The National Football League regular season has come and gone and 2015 begins with four intriguing Wild Card playoff matchups that should keep fans glued to their couches, starting Saturday. Arizona, who just lost out to Seattle for the NFC West title, traveled to Carolina to meet a Panthers team that limped into the postseason with a losing record. Following that game was an all-AFC North bout between the Ravens and the Steelers. Sunday kicks off with the Colts hosting the Bengals, and the weekend ends with the game of the week, as the Dallas Cowboys welcome the Detroit Lions at 4:40 p.m. Eastern time.
Two storied franchises, the Cowboys and Lions have seen very little success since 2000 in the playoffs. The Cowboys, who won three Super Bowl championships in the 1990s, have only made four appearances in the postseason this millennium, winning one game in that time. The Lions have been even more hapless, only making one trip to the postseason, losing a Wild Card game in 2011.
The Lions come into this year’s playoffs a different team, relying on a stout rush defense and explosive plays in the passing game. The defense, which will have Ndamukong Suh after he won his appeal from suspension, ranks first both in yards per game (69.3) and Defense-Adjusted Value above Replacement (-31.3%). Football Outsiders, which develops the DVOA stat and several other efficiency metrics, also ranks the Lions defensive line best, allowing only 2.83 yards per rush adjusted, and only 0.86 yards at the second level.
The Cowboys will counter with the second best rush attack in the league, averaging 147.1 yards per game, relying almost exclusively on DeMarco Murray. Murray has been spectacular this season, setting a team record for yards (1,845) while scoring 13 touchdowns on almost 400 carries. Murray has been especially durable this season, playing through a hand injury that led to surgery in Week 16.
“One thing that might've surprised all of us when we drafted him is how physically tough he is at the end of runs. We saw all of the statistics and production he had in college but at the end of runs he was all going forward," Coach Jason Garrett told ESPN.com. "He was always going downhill. You thought he made 4, but he made 6. You thought he made 8, but he got a first down.”
The effectiveness of the running game has taken the burden off Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and, as a result, Romo has excelled. This season, the best of Romo’s career, the quarterback leads the NFL in completion percentage, quarterback rating and QBR. A big factor in Romo’s success has been the play of wide receiver Dez Bryant, who has amassed 1,320 yards and a franchise-record 16 touchdowns this year.
This game will be won in the trenches. The Lions must stop Murray and make the Cowboys offense one-dimensional. Murray is not totally healthy and has been worked hard this season. Detroit will look to shut him down early and build a lead through quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Without stopping Murray, the Lions will have to outscore Dallas which is unlikely. Give a slight edge to Dallas and Romo at home in the final Wild Card game of the weekend, which will be televised on Fox.