Lions vs. Cowboys Wild Card Preview: The End of a Drought
January 5th, 1992. That was the last time the Detroit Lions won in the postseason. Barry Sanders was just a third-year running back, and Erik Kramer, in the game, threw three touchdown passes, two to Willie Green and one to Herman Moore.
Their opponent on that day was the Dallas Cowboys.
Since losing to Kramer and company, the Cowboys have won three Super Bowls. But since 1995, Dallas hasn't made a meaningful playoff run.
You could say the Cowboys and Lions are looking to end a pair of long droughts. For Detroit, it's winning a playoff game -- though the Super Bowl is clearly the end goal, getting to the Divisional Round would be huge for the franchise. For Dallas, a victory on Sunday is the first step to finally making a long playoff run, something we haven't seen in nearly 20 years.
How will the game unfold? Let's take a look at what the advanced metrics say.
A Matchup of Strengths
The 2014 Cowboys are known for their ability to run the football with DeMarco Murray and their impressive offensive line. This year's Lions are the best run-stuffing unit in the NFL, and with Ndamukong Suh playing (not suspended) and Nick Fairley's potential return, the key matchup to watch during Sunday's game will be between these two groups.
So who wins this aspect of the game? Well, our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics pegs the Cowboys with the ninth-best rushing offense in the NFL, while the Lions have the best rush defense. And according to our game projections, it appears that the algorithms think DeMarco Murray will be just fine -- Dallas, as an offense, is projected to run for 118 yards.
That will certainly be key. According to our strongest predictors -- games that have happened in history that are analytically a lot like what we're about to see -- the top five games where the Cowboys are victorious saw the team representing the Cowboys rush for over 100 yards. That shouldn't really come as a surprise, as Dallas has the third-lowest pass-to-run ratio in the NFL, and in a victory, they would be running the football a lot.
Perhaps no predictor shows this more than the strongest one, where the Dolphins lost to the Titans back in 2003. In the contest, the Titans (who won and are representing the Cowboys), ran the ball 38 times while Steve McNair went 17 for 23 for 201 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Titans weren't incredibly efficient on the ground, but they stuck to their game plan, and were fortunate to intercept Brian Griese three times.
The numbers are against them, but is there any way the Lions can win?
Run It Down Their Throats
Dallas has the third-ranked offense in the NFL according to our metrics, and haven't had much trouble moving the ball over the second half of the season. A key for Detroit, naturally, will be to keep this game low scoring.
To do that, they're going to have to run the ball well themselves. The Lions' ground attack is the weakest part of the team, as it ranked 17th in Adjusted Rushing NEP during the 2014 season. Fortunately, Dallas is equally as bad defensively.
The number-one strongest predictor where the Lions come out victorious is a game between the Eagles and Giants from 2008. In the contest, the Eagles, who won and represent the Lions, ran the ball 12 more times than they threw it. Donovan McNabb (Matthew Stafford) ended up with just 191 yards on 19 of 30 passing, but he didn't make any big mistakes. Instead, he let Brian Westbrook run 33 times for 131 yards against the Giants' front seven.
In that same contest, the Eagles didn't force any turnovers, and failed to sack Eli Manning. They did, however, hold Manning to less than a 50 percent completion rate and just 123 yards.
Perhaps another strong predictor in the Cowboys' favor -- a 2004 game between the Vikings and Cowboys -- will show us what will happen if Dallas can't run the football all that well. In that contest, the Vikings -- who are like this year's Cowboys -- threw the ball just 24 times versus 28 rushes. However, Daunte Culpepper tossed 5 touchdowns, had a 10.5 yards per attempt average and ran for 25 more. While the rushing attack did reach 100 yards, no single player went for more than 76 yards.
I bring this particular predictor up because it shows a few things that season-long data would really back up. First, the Cowboys offense is really good, and the Vikings offense was great on that day. Second, the Lions are most beatable through the air, which is how the Cowboys were exploited against the Vikings back in 2004.
And lastly, it's important to note that the Vikings never moved away from a balanced attack. Dallas has run the same number of rushing plays as passing plays this season, and even if the matchup dictates a change, the thought here is that they'll still force their offensive scheme into this game. Romo won't throw 50 times, and Murray won't touch the ball fewer than 15 times. The rushing attack may not end as overly efficient, but Romo, if this predictor is telling, could be in store for a great game.
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