The Detroit Lions' season is officially on the brink.
After a disappointing 17-6 loss to the Giants a week ago, the Lions entered Monday night with a chance to book a playoff spot. All they needed to do was beat a banged-up Cowboys team that had nothing to play for except pride. That's definitely a harder task than it sounds, but the point stands: The Lions needed to win Monday night.
They didn't win. They lost, 42-21. And now they're staring at a very real future that doesn't involve them playing postseason football.
At 9-6, the Lions will still have an opportunity to win the NFC North if they beat the Packers next weekend. But the Lions are also in jeopardy of ending their season with a loss to the Packers, because if the Redskins beat the Giants this weekend, the loser of the NFC North title game will miss the playoffs entirely.
Oh, by the way, the last time Aaron Rodgers found himself in that exact same situation, he broke the Bears' hearts at Soldier Field with a fourth-down, game-winning touchdown to Randall Cobb.
Don't click this link, Chicago. Have fun, Detroit.
The Lions had their chances early against the Cowboys. They scored on their first two possessions. They even led 21-14 late in the second quarter before Dez Bryant went all Dez Bryant on them to tie the game before the break. Still, 21-21 isn't a bad place to be in Dallas. The Lions were hanging with -- arguably outplaying -- the Cowboys. All they needed was one more half of solid football.
They caved instead. After halftime, Matthew Stafford looked like the Stafford of years past, turning the ball over twice. His offensive line didn't help matters, allowing four sacks during the game. The running game, which surprisingly came alive in the first half, returned to its comatose state. The Lions had 65 rushing yards at halftime. They finished with 90. The offense was shut out in the second half.
And the defense couldn't force a stop. The Lions were outscored by 21 points in the second half.
After beating the Bears on Dec. 11, the Lions were 9-4 and a lock to make the postseason. They're now one Aaron Rodgers game away from dropping the final three games of the season and maybe missing out on the postseason altogether.
Conventional wisdom says the Lions are on the cusp of completing a stunning collapse, but the truth is, they've overachieved all season long. So many of their wins have materialized on last-gasp comebacks engineered by Stafford. That might be a fun way to win football games -- Stafford broke Peyton Manning's single-season record with eight fourth-quarter comebacks -- but it's not necessarily a sustainable method. It's not the way most legit Super Bowl contenders win. It doesn't lead to wins over the league's top teams, like the Cowboys.
They still have one more game to prove us all wrong. But they're quickly running out of chances.
Here are some more takeaways from Monday's game:
Dak Prescott + Zeke are still unstoppable
The Cowboys didn't waste any time putting the Lions in an early hole on the road. On the first possession of the game, Dak Prescott went 5 of 6 for 71 yards.
He finished off the drive with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Brice Butler on third-and-14.
.@Dak throws a LASER in between the defenders...@DallasCowboys TD!!! #DETvsDALhttps://t.co/AcGm5Juj12— NFL (@NFL) December 27, 2016
The Cowboys' second drive belonged to their other dynamic rookie, Ezekiel Elliott. After getting bottled up on the first series, he broke free for a 55-yard touchdown to regain the lead. According to NFL.com's Chris Wesseling, Zeke reached 21.8 MPH.
Also, shoutout to that blocking:
🏃💨💨💨💨💨@EzekielElliott is GONE.— NFL (@NFL) December 27, 2016
55 yards to the house! #DETvsDALhttps://t.co/PYJNYtAcY6
Prescott tossed his second touchdown to tie the game just before halftime (more on that in a second) and Zeke scored his second touchdown on the ground to give the Cowboys a 28-21 lead in the third quarter. You know you're good when you bounce a 1-yard run all the way to the outside and showboat before you reach the goal line.
He's in again!@EzekielElliott gets to the edge for SIX. #DETvsDAL#FeedZekehttps://t.co/Bix3ycG0wK— NFL (@NFL) December 27, 2016
Zeke's final numbers: 12 carries, 80 yards, and two touchdowns.
Prescott's stat line: 15 of 20 for 212 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a 148.3 passer rating.
Yeah, they played well.
Dez caught it ... and threw it
The Lions didn't have an answer for Dez Bryant either. Just before halftime, Bryant made one of those impossible catches that makes you inadvertently shout at your TV.
How the heck did he fight through the pass interference to snag this football?
How, Dez? HOW?— NFL (@NFL) December 27, 2016
Unbelievable grab by @DezBryant for the TD! #DETvsDALhttps://t.co/gNnqETm7q1
And that wasn't even his most memorable moment. That honor belongs to his first career pass, which resulted in his first career touchdown.
Who knew Dez was a lefty?
.@DezBryant on the reverse...— NFL (@NFL) December 27, 2016
And he tosses it to @JasonWitten for the TD!
Just amazing. #DETvsDALhttps://t.co/ML8rGqygku
That touchdown gave the Cowboys a 35-21 lead. Jerry Jones status update:
Someone might want to check on Jerry Jones pic.twitter.com/0GASvdx7WY— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) December 27, 2016
Bryant scored his third touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter, which handed the Cowboys a 21-point lead. It also completed a 28-0 run that began with Bryant's ridiculous catch in the second quarter.
Dez throws up the X for the 3rd time tonight!#DallasCowboyspic.twitter.com/cYNMpMSShG— NFL (@NFL) December 27, 2016
The best part about the Cowboys? Their rookie duo has been so damn unstoppable this year that we've sort of forgotten all about Bryant.
There's been so much attention given to Dak and Zeke this year that you forget the Cowboys have an alien at WR they rarely use.— Tom Fornelli (@TomFornelli) December 27, 2016
The Cowboys are peaking
Need more proof that the Cowboys are peaking? This is their punter:
Bodied by a punter is no way to die pic.twitter.com/vph0FeYrmp— Mike Tunison (@xmasape) December 27, 2016
When the Cowboys lost to the Giants for the second time on Dec. 11, they looked vulnerable. Dak Prescott played so poorly in that loss that some wanted to replace him with Tony Romo.
Well, the Cowboys and Prescott have certainly responded, putting an end to the quarterback controversy and cementing their status as the best team in the NFC. After that loss, the Cowboys knocked off a pesky Buccaneers team and then demolished the Lions.
They're 13-2, by the way, and the clear front-runners in the NFC.
Matthew Stafford went full Favre
Since suffering that injury to the middle finger of his throwing hand, Stafford's struggled, hardly looking like the MVP candidate he was for most of the year. Against the Bears, Stafford posted a 64.3 passer rating. Against the Giants, he posted a 71.8 rating. So, how'd he fare against the Cowboys?
He channeled his inner Brett Favre, which isn't exactly a good thing.
He completed crazy passes into tight coverage, demonstrating his world-class arm talent. He zipped in side-arm fastballs to his receivers.
Stafford maybe no-look sidearm pass dot gif pic.twitter.com/ggXdNQWF1f— Patrick Claybon (@PatrickClaybon) December 27, 2016
He scored a crucial, tough touchdown on fourth down to tie the game in the second quarter.
Matthew Stafford's touchdown is under review pic.twitter.com/xRTF3MJH8j— SB Nation NFL (@SBNationNFL) December 27, 2016
But on the opening drive of the second half, Stafford made an unforgivable mistake. With the Lions facing second-and-long, Stafford scrambled like a madman in the backfield and finally chucked up a pass that had no chance of reaching his intended target. It reached J.J. Wilcox's arms instead.
Stafford ended up throwing only one pick, but he also fumbled near the goal line. He averaged 5.7 yards per pass. He didn't throw a touchdown. His passer rating? 63.7.
For a third straight game, Stafford played poorly.
Nice to meet you, Zach Zenner
The Lions do not run the ball particularly well, but they ran the ball all over the Cowboys to begin the game. To be specific, Zach Zenner ran all over the Cowboys.
On the Lions' first drive, Zenner picked up 38 yards on three carries and caught two passes for 25 yards. He also found the end zone.
Zach Zenner goes untouched to the end zone!@Lions answer back. #DETvsDALhttps://t.co/cm9Ou6fclP— NFL (@NFL) December 27, 2016
He earned the approval of
Patriots Chargers running back Danny Woodhead.
Let's go @zenner31!!!— danny woodhead (@danny__woodhead) December 27, 2016
Zenner wasn't done. With the score tied at 14-14 in the second quarter, he reached the end zone again.
Zenner AGAIN.— NFL (@NFL) December 27, 2016
And the @Lions have the lead! #DETvsDALhttps://t.co/hMli2J9Oic
The Cowboys' health
Week 16 was already marred by the injuries Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr sustained, which ended the Raiders and Titans' seasons to varying degrees. Injuries had to be on Dallas' mind, especially considering the coaching staff opted to play all of their healthy starters.
So, how'd they fare? Prescott stayed healthy. So did Zeke. The only issue might be left tackle Tyron Smith, who is incredibly important to the Cowboys' success.
On the final play of the third quarter, Smith served as the lead blocker on a run to the left. He ended up hurting his right knee. Trainers surrounded him on the sidelines. The Cowboys immediately declared that he "may return" to the game, so hopefully the injury isn't serious.
Big ol' wrap on Tyron's knee, and he's up and walking around on the sideline. Seems unlikely he'd return.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) December 27, 2016
The Lions will host the Packers with the NFC North title on the line. That game was flexed to prime time. If they tie, they'll both make the playoffs.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, already have the No. 1 seed in the NFC wrapped up. So, their game against the Eagles next week will only be worth monitoring to see if they give their backups -- including Tony Romo -- any reps.