8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Cowboys -4.5, Over/Under: 52.5
The penultimate weekend of the regular season brings us to Arlington tonight, as the Dallas Cowboys look to recapture their momentum after suffering back-to-back losses in this primetime showdown with the Detroit Lions, who are fresh off snapping a lengthy franchise drought with designs on a lengthy playoff run. My, oh my, what a season it has been for the Lions (11-4, 1st in NFC North), who last Sunday ended a 30-year wait by winning their first division title since 1993. Needless to say, it has been a LONG road for a franchise that had spent much of those three decades lost in the proverbial wilderness; Detroit was reasonably competitive through the rest of the 1990’s, advancing to the playoffs on four occasions, though they plummeted following the shocking retirement of (Hall of Fame Tailback) Barry Sanders, suffering TEN consecutive losing seasons, including the first winless campaign in NFL history (2008). From there, they experienced a short surge in the early 2010’s with three postseason appearances from 2011 to 2017, only to revert back to their old ways with three last place finishes in a row. Then came the hiring of (Head Coach) Dan Campbell and (General Manager) Brad Holmes, who in a span of three years have raised these cats from a group of young strays to division champions. So, how did they do it, you ask? Through a brilliant mix of drafting, developing, some inspired additions via trade and free agency, and lots of patience. This rebuild kicked off with the blockbuster trade of (longtime Quarterback) Matthew Stafford to the Rams for (former number one overall pick) Jared Goff, along with a pair of first-round picks. Campbell and Holmes would add (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Amon-Ra St. Brown in the fourth-round of the 2021 NFL Draft, while also retaining the services of (Tight Ends Coach) Ben Johnson, who would be promoted to Offensive Coordinator a year later. Though they finished 3-13-1, the foundation had been laid in the Motor City, which continued to develop throughout 2022 which saw Campbell & Co narrowly miss out on the playoffs at 9-8. This Fall, they continued to add pieces on both sides of the football, and the results have been stellar; the Lions’ explosive attack has become more balanced and efficient, ranking fifth in points (27.5) and third in total offense (406.7), including fifth in passing (265.6), third in rushing (141.1), seventh on third down (43.6%), and fifth in the red zone (64.3%). Goff (pictured below alongside Campbell) has continued to grow in this environment, completing 67.7% of his passes for 3,984 yards on 6.71 net yards per attempt, with twenty-seven touchdowns opposed to ten interceptions, teaming up with St. Brown, who appears well on his way to being selected to his second straight Pro-Bowl, hauling in 106 receptions for 1,281 yards and eight scores. Furthermore, the Backfield tandem of (veteran) David Montgomery (910 rushing yards) and (rookie) Jahmyr Gibbs (1,188 yards from scrimmage) has opened all kinds of avenues via play-action, while (rookie Tight-End) Sam LaPorta (776 yards and 9 touchdowns) has planted himself in the discussion for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Even the defense, which was a clear weakness last season, has shown improvement, ranking fifteenth in total yards allowed (325.5), though fourth against the run (90.6). When we last saw them, the Lions clinched their first NFC North crown in three decades with a 30-24 victory at the Vikings, which proved just how much they had matured under Campbell’s leadership. Against a resilient division rival that had been ravaged by injuries this Fall, previous incarnations of these felines would have found a way to leave their annual trip to Minneapolis with a loss. However, not this pride, who took control of this affair early, marching out to a 17-7 lead late in the first half. However, the hosts would add touchdowns on opposite ends of intermission, taking a 21-17 lead early in the third quarter. Undaunted, the visitors engineered consecutive touchdown drives of thirteen and fourteen plays, bleeding well over fourteen minutes of clock along the way to retake the lead, which they would not relinquish. In the end, the total yardage may have been equivalent (389-390), but make no mistake about it, Detroit dominated this contest, holding sizable advantages in many categories including first downs (28-19), rushing yards (143-17), and time of possession (38:22), while converting 6-of-12 third downs and each of their two attempts on fourth. Goff calmly completed 30-of-40 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown to St. Brown, who finished with twelve catches on fourteen targets for 106 yards, while Gibbs amassed 100 yards from scrimmage and two rushing touchdowns. However, credit to (Defensive Coordinator) Aaron Glenn and his unit for turning in arguably their finest performance of the season, with four takeaways, four sacks, eleven QB hits, and fourteen pressures. (Sophomore Defensive End) Aidan Hutchinson may not have gotten a sack, but he was wreaking havoc in in the Backfield all afternoon, with five pressures and four hits of Nick Mullins, who was intercepted FOUR times, twice by (fellow Sophomore) Kerby Joseph.
From a betting perspective, the Lions have been one of the most rewarding teams in the league this Fall, not only to their starved fan base but to those who have wagered on them, posting records of 11-4 straight-up and 10-5 against the spread. Basically, in regard to the latter, you would’ve doubled your money betting on these cats (+4.09 units). Detroit has been so consistent this season that they have failed to cover back-to-back games only once and have since beat the spread in three of their last four outings, including last weekend’s historic triumph in Minneapolis. With that being said, tonight’s trip to Arlington is notable for the fact that this is first time that Campbell’s troops have been an underdog since late October, when they were hammered on the road against Baltimore (6-38). This is a team that is 2-1 both straight-up and against the spread this season, with the fact that they have received points from the oddsmakers on just three occasions informing us all how much they have really improved. Furthermore, tonight’s number has been a sweet spot for the Lions, who have covered FOUR consecutive games an underdog of 3.5-10.0 points. Looking at this particular matchup, the series has been very one-sided of late, as Detroit has lost FIVE straight meetings with Dallas dating back to 2015, though have covered two of them, both of which came as dogs at AT&T Stadium. When they last crossed paths, a 6-24 defeat from last season, the visitors clung to a 6-3 lead heading into halftime as 6.5-point underdogs. However, the second half proved to be a VERY different story, as Goff & Co self-destructed with FIVE turnovers on their six possessions, while the hosts scored the final twenty-one points of the afternoon. Goff, who completed 21-of-26 passes was responsible for FOUR of those giveaways, including a pair of interceptions and fumbles apiece, while (former Tailback) Jamal Williams fumbled away the other one. The aforementioned Hutchinson was a consistent force in the trenches with 1.5 sacks, three pressures, a tackle for loss, while Joseph forced a fumble in the first half. Getting back to Goff for a moment, the veteran Quarterback has faced the Cowboys five times in his career (including playoffs) to lukewarm results; he is 3-2 with a completion percentage of 63.9% for 245.6 yards on 6.72 net yards per attempt, with as many touchdowns (4) as interceptions, while fumbling has been a major issue (4), losing two. On the injury front, the Lions will once again be without the services of (versatile Defensive Back) C.J. Gardner-Johnson (pectoral) and (Linebacker) James Houston (ankle), with both players occupying injured reserve for months now. (Veteran Guard) Halapoulivaati Vaitai joins them with an ailing back. (Veteran Cornerback) Cameron Sutton is listed as questionable due to turf toe after missing the week of practice. Looking ahead, Detroit will close out the regular season next weekend at home against Minnesota, who by that point may or may not have been eliminated from postseason contention, as they face off with Green Bay tomorrow night in Minneapolis. With that being said, the Lions still have an opportunity to capture the NFC’s top seed, for if they were to win out and the likes of the Niners and Eagles both lost a game, then road to Super Bowl LVIII would run through Ford Field.
Meanwhile, as their opponent revels in the elation of snapping a 30-year drought, the Cowboys (10-5, 2nd in NFC East) find themselves in an all-too familiar situation: losing back-to-back games against stiff competition in the month of December. Basically, this has been the pattern now for Dallas for nearly a decade: they catch fire during October and November, obliterating lesser opponents along the way, only to fade down the stretch as their postseason run comes to an abrupt end against a better team. What we’re trying to convey here is that (Head Coach) Mike McCarthy’s troops have developed a troubling habit of peaking in November and early December, which is NOT a suitable recipe for success for a franchise desperate to claim their first Lombardi Trophy in twenty-eight years. Therein lies the difference between these two franchises: while one celebrates their first division title since 1993, the other was busy WINNING the Super Bowl roughly a month later. So, what in the name of Emmitt Smith has happened in Big D, you ask? Well, after their bye week, the Cowboys went on a torrid 6-1 run in which they outscored the opposition by an average margin of 19.4 points, while churning out 425.7 total yards, including 308.0 through the air, and thanks in large part to a +4 turnover differential bolstered by NINE takeaways. However, those six wins came against the likes of the Rams, Giants, Panthers, Commanders, Seahawks, and Eagles, with only Philadelphia, who coincidentally handed them their lone defeat during this stretch, residing more than one game above .500. Furthermore, all but two of those outings were contested at AT&T Stadium, which has been nothing short of a fortress for its residents this Fall; the Cowboys are unbeaten in seven home games thus far, winning by an average margin of 24.4 points and enjoying a +10-turnover differential along the way. On the other hand, the road has been a different story, with McCarthy & Co posting a disappointing 3-5 mark and getting outscored by a total of six points. It certainly hasn’t helped that these losses have largely come against the better teams in the NFL, for apart from the lowly Cardinals and Chargers, the 49ers, Eagles, Bills, and Dolphins are all either leading their respective divisions or at least contending within them. This in turn, has only supported the narrative that these Cowboys are frontrunners who cannot run with the “big boys” on their own turf. You can imagine how this must be driving (longtime Owner) Jerry Jones mad. In these last two losses at the Bills (10-31) and Dolphins (20-22), the offense stalled in the wind and rain, while the defense was unable to produce the big plays that have become their calling card in recent years. Offensively, McCarthy’s charges could muster just 15.0 points on 267.0 total yards, with the run game all but disappearing (93.0 yards). (Defensive Coordinator) Dan Quinn watched his unit get plowed 26.5 points on 363.0 total yards, including a season-high 266 rushing yards against Buffalo and 284 passing yards versus Miami. Furthermore, they failed to log a single takeaway, which has often served as the barometer of their success; since Quinn was hired back in 2021, Dallas has forced more turnovers than any team in the league (88), producing a commanding 24-2 record when they win the turnover battle. These takeaways have taken on an even greater significance this Fall, as they returned SIX of their twenty-one to the house, accounting for just over 7% of their overall points scored. Coincidentally, (veteran Quarterback) Dak Prescott (pictured below), who had played at an MVP level during that aforementioned midseason stretch, was decisively less-efficient in completing 62.1% of his throws for an average of just 193.5 yards on a mere 5.25 net yards per attempt, with as many touchdowns (2) as turnovers. The Offensive Line struggled mightily to protect him in these affairs, shipping seven sacks, nineteen hits, and twenty-one pressures. Simply put, this is a long way from the guy who had been averaging 310.3 yards per game on 7.96 net yards per attempt, with TWENTY-TWO touchdowns in comparison to just three interceptions through the previous seven outings.
From a betting perspective, the Cowboys have also been a profitable play straight-up (10-5) and against the spread (9-6), though they may have lost some of that goodwill due to their performance in recent weeks. During their 5-game winning streak, Dallas covered the number four times with relative ease, making a habit of beating the spread by an average margin of 16.3 in those games. However, they have now failed to cover back-to-back contests for the first time in over two seasons, which has some wondering if McCarthy & Co are in line for yet another disappointing end come January. With that being said, this team has proven to be a VERY different team when playing at the friendly confines of AT&T Stadium; dating back to last Fall, Big D has won FIFTEEN consecutive games in Arlington (12-3 ATS), while covering four straight games at home versus opponents with winning records. Ironically, this larger streak of home dominance includes that aforementioned meeting between these teams. The hosts got off to a slow start in that one, folks, with just 132 total yards and a field goal in the first half. However, they would march eighty-two yards downfield into the end zone on their first drive post intermission, and score two more touchdowns to boot, while Quinn’s defense turned over the visitors on FIVE of their six possessions in the second half. When it was all said and done, the home side amassed 330 total yards on twenty-one first downs, including 139 via the run, while Prescott completed 19-of-25 passes for 207 yards and a short touchdown to (young Tight End) Peyton Hendershot. (Veteran Tailback) Tony Pollard piled up 109 yards from scrimmage on fourteen touches, while (former Tailback) Ezekiel Elliott breached the end zone twice. Defensively, (All-Pro Edge-Rusher) Micah Parsons and (young Defensive End) Sam Williams each had a pair of sacks, while (Cornerbacks) Trevon Diggs and Jourdan Lewis both logged an interception. That victory marked their fifth in a row over the Lions, with Prescott enjoying these encounters, with four victories, a completion percentage of 67.8%, 279.5 yards per game on a healthy 8.97 net yards per attempt, NINE touchdowns and ZERO interceptions. On the injury front, (Backup Tailback) Rico Dowdle (ankle) and (veteran Defensive Tackle) Jonathan Hankins (knee) will miss their second consecutive game with respective injuries, while (longtime Left Tackle) Tyron Smith (back) was limited throughout the week of practice and is thus listed as questionable to participate in tonight’s affair. Looking ahead, the Cowboys still technically have a very outside shot of capturing the NFC’s number one overall seed, but that would require them to not only win out, but also see both the 49ers and Eagles lose each of their final two outings, which appears highly unlikely at this point. Dallas will close out the regular season next weekend in Landover against the struggling Commanders, with their fate in all likelihood lying on the road as the first Wild Card in the NFC, which means that they will be pitted whoever wins the South.