Cowboys' rookie duo crushes another defense

ARLINGTON, Texas — Despite having little to play for, the Dallas Cowboys still deployed their starters and mowed through another opponent in a blowout victory.
Dallas overpowered the Detroit Lions 42-21 on Monday night, improving its NFC-best record to 13-2.


Dallas' two-headed rookie combo ripped through yet another defense, with quarterback Dak Prescott passing for 212 yards and three touchdowns and running back Ezekiel Elliott rushing for 80 yards and two scores. The 13 wins credited to Prescott tied Ben Roethlisberger's rookie record.

Receiver Dez Bryant also got into the act, catching two touchdowns from Prescott and throwing one of his own to tight end Jason Witten.

The Cowboys defense was also key in coming back from a seven-point deficit.

After allowing the Lions to score touchdowns on their first three drives of the game, Dallas tightened up its coverage on the outside, pressured quarterback Matthew Stafford relentlessly and clamped down on the Detroit offense the rest of the way.

With the victory, Dallas merely padded its record, having already clinched the NFC East and home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

Meanwhile, the Lions (9-6) must now beat the red-hot Green Bay Packers in the regular-season finale in what is essentially an NFC North championship game. The loser of that game would find itself outside the playoffs if the Washington Redskins (8-6-1) win their final game. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also remain mathematically alive but must win and have several games break their way to jump over the Redskins and Packers (9-6).

© Brandon Wade/AP Photo
NFL picks Week 16: Dallas Cowboys vs. Detroit Lions

The Cowboys, who boast an explosive offense led by two rookies, have overachieved and currently sit atop their division and the entire NFC Conference with a 12-2 record. This week, "America’s team" welcomes the 9-5 Detroit Lions, who are desperate for a win as they eye a return to the playoffs following a disappointing 2015 season.

The Dallas offense continues to roll after another impressive performance against the upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A week after his worst performance against the New York Giants, quarterback Dak Prescott dazzled against the Bucs, throwing for 279 yards on an unbelievable 88.9 percent completion rate. Keep in mind that Prescott had this game after hearing all week that another bad performance could force general manager Jerry Jones to make a switch at quarterback to Tony Romo.

When asked about how he handles the pressure in Dallas, Prescott pointed to his collegiate career at Mississippi State.

“People always say there’s no way Mississippi State prepared you for all of this, and I always say, 'Y’all just don’t understand,’” Prescott told Thursday. “At Mississippi State, they were wild. I couldn’t go to class. When I was in class, people were asking me to sign stuff and they were taking selfies with me on the way to class. In the NFL, it might be crazier on social media, but in person it’s actually easier because everyone understands it’s just my job. In college, they’re not thinking like that.”

In all, Dak’s great play week-in, week-out, has kept Romo glued to the sideline. Pro Football Focus ranks Dak as the NFL’s 12th best quarterback, but his 81.4 QBR and his 103.2 Quarterback Rating are good for 2nd and 3rd in the league, respectively.

Both Prescott and rookie rusher Ezekiel Elliott have greatly benefited from Dallas’s stout offensive line. Elliott, who leads the NFL with 1,551 yards on 5.0 yards per carry, is running behind Football Outsiders’ 3rd best run blocking offensive line by adjusted line yards, a stat measuring all running back carries and assigning significance to the offensive line based on their success. The line is also a proficient pass blocking unit, allowing only 24 sacks this season on 5.3 percent of drop backs.

Lions Quarterback Matthew Stafford has not had the same caliber offensive line to throw behind, nor has he benefited from a strong rush game. Detroit has Football Outsider’s last ranked offensive line in terms of run blocking, painfully obvious as their lead rusher, Theo Riddick, has only 357 yards on 3.7 yards per carry. For context, Matt Stafford is the team’s third best rusher, trailing Riddick by 151 yards - or the equivalent of one Ezekiel Elliott game.

In spite of their shortcomings, Matt Stafford has Detroit at 9-5 and in first place in the NFC North. Stafford is PFF’s 10th ranked quarterback, and his transition from a gunslinger to more of a game manager has made Detroit a more stable team. Stafford is putting up his fewest passing yards per game since his rookie season, averaging 265.7 yards per game, but the quarterback is completing passes at the second best rate in his last five years. He’s also limiting his turnovers, so far throwing only eight interceptions despite averaging 15 over his last 5 seasons.

Stafford has differentiated himself from his quarterback peers with his exceptional play at the end of games. Stafford has always been better than average in crunch time, averaging four game-winning drives per season. This year, however, Stafford leads the NFL with an incredible eight game-winning drives, tops in the NFL.

This game will come down to whichever defense shows up to play. Neither has been impressive this season, with Dallas ranked 20th by efficiency and Detroit ranked 31st. The Lions have been truly inept defensively, starting with their underperforming defensive line.

One matchup to watch will be Detroit defensive end Ezekiel Ansah against Dallas left tackle Tyron Smith. Ansah was a force in 2015 with 14.5 sacks, but has only managed one so far this season. Ansah has the ability, but he will find life difficult against Smith, who PFF ranks as their 10th best left tackle.

All things point Dallas’s direction on Monday Night, with a superior offense and a less-awful defense. Detroit, while playing for their playoff lives, may not have enough to stop Dallas. Expect Detroit to put up a good fight, but ultimately they will find Dallas too much to handle and drop their second in a row.

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