ALLEN PARK - There's no disputing the importance of Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys for the Detroit Lions. Sitting at 4-5 and possessing a 1-3 record within the division, the Lions realistically have to finish at least 5-2 to even sniff a playoff spot. Worse, they have to leapfrog the Minnesota Vikings to have any shot at a possible wild card berth in the event the Chicago Bears win the division.
Minnesota's win over Detroit two weeks ago put the Vikings ahead of the Lions in the NFC North standings making it essential the Lions return the favor when the Vikings travel to Detroit next month, but I degress.
Detroit needs to at least split the next to games, at Dallas and at home vs. Atlanta on Thanksgiving Day. If Detroit can win both, it catapults them to 6-5 and right in the thick of the playoff race. Lose both and at 4-7, they can pretty much pack it in. They'd have to run the table in their remaining games to even be an afterthought in the race.
That's why Sunday's game is so important and Detroit could be catching Dallas at the right time. The Cowboys won an emotional division contest against Philadelphia on Monday Night Football. Coming back on a short week against a sub.500 team could be a letdown for the Cowboys. The Lions are getting healthy going into this one and there is a possibility that Detroit could spring a trap.
If they're going to do that, its clear that a few things have to happen.
3. Kevin Jones must get the football
I understand Coach Mariucci's reluctance to go exclusively to Jones and agree with it. Mariucci's contention is that when backs split time, it keeps both fresh, energized and productive and reduces the chances of injury. Still, Mooch must find a way to get Jones 20 carries.
He becomes a threat to take it to the house every carry he gets late in the game. Jones has to do his part by improving his blocking, be cognizant of the game situations and catch the football when its called for. Jones had a great week of practice and appears ready to break out.
While Dallas has been strong against the run (rank 5th in the NFC) averaging just 99.3 yards per game, the Eagles were able to gash the Cowboys for 181 yards on 36 carries despite not being able to rush the ball at all coming into the game. Detroit's center Dominic Raiola and guard Damien Woody will be called upon to handle nose tackle Leroi Glover so that fullback Cory Schlesinger can into the next level of the Cowboys defense and clear out inside linebacker Bradie James for Jones. The more Detroit's offensive lineman can get free themselves and get after the Cowboys linebacking group, the more run lanes will clear for Jones.
2. Get strong play from the quarterback position
Mariucci's assessment of Joey Harrington's quarterback play was correct, he had a good game. Harrington's three touchdown, 120.7 passer rating was a solid effort. Detroit has to get a similar effort out Harrington - the likely starter this week. Harrington has to get all of his receivers involved, not just Roy Williams. The Lions will, for the first time since game one, have their full complement of receivers. Williams, Mike Williams, Troy Edwards, Scottie Vines and Charles Rogers will all be available. It is imperative that Detroit use all the receivers on the field to keep Dallas from keying on any particular guy. They likely will roll a safety everytime they see Roy Williams, that ought to open Rogers and Mike Williams for big gains.
1. The Lions defense needs to show up
Injuries have taken a toll on this group, particularly in the middle where #1 option Earl Holmes is out with a grade two MCL sprain and option #2 Teddy Lehman is out with a foot injury. That leaves Donte' Curry as the likely starter but Wali Rainer could see some time in there as well.
Detroit's starter Boss Bailey will be a game time decision, but Bailey vowed to play in this one despite his sore ankle. James Davis will start despite suffering a dislocated finger, but Alex Lewis (IR) is out. That means that newly signed Nate Wayne could be a factor in the playing group. Wayne was a starter in Philadelphia after leaving Green Bay in free agency. Detroit signed LB Levar Woods to help alleviate the problem of having Curry and Rainer playing too many snaps.
Despite the problems in the linebacking corps, Dick Jauron must figure out a way to keep Dallas from controlling the ball on the ground. The Cowboys will often come out in a three tight end set with Brock Pierce, pro bowler Jason Witten and Danny Campbell all lining up with one at times acting as an H-back. The Detroit ends must continue their fine play of late in getting a push against opposing defensive tackles. Lions defensive ends James Hall, Cory Redding and particularly Kalimba Edwards will be on the spot to get pressure against Drew Bledsoe while controlling Marion Barber III and Julius Jones.
Dallas' receiving corps is one of the best in the conference and Bledsoe loves the deep ball with Terry Glenn, but Keyshawn Johnson is a solid chain moving possession receiver and Peerless Price is dangerous in the slot when the 'Boys go to three wides. Detroit's Dre' Bly has been sensational in practice despite wearing a cast and you wonder why he couldn't get clearance to play in this one. Without him, Detroit will call on a banged up Andre' Goodman, Keith Smith, who had a solid outing against Arizona, rookie Stanley Wilson and the lone veteran still standing R.W. McQuarters.
The key factor in this game is whether Detroit can put together a defense that can hold the Cowboys potent offense (rank 6th in the conference) under 20 points to give their improving offensive attack a shot at pulling the upset.
I'm going to go out on a limb and pick a playoff sparking upset.
Detroit 24 - Dallas 20