Three storylines to follow in Lions-Cowboys
After missing out on a chance for a bye and to host a playoff game by losing the regular-season finale, the Detroit Lions head to Dallas to face the Cowboys Sunday afternoon in an opening-round matchup (4:40 p.m. on FOX).
The Lions will be making just their second postseason appearance in the last 15 years. They haven’t won a playoff game since 1991.
Here are three storylines to follow plus a prediction:
— Forget about Megatron and Dez, Stafford and Romo for a moment.
The best matchup of the day actually will be in the trenches between Detroit’s defensive line and Dallas’ offensive line.
The Lions have the NFL’s top-ranked run defense while the Cowboys feature the No. 2 run offense, led by DeMarco Murray, who rushed for 1,845 yards, more than anybody in the league.
"I think we’ve got the best defensive line in the league," Lions safety Glover Quin said. "Pretty sure those guys got the best offensive line in the league. We’ll see on Sunday."
These two units are largely responsible for the turnaround by their teams.
The Lions totally rebuilt by investing top draft picks on defensive linemen. They used the second pick overall in 2010 to take Ndamukong Suh, the 13th pick overall in 2011 on Nick Fairley and the fifth pick overall in 2013 for Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah.
Fairley has missed the last eight games because of a knee injury, but Suh and Ansah have been the backbone of a defensive front that has carried the Lions for most of the season.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, made their top investments on the offensive line. They took left tackle Tyron Smith No. 9 overall in 2011, center Travis Frederick 31st overall in 2013 and right guard Zack Martin No. 16 overall in 2014.
"We made that a priority four years ago," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said during a conference call with Detroit reporters. "We had a lot of good players playing the offensive line for a number of years here, and they all kind of got old at the same time.
"We had to make some hard decisions as an organization and we did that. Then we had to make some good decisions in replacing those guys."
And they did that.
Smith, Frederick and Martin have all been selected to this season’s Pro Bowl.
"They’ve got some great individual talent," Suh said. "They really work well together, being able to get off blocks and get up to the second level."
So while the skill players — receivers Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant, and quarterbacks Matthew Stafford and Tony Romo — will end up getting much of the attention, this game really could come down to who prevails in the matchup between an elite defensive line and an elite offensive line.
May the best man win.
— The Cowboys certainly don’t have a shutdown defense by any means. They rank 15th in the league in points allowed.
But they force a lot of turnovers (No. 2 with 31 takeaways) and play extremely hard for coordinator Rod Marinelli.
That’s right. Rod Marinelli, whom Detroit fans remember very well. He was the Lions’ head coach during the infamous 0-16 season in 2008.
After getting fired, Marinelli spent four seasons as an assistant coach with the Chicago Bears before moving on to Dallas in 2013. He was promoted from defensive line coach to coordinator before this season.
His system isn’t complicated but it’s effective.
"They’re an attacking defense," said Lions center Dominic Raiola, who played for Marinelli during the coach’s three years in Detroit. "They play with just the same attitude as their coach.
"Coach Marinelli, he’s hard-nosed, he’s tough. He was a good D-coordinator before he came here (to Detroit in 2006). They’ve played just like that. He was a good D-coordinator in Chicago. I’ve got a lot of respect for him and what he’s done with that defense."
The Cowboys’ offense, meanwhile, is run by another former Detroit assistant, Scott Linehan, who was a coordinator for the Lions the last five years under coach Jim Schwartz.
Dallas ranks No. 5 in scoring, No. 7 in total offense and No. 2 in both third-down conversions and red-zone efficiency.
"They’re running some of the stuff that’s similar (to what the Lions ran under Linehan) but some of it’s totally different," Stafford said. "They’re running the ball a whole lot more than we used to run it."
From all indications, Stafford had a very close relationship with Linehan. He seemed genuinely disappointed when Linehan lost his job. They have continued to stay in contact this season.
"It will be good to see him," Stafford said. "I’m happy for his success. He’s got a bunch of playmakers and he’s got those guys playing extremely well.
"I was a rookie when I started working with him. He helped groom the quarterback that I am today and I was the last five years. I’ve had some success throwing the ball in this league and I give him a lot of credit for helping me along the way."
— The Lions’ overachieving defense has picked up for a surprisingly inconsistent offense more often than not.
But with the postseason here, it’s long overdue for the offense to repay the favor.
"That’s what I’m saying, right now," Johnson said. "It’s time for us to step our game up."
The defense showed some cracks last Sunday, allowing a season-high 152 yards rushing to the Green Bay Packers.
Is that the start of a downward trend? Maybe, maybe not.
Either way, the best shot the Lions have of advancing in these playoffs is if the offense catches fire at the right time and becomes more consistent, even explosive at times.
Everyone has been waiting for that to happen for weeks and weeks, considering all of their so-called playmaking weapons.
Maybe this is the matchup they need. Johnson overwhelmed the Cowboys last season with 14 receptions for a career-best 329 yards in a wild, last-second comeback victory in Detroit.
Dallas’ defense is certainly improved, but remains vulnerable.
Stafford will try to break a 16-game losing streak on the road to teams with winning records, but he could have a little more comfort zone than normal. He grew up in the Dallas area.
Like Johnson, Stafford knows the offense can’t continue to expect the defense to bail them out.
"Going against a team like Dallas that does a great job putting up points, you know as an offense that you have to find ways to get the ball in the end zone," Stafford said. "You can’t kick field goals against a team like this. You have to score touchdowns."
LIONS + 6 1/2
(Dye’s season prediction record: 9-7).