Riding high off one of the most stirring rallies in franchise history, the rolling Lions set their sights at their best four-game start to a season in 55 years when they invade Cowboys Stadium for Sunday's showdown between potential NFC playoff contenders.
The long-suffering Lions, who haven't posted a winning record since 2000 and have gone 11 straight seasons without making the playoffs, are one of only three remain unbeaten teams three weeks into this 2011 campaign. Detroit also owns the longest active winning streak in the NFL, having followed up four straight victories to close out last season with a 3-0 burst out of the gates this year.
That run appeared to be in some serious jeopardy after the Lions fell behind by 20 points at halftime of last Sunday's clash with longtime nemesis Minnesota. The club would roar back after the break to force overtime, however, before claiming a seemingly-impossible 26-23 decision on veteran kicker Jason Hanson's fourth field goal of the afternoon.
The 20-point deficit at intermission was the largest the Lions had ever faced in a win, as well as the team's fourth consecutive road triumph since establishing a dubious NFL record with 26 losses away from home that was finally snapped last December.
"This game was a huge boost for us," said Hanson, the lone remaining member from Detroit's last postseason entry in 1999. "To come back in this game felt real good, and we're all excited in this locker room right now."
The Lions would have even more cause for celebration if they can get past the Cowboys, as they haven't opened a season 4-0 since ripping off six straight wins to begin the 1956 schedule.
Dallas came close to making this Week 4 matchup a meeting of unbeatens if not for a season-opening meltdown against the New York Jets, in which quarterback Tony Romo committed two critical fourth-quarter turnovers and the Cowboys squandered a 10-point lead with under 12 minutes to go in a painful 27-24 setback.
Both Romo and his team have bounced back strongly since, however, with the often-criticized field general turning in a pair of gusty performances to propel the injury-plagued Cowboys to a pair of victories.
Romo overcame a cracked rib and punctured lung sustained in Dallas' Week 2 battle at San Francisco to lead a surge of 13 unanswered points that gave Jason Garrett's charges a 27-24 overtime verdict over the 49ers, then engineered a nine-play, 64-yard drive capped by rookie kicker Dan Bailey's sixth field goal, a 40-yard shot with 1:47 left that lifted the Cowboys to an 18-16 win over NFC East-rival Washington on Monday.
The three-time Pro Bowl participant is on track to be under center for Sunday's contest as well, though Dallas will likely be without top wide receiver Miles Austin for a second straight week due to a hamstring injury. In addition, fellow wideout Dez Bryant's status for the game is uncertain after the talented youngster aggravated a existing quadriceps strain.
Dallas extended its overall advantage in the regular season series between these clubs to 12-9 with last November's 35-19 win at Cowboys Stadium and has prevailed in five of its six past bouts with Detroit. The Lions' only positive result during that stretch came in 2006, when the team recorded a 39-31 victory in Dallas in that year's regular-season finale behind a 306- yard, four-touchdown effort by current Cowboys quarterback Jon Kitna. Detroit is just 2-7 in non-playoff games held in Dallas, however.
In addition to their regular season history, the teams have met twice in the postseason. The Cowboys were 5-0 home winners in a 1970 NFC Divisional Playoff, and the Lions won a 38-6 affair at the Silverdome in a 1991 NFC Divisional Playoff.
Dallas' win over the Lions in Week 11 of last season marked the first head-to- head meeting between Garrett and Detroit's Jim Schwartz, as well as the two head coaches' only previous encounter with Sunday's opponent.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Detroit has been able to succeed in spite of being unintentionally one- dimensional on offense, as the team has averaged an outstanding 321.7 passing yards per game (tied 4th overall) but ranks a lowly 26th in rushing yards (78.3 ypg). The season has been a coming-of-age for young quarterback Matthew Stafford (977 passing yards, 9 TD, 2 INT), with the oft-injured former No. 1 overall draft pick completing nearly 67 percent of his throws and fueling last week's impressive comeback with a 32-of-46, 378-yard, two-touchdown and turnover-free display against the Vikings. Another big reason why the Lions are scoring at a tremendous 33.7 points-per-game clip (4th overall) is the difference-making play of wide receiver Calvin Johnson (16 receptions, 225 yards, 6 TD), the first player in NFL history to record two touchdown catches in each of the initial three games of a season. He's far from the only quality target at Stafford's disposal, however, as third-year tight end Brandon Pettigrew (16 receptions) set career highs with 11 catches and 112 receiving yards in last Sunday's victory and both veteran wideout Nate Burleson (14 receptions) and rookie speedster Titus Young (9 receptions) have been productive early on as well. Detroit also possesses an excellent pass-catching running back in shifty playmaker Jahvid Best (143 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 2 TD), who's averaging over 60 yards per week as a receiver. The 2010 first-round choice hasn't made the same impact running the ball, though, as his pedestrian 2.9 yards per carry number will attest.
The Lions' high-scoring attack will be challenged by an aggressive Dallas defense that's been very good as a whole thus far and terrific at pressuring the quarterback. The Cowboys have racked up a league-best 13 sacks in three games, with perennial All-Pro DeMarcus Ware (9 tackles, 5 sacks) and fellow outside linebacker Anthony Spencer (9 tackles, 3 sacks) doing most of the damage, and the team has solidified a secondary that's had to deal with some injuries with veteran cornerback Terence Newman's return from a groin strain that kept him out the first two games. Dallas has been outstanding in stopping the run as well, yielding a mere 61.3 yards per game on the ground that trails only Green Bay for tops in the NFL at the moment. Inside linebacker Sean Lee has particularly stood out as a force in that area, with the second-year pro compiling a team-best 31 tackles in addition to coming up with a pair of interceptions. The Cowboys will be without sturdy defensive end Jason Hatcher (8 tackles, 2 sacks) on Sunday due to a calf strain, though replacement Marcus Spears does own significant starting experience.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Like their opponent this week, the Cowboys have been plagued by a lack of offensive balance during the course of this season, with the team putting up a sizzling 334.3 yards per game via the air (3rd overall) but ranking just 27th in rushing yards (78.0 ypg) right now. Dallas did make some notable progress running the football in Monday's hard-fought win, though, with top back Felix Jones (184 rushing yards, 1 TD, 7 receptions) fighting through a dislocated shoulder to grind out 115 yards on only 14 attempts. That strong showing helped ease the burden on a still-ailing Romo (942 passing yards, 4 TD, 2 INT), who managed 255 yards but showed noticeably wavering accuracy on longer throws against the Redskins. Though the dynamic Austin, who accumulated 143 receiving yards and three touchdowns in Week 2, won't be available again this week, Romo still has trusty tight end Jason Witten (19 receptions, 272 yards) to rely upon, and Bryant (7 receptions, 134 yards, 1 TD) -- who's tentatively slated to participate on Sunday -- is a premier player when at full strength. Austin's place will be filled by some combination of the inconsistent Kevin Ogletree (7 receptions) and journeyman Laurent Robinson, who contributed three catches for 49 yards off the street in Monday's game.
Romo will be taking shots at an upgraded Detroit defense that's been remarkably stingy against the pass to date, though the group wasn't severely tested by struggling quarterbacks Matt Cassel and Donovan McNabb over the past two weeks. Still, the Lions are giving up an average of just 188 yards per game through the air (4th overall) and have surrendered only two touchdown passes, with cornerbacks Chris Houston (14 tackles, 2 INT, 5 PD) and Eric Wright (17 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD) each supplying lockdown coverage and showcasing good ball skills. The pair is backed up by a formidable pass rush anchored by 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh (9 tackles, 2 sacks) from the interior and high-motor veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch (9 tackles, 3 sacks) on the edge. Linebackers Stephen Tulloch (14 tackles, 1 sack) and Justin Durant (21 tackles), both free-agent additions during the offseason, are proven run-stoppers, though the Lions permitted an average of 141.5 rushing yards to the run-based Chiefs and Vikings in their last two games. Promising defensive tackle Nick Fairley, Detroit's first-round pick in this past April's draft, has resumed practicing after missing the entire preseason with a stress fracture in his foot, though the ex-Auburn star may still be another week away from game action.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Red-zone success. In a matchup of two high-caliber offenses, the one that's better able to make the most of its scoring opportunities stands the better chance of coming out on top. The Cowboys couldn't punch the ball in the end zone on Monday, relying on Bailey's accurate leg and their stout defense, but field goals may not cut it against a Detroit team that can put up points at will. The Lions have been able to generate touchdowns on 8-of-13 red-zone chances on the year, but were just 1-of-3 against the Vikings last week.
Protect the quarterback. Stafford was barely touched in Detroit's first two victories of 2011, but took five Minnesota sacks in Week 3. That's a potential problem on Sunday, as the Cowboys have excelled at getting pressure and the Lions have little semblance of a running game to mix things up. Dallas has had its issues as well along an offensive line that's in a transitional phase, a big concern with a still-sore Romo under center.
While it would be a bit of a shock to see Detroit run the ball effectively on the Cowboys, Dallas showed some encouraging signs of life in that department against the Redskins. The Lions haven't been a stone wall against the rush this year, making Jones a potential x-factor if he can duplicate Monday's results.
The Cowboys have played an NFL-record nine consecutive contests decided by three points or less, and considering these teams are relatively even talent- wise, expect Dallas to be engaged in another nail-biter this week. Though the Lions have resembled a serious Super Bowl contender during the early stages of this season, the Cowboys figure to be a far sterner test than the lowly Chiefs and combustible Vikings have provided in the past two weeks, and Detroit has displayed two potential weaknesses -- an inability to run the football and shaky pass protection -- that the Dallas defense may be able to exploit. If the Cowboys can keep Romo able and upright, they seem to have a reasonable chance of bringing Detroit's surprising streak to an end.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 23, Lions 20