo of Reggie Bush (426 yards) and Joique Bell (204 yards) than a returning Murray who may not be 100 percent upon his return.
Dallas, however, owns a huge advantage in their other receivers. The Lions will still be missing WR Nate Burleson, and TE Brandon Pettigrew has only 194 yards on the year. Other than Johnson, Detroit's top receivers are Bush and Bell, followed by WR Kris Durham (21 receptions, 256 yards, 1 TD). I'm not saying these guys aren't talented players, I just trust Dallas's more experienced corps in this situation. WR Miles Austin may still be recovering from another injury (he had no catches last week) but TE Jason Witten remains dependable. In addition, youngsters like rookie Terrence Williams and sophomore Cole Beasley continue to mature every week. Williams scored a touchdown for the 3rd consecutive game, and Beasley has become one of Romo's most trusted targets.
The last time Dallas faced Detroit, the Cowboys suffered heartbreak as they blew a 27-3 lead en route to a 34-30 loss in 2011. However, I think this is a different Dallas team. Romo showed last week he can use the conservative approach to his advantage (let's face it, those two interceptions last week weren't his fault), and that only works in Dallas's favor. If the Cowboys can neutralize Megatron, Stafford will panic, and that will lead to turnovers. Don't expect the Cowboys to hold the Lions to three points like they did last week against the Eagles…but don't expect the offense to take it easy on Detroit's dilapidated defense either.
Prediction: Cowboys 38, Lions 30