O'HARA: Is Sunday's game vs. Dallas a must-win?

Posted Oct 21, 2013

In today's Monday Countdown, Mike O'Hara takes a look at the Lions' mentality after a tough loss to Cincinnati, the good and the bad from that game and the best and worst in the NFL

Reggie BushReggie Bush looks on as the Bengals boot a game-winning field goal. (Photo: G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

What might be called a Twitter-Probe that was launched late Sunday evening to test the temperature of Lions Nation brought results that weren't surprising.

The question: is Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys a must-win for the Lions?

Most answered yes, with a few colorful comments. Some were reasonable, with the obvious reply that all games in the NFL are must wins. I prefer as much snarky, biting sarcasm as one can fit into 140 characters, but the reasonable folks are right about all NFL games being must wins.

But it isn't all math. Some games are more important than others, and Sunday's matchup against the Cowboys is an important one on the Lions' schedule for a variety of reasons – the impact of losing to the Bengals, where Detroit is in the NFC North standings, and the remaining schedule.

This week's Monday Countdown examines why the Cowboys game is so important, what the Lions must combat to win, and where the other teams in the NFC North stand.

There is also a look at how expectations intersect with reality for Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, some stats and performance related to the Lions defense, the good and bad of the Lions in the Bengals game, and the best and worst of the NFL after seven weeks.

We start with what makes the Cowboys game so important:

1. The setup: The Lions were sitting in good shape when they came home after winning at Cleveland to make their record 4-2. They had played four of their eight road games and were facing two straight at home – against the Bengals and Cowboys in order.

Winning both to get to 6-2 would have been ideal. A split, for a 5-3 record, would have been acceptable. In short, losing both and sinking to 4-4 is unacceptable.

The loss to the Bengals leaves the Lions reaching for acceptable and staving off unacceptable. They'd rather piggy-back momentum off a win over Cincy than try to recover against the Cowboys. But that's where they stand because of Sunday's loss.

2. Chasing first: The Packers have taken over the top spot in the North with a 4-2 record. Tied for second a half game back are the Lions and Bears, both at 4-3.

It's important for the Lions to keep contact with first place. This is no time to start stacking losses, especially with the Packers starting to heat up.

After Sunday's home game with the Cowboys, the Lions have a bye and then come back to play two straight on the road against the Bears and Steelers.

The Lions have won twice on the road already this season, but they've never had an easy time winning away from home. And regardless of what their records are, the Bears (4-3) and Steelers (2-4, with a two-game winning streak) are tough at home.

The Lions need some kind of cushion coming out of the bye, and the only way to get it is to beat the Cowboys.

3. The North: The Packers have won three straight – including a 22-6 win over the Lions – and are positioned to extend their streak to six straight. They play at Minnesota Sunday night, then return home to play the Bears and Eagles.

The Bears have lost three of four to fall to 4-3 and have a bye Sunday. They return to play at Green Bay, then home games against the Lions and Ravens.

The Vikings are 1-4 going into their Monday night game with the winless Giants. The Vikings are a nonfactor in the North.

4. The Cowboys -- finding Romo: Their strength on offense is the passing game, and defending the pass is not the Lions' strength. Cowboys QB Tony Romo's stats are similar to Stafford's -- 2,010 yards passing, 15 TDs and five interceptions.

The knock against Romo is his propensity to turn the ball over in the clutch – as he did with an interception with 1:57 left to set up a field goal in the Cowboys' 51-48 loss to the Broncos in Game 5. Romo threw for 506 yards and five TDs before the pick.

In his last two games, Romo's had two TD passes and three picks.

If the Lions get Romo off his game, they can win. If not, it'll be a tough, tough game.

Matthew StaffordQB Matthew Stafford before a 50-yard TD pass to Calvin Johnson. (Photo: G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

5. Stafford: He is being judged against a high standard -- the one he set in 2011, when he passed for 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

Stafford might never have another season like that. But most NFL quarterbacks won't either, unless Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL's Contact Violation Police Dept. get their way and outlaw all tackling.

Strictly by the eye test, Stafford hasn't played his best ball in the last three weeks. He's missed some passes. An example was a series late in the second quarter Sunday, when he had Calvin Johnson, Kris Durham and Ryan Broyles open and overthrew all three.

Johnson and Broyles could have scored touchdowns. A completion to Durham would have been a good gain but he probably would have been caught from behind.

But the stats test in the last three games tells a different story. Stafford has eight TD passes against one interception.

Jon Kitna, the first quarterback in Lions history to pass for 4,000 yards or more in two straight seasons, had a best three-game ratio of TD passes to interceptions of 7-3. Joey Harrington's best three-game split was 6-1.

6. Distribution center: Durham has become a good second or third receiving option for Stafford. Durham is capitalizing on getting consistent playing time for first time since entering the NFL in 2011 as Seattle's fourth-round draft pick.

Durham has 32 career receptions, with half of them coming in the last three games – five against the Bengals on Sunday, eight against the Browns and three against the Packers.

7. Safety last: With Romo coming to town Sunday and averaging 287 passing yards per game, the Lions secondary will have to make more plays than it did against the Bengals.

“I don't think we did a very good job in coverage,” is how Coach Jim Schwartz assessed the pass defense that was burned by Andy Dalton for 372 yards passing, three TDs and a passer rating of 135.9.

Lions cornerbacks were credited with three pass breakups against the Bengals, and Rashean Mathis had all three.

Safety Glover Quin and Louis Delmas each had one pass breakup, and both made big plays in the second half.

In the third quarter, Delmas roared up from free safety to chop down Giovani Bernard short of a first down on a third-down pass reception. That forced Cincy to settle for a field goal instead of continuing the possession for a possible TD.

In the fourth quarter, Quin batted away a third-down pass meant for A.J. Green deep down the middle with about 10 minutes left in the game to force a punt.

Those were plays, not stats-padders, that help win games.

Ndamukong SuhDT Ndamukong Suh had the Lions' only sack in a 27-24 loss to Cincinnati. (Photo: G. Smith/Detroit Lions)

8. Tackle tandem: Nick Fairley was half right when he declared in the offseason that he and Ndamukong Suh were the NFL most dominant defensive tackle tandem.

Suh is having an exceptional year, but Fairley hasn't lived up to his own projections. He had one entry on the stats sheet Sunday – for a deflected pass.

He had these stats in the previous three games:

Cleveland: three tackles and a quarterback hit.

Green Bay: One tackle.

Chicago: No tackles, two quarterback hits and a fumble recovery for a TD – after Suh knocked the ball loose from Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

9. What was good about Sunday's game: Start with Calvin Johnson's nine catches for 155 yards and two TDs; Suh's sack that ended Cincy's next-to-last possession, solid safety play by Delmas and Quin and a 65-yard first punt by Sam Martin.

10. What was bad about Sunday's game: A blocked field goal that led to a Bengals' TD near the end of the first half; cornerback Chris Houston being benched for poor performance; only one sack of Andy Dalton, Stafford's overthrows in a late second-quarter drive; Martin's 28-yard punt that led to the Bengals' making the game-winning field goal.

11. The NFL's best after seven weeks:

1. Chiefs (7-0): The NFL's only unbeaten team had to fight to beat Houston by a point.
2. Seahawks (6-1): Solid win at Arizona.
3. Saints (5-1): Needed a bye after a loss to the Patriots.
4. Broncos (6-1): Peyton Manning was cheered in his return to Indy, and Indy's fans cheered when the Colts won.
5. 49ers (5-2): Four-game winning streak with a tap-in at Jacksonville to make it five.
6. Colts (5-2): Solid win over Manning and the Broncos.
7. Bengals (5-2): A big game by Andy Dalton led the road win over the Lions.
8. Packers (4-2): Watching Aaron Rodgers lead an offense, all that's missing is the baton and tux.
9. Patriots (5-2): Tom Brady looks past his prime. Didn't expect that.
10. Chargers (4-3): Philip Rivers is as hot as anybody.
11. Jets (4-3): Overtime win over Patriots puts them in AFC East race.
12. Lions (4-3): Barely holding off the Bears, Cowboys. Vital that they beat Cowboys.

12 The NFL's worst:

5. Texans (2-5): Nobody expected a five-game losing streak, but who sees a way out?
4. Vikings (1-4): Counting on Josh Freeman to lead the offense.
3. Bucs (0-6): Sent Josh Freeman packing – not that he should have minded.
2. Giants (0-6): Biggest surprise of the year, so far. Never expected them to fall this far this fast.
1. Jaguars (0-7): Vegas has them 17-point underdogs to lose at home to the 49ers.