The Dallas Cowboys and surging Green Bay Packers are a formidable one-two combination for the Detroit Lions to contend with in their last two games, but ESPN Monday Night TV analyst Jon Gruden had high praise for the Lions two leaders on offense and defense to provide a 1-2 counterpunch.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford and middle linebacker Tahir Whitehead were cited by Gruden as standouts for the Lions in his regular Wednesday morning appearance on ESPN's Mike & Mike show.
Gruden called Stafford "an unbelievable competitor," and said of Whitehead, "he makes almost every tackle for them."
The Lions are in first place in the NFC North with a 9-5 record going into the last two games. The Packers are second at 8-6, and with a four-game winning streak.
The Lions play at Dallas on Monday night and close out the season at home against the Packers on Jan. 1. There are numerous possibilities for the Lions in terms of winning the NFC North or making the NFC playoffs as a wild card.
The simplest for the Lions is to beat the Packers in the final game. If they do that, they clinch the North, no matter what happens this week.
The Cowboys' 12-2 record is the NFC's best. When asked which team had the best chance to block the Cowboys' path to Super Bowl 51, Gruden mentioned quarterback Aaron Rodgers, not the Packers by name.
"I think Dallas is probably hoping that Aaron Rodgers doesn't get in the playoffs, because Aaron Rodgers is the biggest threat to anybody."
Gruden was asked first on the Mike & Mike show about Stafford playing with an injured middle finger on his right (passing) hand, and how he performed in last week's road loss to the Giants.
"I don't know what the weather was like in New York," Gruden began. "When you take a dome team and put it outside, it's a lot different. I see that with Drew Brees, I see that with a lot of quarterbacks."
Playing outdoors is not an issue. The Cowboys and Lions play indoors.
Gruden quickly switched to talking about how Stafford has performed, and his supporting cast – particularly the number of rookies and new players who are starting.
"When you talk about Stafford, he's got a rookie center, Graham Glasgow," Gruden began. "He's got a rookie left tackle, Taylor Decker. They really haven't been able to run the ball. They're using a rookie, Dwayne Washington.
"Three rookies around him, and he's using some new receivers – Anquan Boldin, Marvin Jones Jr. I think he's doing a great job.
"There are some throws you're curious about. He's an unbelievable competitor. How they beat the Bears with his scrambling ability (for the winning touchdown) ... This Matt Stafford just had a Pro Bowl season.
"He's carrying this Lions offense. It's a credit to him."
Switching to defense, Gruden targeted the front four with the responsibility of containing Cowboys' running back Ezekiel Elliott and giving Whitehead an opportunity to make plays.
Whitehead leads the Lions with 119 tackles in 13 games. He missed one game because of an injury. Second on the team is safety Tavon Wilson with 74 tackles.
"It's going to start up front – Ziggy Ansah, Haloti Ngata, Tyrunn Walker," Gruden said. "They've got to play a great game up front.
"They've got a linebacker that nobody talks about named Tahir Whitehead. He makes almost every tackle for the Lions. He's all over the place. They've got to keep him clean. It all starts with stopping Ezekiel Elliott."