By Nick Shook
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What a gift Football Santa has left us under the tree.
The Cowboys have everything they could own wrapped up right now, but they don’t get to open those gifts until 2017. The Lions still have some shopping to complete before they can look to the new year, and they’ll have to battle Dallas for the best deals. This is a heated exchange of words that could quickly turn into a full-blown department store skirmish, but it depends on how Dallas approaches it.
By now, you, me and your great uncle Larry who falls asleep three bites into his Christmas ham know what makes the Cowboys: A strong running game, efficient passing game and a bend-but-don’t-break defense. But will Dallas play rookies Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, with the risk of injury looming, but perhaps a greater risk of rust greeting them, should they be benched? This determines just how great of a game we might get. But there’s much more to keep an eye on.
Here’s what to watch for when the Lions (9-5) head to Texas to take on the Cowboys (12-2) on Monday Night Football:
1. It’s time to punch that playoff ticket. Tampa Bay lost to New Orleans on Saturday afternoon, leaving the door open for the Lions, who simply need to defeat Dallas to secure a postseason berth. It would complete what’s been quite the turnaround under Jim Caldwell, whose offense has endured the loss of Calvin Johnson to retirement and the disappearance of any real semblance of a running game to somehow piece together one of the more balanced (but rarely ever flashy) attacks.
2. Golden Tate heads a receiving corps that features four players who own their roles. Tate is the group’s leading man, Marvin Jones serves as a reliable No. 2, Eric Ebron has been a solid option as an athletic tight end, and Anquan Boldin remains a possession receiving machine and go-to red zone target. They’ll match up against a Dallas secondary that has shown improvement as the season has progressed, but also has its lapses from time to time. The Lions will have to take advantage of those occasional mistakes if they want to make it through the air.
3. One of the more enjoyable storylines to emerge from the Cowboys late in the season has nothing to do with the quarterback position. It came to a head in the second half of the Cowboys‘ win over the Buccaneers in Week 15, when defensive end David Irving made mincemeat of any tackle Tampa Bay threw in his path. Dallas has lacked a fearsome pass rush for most of the season, but Irving was dominant and singlehandedly swung the game in favor of the Cowboys. Expect him to see double teams galore, as Detroit will need to protect Matthew Stafford if it wants to leave Arlington with a win.
4. Where’s Dez? A week after being held to one measly reception, Bryant caught eight passes for 82 yards in the win over Tampa Bay. But an interesting statistical trend is emerging: The Cowboys are going to their other targets about as much as they’re looking at Bryant. Cole Beasley has 22 more receptions and 33 more yards on the year than Bryant, who leads the slot receiver in touchdowns by just one. It’s not a bad thing — in fact, it should be encouraging. Dallas is far from one-dimensional, and shows that even in the passing game, Prescott has options for days. These last two weeks might offer more opportunities to develop the rapport between the rookie passer and his targets.
5. Bottom line, this game means more to Detroit than it does to Dallas. But that doesn’t guarantee that the Cowboys take the foot off the gas, because their two best players on offense are rookies. Rookie or not, Elliott’s 1,551 yards and 13 touchdowns are eye-popping. But they’ve also come on 310 carries through 14 games. With little to play for in the final two weeks, the Cowboys might be wise to dial it back a bit on their young workhorse, giving more touches to Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden. It could be a lot worse for Dallas, but could also give Detroit the edge they need to beat their Thanksgiving brethren in the Cowboys.