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The Detroit Lions could win their first division championship in 23 years on Monday night. Or they could move closer to a late-season collapse.
The Lios could close in on a wild-card playoff berth, or they could turn their season finale into a do-or-die game.
Head coach Jim Caldwell doesn’t have anything to say about his team’s postseason prospects. He’s just worrying about getting out of Dallas with a victory on Monday night.
“I’m not concerned about any of that,” he said. “I’m looking straight forward at the team we have to face. That’s our focus. Our guys understand that as well as anybody. They have a real good sense of that.”
The NFC-leading Cowboys (12-2) will know days ahead of time how much the game means to them. If the New York Giants lose to Philadelphia on Thursday, the Cowboys will have the East division title and home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs wrapped up.
If the Giants win, Dallas’ magic number to clinch both will remain at one. New York holds the tiebreaker over Dallas by virtue of handing the Cowboys both of their losses.
It’s a lot more complicated for the Lions (9-5), who lead Green Bay by one game in the NFC North. If the Packers defeat Minnesota this weekend, Detroit’s game at Dallas will have no bearing on the division race. Green Bay plays at Detroit on New Year’s Day and the Packers would win the tiebreaker by sweeping the season series with the Lions.
Detroit can at least enhance its chances of a wild-card berth by pulling an upset on Monday. The Lions’ 17-6 loss to the Giants on Sunday ended a five-game winning streak and had their fans fearing the worst.
“It’s still one game,” Caldwell said. “We’ve just got to come together and get better this week and go play the next one. That’s the key. That’s how it always is.”
The Lions’ offense has sputtered three of the last four weeks, producing 20 points or less. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is playing with ligament damage to his right middle finger, forcing him to wear a modified glove. He completed 24 of 39 passes for 273 yards with an interception in New York but couldn’t get his team in the end zone.
Top running back Theo Riddick has missed the last two games with a wrist injury. His status for Monday’s game is also in question.
Caldwell feels confident in his team’s ability to bounce back.
“It would be different if you’re 5-9,” he said. “Then their perspective would be a little different. That’s not where we are. Often times we’ve won several games in a row. We had one bump in the road. A lot of teams have that. It’s what you do after that is what counts.”
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott responded to adversity and criticism with a nearly flawless performance against Tampa Bay on Sunday night. Prescott completed 32 of 36 passes for 279 yards and added a rushing touchdown in that 26-20 victory.
That quieted talk about replacing the rookie with longtime starter Tony Romo. Prescott was picked off twice in a 10-7 loss to the Giants the previous week and passed for fewer than 200 yards in three consecutive weeks.
“I don’t pay attention to the noise,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you much of what was said. I kind of found out some of it later in the week but that really doesn’t bother me. If anything, it’s motivation. I just wanted to come back and perform after the game I had last week. That’s the only thing in my mind. He say, she say doesn’t affect me.”
Fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 159 yards and a touchdown but the game remained close because of untimely penalties. The Cowboys had eight for 91 yards.
“We did a lot of good things on offense,” coach Jason Garrett said “We were able to run the ball, able to throw it very efficiently. We were able to move the ball really throughout the game. We got into high red zone on three different occasions and got behind the chains because of penalties. So it’s really important to make sure everybody is doing their job and doing it the right way.”
Dallas leads the all-time series 14-12. The last time the teams squared off in Arlington two seasons ago, the Cowboys captured a controversial 24-20 victory in the opening round of the playoffs.
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