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Monday Night Football Preview: An NFC Showdown in Dallas

With Green Bay surging, the Detroit Lions take on the Dallas Cowboys in a game carrying critical playoff implications.

Two of the best teams in the NFC square off on Monday Night Football, as the Dallas Cowboys host the Detroit Lions.

In a battle of division leaders, this game carries with it a multitude of playoff implications, particularly for the Lions. Detroit clinches a playoff spot with a win, but a loss loss to the Cowboys and another loss to the Green Bay Packers in Week 17 could mean they'd miss the playoffs completely.

Don't fret just yet, Lions fans. The algorithms here at numberFire give the Lions a 66.3% chance of making the playoffs.

Meanwhile, this game isn't as critical for the Cowboys, who have already clinched the top overall seed in the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs thanks to the Philadelphia Eagles' win over the New York Giants on Thursday night.

With kickoff approaching, here are four storylines to watch for on Monday Night Football.

Will the Cowboys Rest Anyone?

With the top NFC seed already locked up, the Cowboys could be tempting fate by giving Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott a full complement of snaps. These concerns are further brought to light by the serious leg injuries suffered by Derek Carr and Marcus Mariota on Saturday.

But those who follow the Cowboys don't see Jason Garrett pulling back the reins heading into Week 16.

Just two years ago, the Cowboys were in a similar situation entering the final week of the season. Garrett went on to play his starters for much of their Week 17 matchup, even giving DeMarco Murray, who had a broken bone in his hand, 23 touches.

While comments from Jerry Jones should be taken with a grain of salt, even he has said the Cowboys don't plan on resting their starters over the next two games.

While Week 17 may be a different story, look for players such as Prescott and Elliott to play most of the game on Monday night.

Dak Prescott Continues to Impress

While the discussion surrounding Prescott has largely switched to whether he should sit the final two games as a precaution, you're sure to run into those who still believe Tony Romo is a better starting option heading into the playoffs.

And this is where we should discuss Romo getting the nod over Prescott for the rest of the season, right?

No. That absurd idea has already been debunked by our own Brandon Gdula.

After Prescott struggled on the road against two tough defenses in the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants, he rebounded handsomely against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, completing 32 of 36 passes for 279 yards. While he didn't throw a touchdown, the signal-caller did run for one as he led the Cowboys to a 26-20 victory.

We can get a better look at Prescott's impressive season by using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP ) metric. NEP measures how many points a player is expected to add to his team's total based upon historical expectation.

Prescott's 0.27 NEP per pass ranks third among 38 quarterbacks to throw at least 100 passes, tied with Kirk Cousins and trailing only Matt Ryan (0.36) and Tom Brady (0.33).

This week, Prescott has a plus matchup against a Lions pass defense that ranks 30th, according to numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics.

Is Matthew Stafford's Finger Injury an Issue?

Since injuring the middle finger on his throwing hand against the Chicago Bears two weeks ago, Matthew Stafford has looked no worse for the wear in a season shaping up to be one of his best yet.

After injuring his finger early in the Bears game, Stafford wore a glove and went on to throw for 223 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions in a 20-17 win. Stafford wore a specialized glove against the Giants and finished with 273 scoreless yards and 1 interception in a 17-6 loss.

This week, Stafford has been practicing in full, although he may face the Cowboys with a new glove.

While his raw statistics won't be career highs, Stafford is arguable in the midst of his best season as a pro.

Through NEP, we can compare Stafford's efficiency from year to year. Through 14 games, Stafford's 0.19 NEP per pass is a career best, and it also ranks 9th among the 38 quarterbacks to throw at least 100 passes.

Additionally, his 101.13 Passing NEP is the highest total he's posted since 2011 (126.47) when he threw for more than 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns.

Detroit's signal-caller has a chance to build upon his stellar season against Dallas' 22nd-ranked pass defense, according to numberFire metrics.

Where Is Detroit's Running Game?

The Lions average only 81.7 rushing yards per game, which is third-worst in the league, but they have dealt with a number of injuries in the backfield. That starts with Ameer Abdullah going down in Week 2 with a torn ligament in his foot. Abdullah hasn't played since.

Theo Riddick took over as the lead back and has been an effective weapon out of the backfield, scoring five touchdowns as a receiver despite missing four games this year. Riddick is expected to miss this matchup against the Cowboys, as he is listed as doubtful on the injury report with a wrist injury.

His absence leaves Dwayne Washington and Zach Zenner to handle the backfield duties. With Riddick sidelined the past two weeks, neither Washington nor Zenner have been particularly impressive.

Player Carries Yards Yards per carry Receptions Yards Touchdowns
Dwayne Washington 30 95 3.2 3 19 0
Zach Zenner 10 48 4.8 6 61 0

These two rushers square off against the Cowboys' fifth-ranked run defense, according to numberFire metrics. Dallas is actually allowing the fewest rushing yards per game (80.9), but they're also facing the fewest attempts per game (20.7).

Teams haven't put much pressure on the Cowboys via the ground game this year and it's not likely that the Lions do that, either.

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