The Cowboys and Lions meet each other in Dallas for a wild card showdown, and you couldn't ask for a better first-round playoff matchup. It's the No. 7 offense vs. No. 2 defense, DeMarco Murray vs. the league's best run D, Dez Bryant vs. Calvin Johnson and, fair or not, Tony Romo vs. the expectations of postseason failure.
The Cowboys, who defied their recent December struggles by wrapping up the NFC East two weeks ago, are back in the postseason for the first time since 2009. Their super-charged offense, which is averaging 29.2 points per outing, is rightfully getting a ton of attention, but it's what Dallas has done on the defensive side that's really made the difference. Coming into the season, a group decimated by injuries and suspensions was being talked about as possibly the worst defense in league history. Instead, they rank 19th in both points and yards allowed -- far from elite, but much better than anticipated.
The Lions defense is most definitely elite. They're giving up just 300 yards and 17.6 points per game, behind only the Seahawks in both categories. It all starts with a ferocious front seven that has stonewalled rushing attacks and piled up 45 sacks. But the Lions also have the offensive weapons to play in a shootout if it comes to that. After injury issues limited him for much of the season, a healthy Johnson piled up 499 yards and five touchdowns over the final five regular season games. Add in Golden Tate and Matthew Stafford has one of the best receiving duos in the league.
Let's take a look at three keys heading into the game.
1. Momentum is on the Cowboys' side
Contrary to the notion proliferated by the Giants' last two Super Bowl runs, getting hot at the end of the regular season isn't necessarily a recipe for playoff success. The Seahawks lost two of their last four games heading into the postseason last year and the Ravens rode a 1-4 skid into the 2012 playoffs. Both of those teams went on to win the world title.
Nevertheless, it can't hurt Dallas that the team is riding a four-game winning streak into the first round. The Cowboys haven't just been sneaking by teams either -- those four victories came by an average margin of 21.5 points, including a 42-7 dismantling of AFC South champs Indianapolis in Week 16.
Detroit had been on a four-game hot streak itself before being humbled in a Week 17 trip to Lambeau Field that cost it the NFC North. The Lions' defense got picked apart by a hobbled Aaron Rodgers and a garbage time Detroit touchdown made the 30-20 final closer than it really was.
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2. Ndamukong Suh vs. the Dallas O-line
It briefly looked as though Suh wasn't even going to play in this game. The league slapped him with a one-game suspension for stepping on Rodgers' leg last week, but the Lions' star defensive tackle won his appeal and has been reinstated.
Regardless of Suh's intentions on that play, his reinstatement gives us a great matchup to watch in the trenches. Suh, who is fourth in the league in defensive run stops, will be going head-to-head with a pair of Cowboys Pro Bowlers in center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin, who both graded out as top seven at their respective positions by Pro Football Focus.
Murray led the league in rushing, averaging 115 yards per game. The Lions finished first in run D, allowing just 69 yards per contest. It's strength-on-strenghth and the battle between Suh and the Cowboys' interior linemen may decide who comes out on top.
3. Can Tony Romo deliver in the playoffs?
Football is an infinitely complicated game, but most sports media and fans prefer to boil it down into snappy, simplified talking points. That's why we have to discuss Romo's 1-3 playoff record.
The notion that a quarterback has a win-loss record is absurd, suggesting that he's playing the game by himself and not completely dependent on the success of his teammates. But that hasn't kept folks from labeling Romo a choke artist.
Unfairly cast as the King of Choke for years, Romo finally climbed out from under that mantle by putting together a masterful December to lead his team into the playoffs. But the Romo haters and Cowboys bashers will be bounding back into the open if Dallas loses in the first round.