Update: Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh won his appeal of his one-game suspension on Tuesday afternoon, and will be eligible to play against the Cowboys on Sunday.
The Dallas Cowboys (12-4) and Detroit Lions (11-5) haven’t had much playoff success in the last two decades, combining for just one postseason win since 1997. One of the two teams will advance to the divisional round, following their head-to-head matchup on Wild Card Weekend 2015.
The Cowboys are one of the hottest teams in football, following the end of the 2014 regular season. They’ve won four consecutive games, outscoring their opponents by an average of 21.5 points per contest.
Before suffering a loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 17, Detroit had been on a four-game winning streak of their own. The Lions will try to win on the road, where they weren’t nearly as good in 2014, going 4-4. The Cowboys became just the eighth NFL team to go undefeated on the road in the regular season, but they had a .500 record at home.
Detroit doesn’t have much playoff experience, losing on Wild Card Weekend in the 2011 season, which had been their first postseason appearance in 12 years. Not only will Matthew Stafford be looking for his first ever postseason win, but he’s also looking to beat a winning team on the road for the first time in his career.
Stafford is 0-17 when visiting an opponent that is above .500. With Stafford at the helm this season, the Lions suffered losses at Carolina, Arizona, New England and Green Bay. The quarterback finished the regular season with much better numbers in Detroit, where he completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 97.7 passer rating. In eight road games, Stafford’s passer rating dipped to 74.9, having completed just 54.1 percent of his passes for nine scores and six interceptions.
The betting odds at Las Vegas casinos indicate that Sunday’s game will produce a similar result for the Lions, with the Cowboys being named seven-point favorites. Detroit’s four road losses came by an average of 15 points per game in the regular season. The over/under is 48.5 points.
The way the Lions have played in 2014, they might not need Stafford to have a big game, in order to pull off the upset. Detroit has been led by a top defense that ranks second in average yards allowed (300.9) and tied for second in scoring average (17.6). Prior to their loss in the regular season finale, the Lions had held four straight opponents to 17 points or fewer.
Detroit’s strength has been their ability to stop the run, ranking first in run defense, surrendering just 69.3 yards on the ground per game. If the Lions can contain DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher by 486 yards, their chances of winning will increase exponentially. Dallas is 12-0 when Murray rushes for at least 100 yards, and 2-2 when the running back is held below the century mark.
One of Detroit’s best run stoppers could be forced to miss the game. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh is appealing his one-game suspension for stepping on Aaron Rodgers’s leg in Week 17. Suh has helped make up for the absence of Nick Fairley, who is expected to miss a ninth straight game with a knee injury. Suh had 8.5 sacks and 53 combined tackles in the regular season. Head coach Jim Caldwell said it would be "a miracle" if Fairley returns this weekend.
Tony Romo, who like Stafford has dealt with questions about his ability to win important games, would also benefit from Suh being on the sidelines. The veteran had an MVP-caliber season, leading all quarterbacks in passer rating (113.2) and completion percentage (69.9), while ranking fourth in touchdowns (34).
The Cowboys’ defense had its ups and downs, ranking 15th in scoring defense (22.0). It’s been their offense that led them to an NFC East title, ranking fifth in points per game (29.2), and scoring at least 31 points in six of their last seven games.
Prediction: Dallas over Detroit, 27-21