Although the Detroit Lions are still holding out hope of having home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, chances are they’ll need to win on the road at some point to achieve an unprecedented Super Bowl appearance.

So, what better way to prepare for the rigors of a postseason road game is there than having a high-stakes, late-December showdown in the league’s toughest environment for visiting teams this season?

The newly crowned NFC North champs enter AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (on ABC/ESPN), where the Dallas Cowboys haven’t lost since the 2022 season opener, this Saturday tied with the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC’s best record.

However, the Lions, who won their first division title since 1993, still face an uphill climb to reach their next goal of securing the coveted No. 1 seed for the playoffs.

San Francisco still holds the inside track for the top spot despite its mistake-filled Christmas night loss to the Baltimore Ravens and will be strongly favored to win both of its two remaining regular-season games, a visit to Washington this week followed by a home date with the Los Angeles Rams.

Therefore, the Lions not only need to end Dallas’ impressive 15-game home winning streak and win their finale against the Minnesota Vikings, but they’ll need the 49ers to stumble at least once down the stretch to leapfrog the NFC West champions.

Most Consecutive Home Wins (Since AFL/NFL Merger)

  • Miami Dolphins (27/1971-74)
  • Green Bay Packers (25/1995-98)
  • Denver Broncos (24/1996-98)
  • New England Patriots (20/2008-11)
  • San Francisco 49ers (19/1996-99)
  • Dallas Cowboys (18/1979-81)
  • New England Patriots (18/2002-05)
  • New England Patriots (18/2017-19)
  • New England Patriots (16/2012-14)
  • Buffalo Bills (15/1990-91)
  • St. Louis Rams (15/2002-04)
  • Baltimore Ravens (15/2010-12)
  • Green Bay Packers (15/2020-22)
  • Dallas Cowboys (15/2022-ACTIVE)

Detroit still has plenty to play for despite those slim odds and a first-round home game sewn up by virtue of last week’s division-clinching 30-24 victory at Minnesota. The Lions would be no worse than the NFC’s No. 2 seed should they win out, which would ensure they wouldn’t have to hit the road until the conference title game at the earliest.

There’s also a respect angle at work for this monumental NFL Week 17 matchup, as the Cowboys are universally regarded as the more likely of these two teams to win the NFC despite having one less win than Detroit and being virtually locked into having to go through the playoffs as a No. 5 seed.

Most sportsbooks have Dallas’ odds anywhere from +450 to +600 to reach the Super Bowl, while the Lions currently reside in the range from +700 to +800. Our season predictions model shares that sentiment, as it gives Dallas a 21.7% chance to make the Super Bowl while pegging Detroit at 12.3%.

The Cowboys also rate as the best bets in this game, both by the point spread (Dallas is currently a six-point favorite) and by our supercomputer (a 69.5% chance of winning). That shouldn’t be too surprising, given the way Dallas has steamrolled the competition while orchestrating one of the most dominant home stretches in a season in modern NFL history.

Highest Point Differential in First Seven Home Games (Since Merger)            

  1. 1999 St. Louis Rams (+175/Won Super Bowl)
  2. 2023 Dallas Cowboys (+171/TBD)
  3. 1991 Washington (+166/Won Super Bowl)
  4. 2011 New Orleans Saints (+158/Lost in Divisional Round)
  5. 1973 Miami Dolphins (+153/Won Super Bowl)

Though three of the teams on that list went on to win the Super Bowl, there’s a very distinct difference between them and this season’s Cowboys.

None of those three had to play on the road during those playoff runs. Dallas, on the other hand, is just about assured to be doing so in the first round, as consecutive losses at Buffalo and Miami have dropped the Cowboys a game behind the first-place Eagles in the NFC East and provided Philly a 92.0% chance to win the division (per to our model).

So, even though the rewards for winning this game may not be what they could have been for either team, it’s still a standalone primetime clash between two members of the NFC’s group of four that has indisputably established itself above the rest of the conference. Plus, there’s also great potential for a plethora of points to further justify the 78 this game has received on our SmartRatings scale, making it the highest-rated matchup of the week.

The Cowboys are the first team in NFL history to score 30 or more points in each of its first seven home games of a season, while the underdog Lions have put up 34.7 points per game in their three previous indoor road contests of 2023 – wins over the Los Angeles Chargers (41-38) and Saints (33-28) in addition to last week’s triumph in Minnesota.

Det at Dal

DET Key: Protect Goff/Avoid Turnovers

Barring an unexpected meltdown from the Dallas offense, something that has yet to occur at AT&T Stadium this season, the Lions are going to need to score at least into the 30s to have a chance to win. The good news is a deep and balanced offense that stands fourth in our EVE rankings (efficiency vs. expected) is fully capable of doing just that.

What makes Detroit so dangerous is it isn’t overly reliant on one sole player to move the ball. Lions receivers have combined for the second-highest overall open rate in the league at 83.0%, and Detroit is one of just three teams (along with the Ravens and Houston Texans) with four players above 80% with 35 or more targets due to their formidable grouping of star wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown (81.7%), tight end Sam LaPorta (83.0%), slot man Kalif Raymond (90.2%) and former first-round pick Jameson Williams (84.2%). Williams has stepped up his production over the last two weeks to add another worry to opposing defensive coordinators.

The Lions also possess the league’s only duo with over 850 rushing yards each in its inside-outside tandem of David Montgomery and home run-hitting rookie Jahmir Gibbs, who owns the highest percentage of carries of 10-plus yards (16.2%) among running backs with 100 or more attempts.

That potent ground attack, which ranks second overall in rushing yards per play (5.0) and third in rushing yards per game (141.1), could be a major problem for a Dallas defense that was bullied for 266 rushing yards in a 31-10 loss at Buffalo two weeks back. To its credit, though, the unit was far more resistant last time out as it held the Dolphins’ high-caliber ground game in check.

Detroit sports two other strengths in a quarterback who consistently makes sound decisions and an offensive line that’s protected him well. Jared Goff’s pickable pass percentage of 1.78 is the lowest of any signal-caller who has taken the majority of his team’s snaps this season, while the offensive front has yielded a pressure rate of just 29.7% over its last four games – the fourth-lowest in the NFL over that span. 

There are a couple of reasons why it’s important that the offensive line maintains that level of play. First off, Goff almost never makes a bad mistake when having a clean pocket to work with, as the chart below shows. And the Lions really can’t afford any of them on a night they may be having to match the Cowboys score for score. 

Lowest Pickable Pass% When Not Pressured (Min. 100 Adjusted Attempts)

  1. Jared Goff, Detroit Lions (1.07)
  2. Jalen Hurts, Philadelphia Eagles (1.48)
  3. Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals (1.72)
  4. Derek Carr, New Orleans Saints (2.02)
  5. Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams (2.05)

Keeping Goff out of duress also helps take away exactly what the Cowboys want to do on defense, and usually do at a very high standard. 

No team has induced more takeaways than the Cowboys during Dan Quinn’s three-year reign as defensive coordinator, and those turnovers tend to come in bunches whenever Micah Parsons – the league’s individual leader in pressure rate at 25.9% – and his cohorts are harassing quarterbacks on a constant basis.

Dallas is 10-1 this season when recording at least one takeaway and 0-4 when its foe is turnover-free, like both the Bills and Dolphins were in each of the last two weeks.  The Cowboys are also 0-4 when an opposing quarterback produces a passer rating of 98 or above, and it’s no coincidence that Dallas finished with a pressure rate below 30% in each of those defeats.

Likewise, the Lions are 7-0 in games in which Goff doesn’t commit a turnover. Therefore, it’s clear to see the significance of Detroit getting an error-free outing from its quarterback, and how another stout effort from the offensive line provides the best chance of making that happen.

DAL Key: Exploit Detroit’s Pass D

Another reason why it’s so critical Detroit gets a big night out of Goff and the offense is the high likelihood of its defense having its hands full trying to slow down a Dallas attack that’s been close to unstoppable all season long at home.

The Cowboys have gotten points on a league-high 63% of their possessions at home (the Eagles are second at 52.7%), and they’re also tops in the NFL in converting third and fourth downs in their own building at nearly 54%.

Dallas also almost never gives the ball away on its home turf with just four turnovers in its seven games. Just two of those were Dak Prescott interceptions and the QB’s other numbers (74% completion rate, 20 touchdown passes, 122.5 quarterback rating) at Jerry World this season are perhaps even more staggering.

It all adds up to be one very tall order for a Lions defense that’s last in the league in burn rate allowed (54.9%) and 29th in opponent passing play success, and will be less than a week removed from surrendering 411 passing yards to perennial journeyman Nick Mullens.

The Lions did manage to hold off the Vikings, but only because Mullens bailed them out with several ill-advised throws that resulted in a four-interception day That’s a scenario that’s not likely to play out this week.

Detroit was especially vulnerable against deeper passes last week, as Mullens had five completions on throws of over 21 yards in the air. That’s an issue that will need to be fixed right away, as the Cowboys have been among the most successful teams at connecting downfield. CeeDee Lamb and Brandin Cooks have combined to haul in two-thirds (16 of 24) of their targets with five TDs on throws of 21 to 30 air yards.

One positive is that the Lions have been better at defending the slot, where Lamb has done the majority of his damage during his brilliant 109-catch, 1,424-yard 2023 campaign.

Rookie nickel back Brian Branch has the lowest burn-allowed rate of Detroit’s primary cornerbacks, though it’s still slightly below the league average for inside defenders, and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson’s expected return from a pectorals injury he suffered in Week 2 could be a big bonus.

Gardner-Johnson allowed burns on a mere 36% of targets when covering the slot with the Eagles last season and had two interceptions in his most recent meeting with Dallas back in 2022, though that came with Cooper Rush at quarterback in place of an injured Prescott.

Most Burn Yards From the Slot

  1. CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys (981)
  2. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit Lions (806)
  3. Adam Thielen, Carolina Panthers (734)
  4. Christian Kirk, Jacksonville Jaguars (731)
  5. Chris Olave, New Orleans Saints (713)

Of course, the Cowboys could take a page out of Minnesota’s playbook and deploy Lamb in a similar manner as the Vikings did with star receiver Justin Jefferson. The 2022 NFL Offensive Player of the Year hurt the Lions both inside and out en route to a six-catch, 141-yard output.

Dallas does have one injury concern that could have a profound impact on the offense’s performance, with rock-solid left tackle Tyron Smith potentially out for a second straight game due to a troublesome back. The eight-time Pro Bowler’s pressure-allowed rate of 4.6% is the second lowest among left tackles with at least 100 snaps in pass protection, and far superior to the 11.5% rate replacement Chuma Edoga has delivered.

Miami’s edge rushers were living in the backfield with Smith out a week ago, with Andrew Ginkel and Bradley Chubb combining for three sacks and 14 total pressures. And with Aidan Hutchinson, the league’s leader with 96 pressures, on the opposing side this week, the task won’t be any easier for a potentially depleted front line.

That’s one possible advantage the Lions can utilize, and probably need to in order to take down a talent-rich Dallas team that hasn’t been playing its best ball of late – but usually does when in its friendly confines.

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