MIKE O'HARA

FRIDAY FOCUS: This week's match-up is a crucial test for the 4-3 Lions

Posted Oct 25, 2013

No matter how you slice it, the Lions need to get a win this weekend as much as they've needed any win this year

Bigger games can lie ahead for the Lions this season with more immediately at stake, but for what it means at this point in the season, Sunday's game against the Cowboys is their biggest since they made the playoffs in 2011.

There are so many reasons the Lions face a crucial test against the Cowboys that there is no reason to pinpoint one. Take your pick -- stop a losing streak before it begins, strengthen position in the NFC North, head into next week's bye on a good note.

With the Lions and Cowboys both at 4-3 and in the middle of a log jam for what promises to be a tight race to the finish to fill out the NFC's six-team playoff field, the best reason for winning is the simplest reason.

Win and move forward, with no reason to explain the consequences.

This is a time for the leaders to step up and lead, and the Lions have a good sense of how the team leaders set the standard for a solid core of players who've bought into a team concept.

Calvin Johnson, a standard-setter through performance, work ethic and character, has no concern about the team's strength of leadership. Megatron isn't looking back at other seasons when strong starts were derailed by bad finishes.

Johnson has experienced two of those – a 6-2 start in 2007 that wound up at 7-9, and a 4-4 record last year followed by a power dive to oblivion and a 4-12 finish.

"Guys have been leading the whole time," Johnson said. "That has not fallen off since we started camp.

"I don't really take anything from years past and put it on this year. Every year is a new year. We have a new team this year. We have better chemistry than we have had before. Better leadership than we have had before.

"Like I said, it's a new year and I expect better things."

Sunday is a time for those better things to be realized, and for Lions to play as close to a full game for 60 minutes as possible in this era. Most of the matchups and statistical comparisons favor the Lions. So should playing at Ford Field.

If the Lions are going to be a playoff team, they have to defend their turf better than they did in last week's loss to the Bengals on a final-play field goal.

The Lions learned something from that game. I expect them to carry that experience over to the field – with Calvin Johnson one of the leaders who shows the way.

My prediction for Sunday:

Lions 34, Cowboys 30.

Matchup Focus -- Rod's Squad:

The names of the Cowboys' defensive linemen might not be recognizable to most fans outside of Dallas, but their style of play is easily recognizable by those who've followed the career of former Lions head coach Rod Marinelli.

Marinelli is in his first season as defensive line coach in Dallas, and the front four plays with high effort and attacks quarterbacks – just like his linemen have done at his other NFL stops. That includes his three seasons as head coach of the Lions (2006-08), and the last four in Chicago, where he was defensive line coach and defensive coordinator.

Injuries have ravaged the Cowboys' front four, leaving them with only one true starter available in last week's game at Philadelphia, but they mauled the Eagles in a 17-3 win last week.

A critical matchup Sunday is the Lions' offensive line against the Cowboys' front four. Winning the battle in the trenches will allow Reggie Bush to be used at full effectiveness – unlike last week, when he was held to 50 yards on 20 carries in the loss to Cincinnati.

It is no surprise to center Dominic Raiola that the Cowboys have continued to play well despite being undermanned because of injuries.

"You know who their coach is?" Raiola said. "One of the best, arguably top five or top three defensive line coaches who has ever coached. It's not a bad combination. They're very sound, and they do it right. They play with a high level of intensity."

Tackle Jason Hatcher was the only starter last week who was one of the Cowboys' top six linemen on their depth chart when the season started. Ben Bass, Anthony Spencer and Tyrone Crawford are on injured reserve, and Jay Ratliff was released after not being healthy enough to play.

DeMarcus Ware, an All-Pro pass-rusher at defensive end or outside linebacker, did not play against the Eagles because of a thigh injury.

Romo stat – 9-17:

His value to the Cowboys is demonstrated by how important it is for him to protect the ball and limit turnovers. The Cowboys have a 9-17 record in the last 26 games in which Romo has had one or more turnovers.

An example of the Cowboys' reliance on Romo was in the 51-48 loss to the Broncos. Romo completed 25 of 36 passes for 506 yards and five TDs, with a passer rating of 140, and he outplayed Peyton Manning. But the Cowboys lost when a late interception – Romo's only turnover of the game – put Denver in position to kick the winning field goal.

Marinelli stat – 1-23:

That is the Lions' won-lost record since the start of the 2008 season with Marinelli coaching for or against them. The Lions were 0-16 in 2008, Marinelli's last season as head coach. They were 1-7 the last four years against the Bears, where Marinelli was defensive line coach in 2009 and defensive coordinator the last three seasons.

History:

The Cowboys have a 13-11 series lead, but the Lions won the last meeting, 34-30, on Oct. 2, 2011 in Dallas. The Lions rallied to win with the help of interception returns for touchdowns by Bobby Carpenter and Chris Houston.

Matthew Stafford had two TD passes and an interception. Tony Romo had 3 TD passes and 3 interceptions.

Bryant vs. Megatron in 2011:

Both had 2 TD catches in the 2011 game. Calvin Johnson had 8 catches for 96 yards to Bryant's 3 catches for 37 yards.