The Sneakiest Rivalry in the NFL: Lions vs. Cowboys

Week 4 gives us our 5th installment of what has been the sneakiest rivalry in the NFL over the past decade. Yes, I’m talking about Lions vs. Cowboys, a series where the sub-plots run deep and a close game is always in store. Let’s start where it all began, a week 4 game back in 2011, when the Lions traveled to Dallas.

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

Week 4, Lions @ Cowboys

The Lions were in the third year of the Jim Schwartz era, and the team looked like it finally had the talent to make a push at the playoffs. The 2010 season had ended in four straight victories, and that momentum had carried over into 2011, where the Lions had started 3-0.

The Cowboys were in their first full season of the Jason Garrett era. Garrett coached the second half of the 2010 season taking over a 1-7 team after Wade Phillips was fired. He ended the year 5-3, so there was promise and momentum going into 2011 for Big D. Going into week 4, the Cowboys were 2-1.

The game could not have gotten off to a worse start for Detroit, as Dez Bryant had two early touchdowns, then Jason Witten tacked another one on right after halftime. The Lions were down 27-3 with 10:30 left in the 3rd quarter when madness ensued.

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Dez and Witten celebrate an early score.

Tony Romo was intercepted by Lions linebacker Bobby Carpenter, the former first round pick of the Dallas Cowboys. He weaved his way to a pick-six, and the Lions had life. The Cowboys got the ball back and drove for almost five minutes until Tony Romo was picked again, this time by Chris Houston, who took it 57 yards for the second Lions pick-six of the game.

The Cowboys kicked a field goal on their next possession, but momentum had already swung the Lions way. The next drive the Lions went 80 yards for the score, and Calvin Johnson truly entered the national spotlight with his triple coverage jump ball TD catch. It was his 7th touchdown reception of the season so far, and Calvin had scored two touchdowns in each of the teams first 3 games.

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Calvin Johnson on some touchdown thing like that.

The sub-plot in all of this is that earlier in the week, Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan said that his defense works against better receivers in practice than Calvin Johnson. 

“We’re going to get after him,” Ryan said. “I know he’s on some touchdown thing like that, whatever.” (Per MLive article by Philip Zaroo)

Tony Romo’s 2nd half meltdown continued, and with the Cowboys up 3 with 4 minutes to go in the 4th, he launched an ill-advised pass to Jason Witten which was picked off by Stephen Tulloch. With 1:40 left in the game, Matthew Stafford threw a fade route to who else but Calvin Johnson to put the Lions in the lead, 34-30. It was his 4th game in a row on that touchdown thing like that. But whatever.

The 24-point comeback was complete, and the Lions 4-0 start paved the way to their first playoff birth since 1999. The Cowboys would fall to 2-2, and finished the year 8-8.

Here are the highlights from the game.

October 27th, 2013

Week 8, Cowboys @ Lions

This game, not unlike the previous installment, featured a Detroit Lions comeback, and some bulletin board material involving once again Calvin Johnson. Before the game, Dez Bryant said that he can do “anything that Calvin can”. And up until 6 and a half minutes to go in the 4th quarter, it seemed as if Dez had the upper hand in that day’s battle.

Bryant notched an acrobatic one-handed touchdown grab a-la David Tyree in the first half, then scored a 50 yard catch and run TD to put the Cowboys up 10 late in the 4th quarter.

However, when it comes to Megatron, he will never throw the first punch.

He always throws the last one.

After the big Dez touchdown, on the first play of the Lions following drive Stafford launched a 50 yard bomb to Calvin in what I like to call his “galloping gazelle” catch, plucking the ball out of the air while draped by two Cowboy defenders.

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The Lions would go on to score a touchdown, making it 27-24 Dallas. The Cowboys would then have to punt, and the Lions got the ball back with two timeouts and just over two minutes left in the game.

So this is where the comeback starts, right?

Wrong. The Lions turn the ball over on downs, Dallas now has the ball with 1:14 to go and a 99% chance to win the game. Detroit burns its two remaining timeouts, and on 3rd & 14 Dallas just has to run it and give Detroit the ball back with no timeouts and maybe :20 seconds on the clock left.

They do run on third down, but left tackle Tyron Smith commits a crucial holding penalty, which stops the clock. The Cowboys kick a field goal to go up 6.

The Lions trailed by six with just a minute remaining and no timeouts.

What happens next can only be described as magic.

After a measly out route to Reggie Bush that maybe gains one yard, Stafford maneuvers the pocket and hits Calvin down the middle for a chunk gain that puts them around the 40 yard line. The ball is clocked.

The ensuing play is in my opinion the single greatest throw in Matthew Stafford’s career, and I’ll be damned if any other quarterback in the NFL could make it.

Stafford takes the snap, and begins to roll out to his right. He then cuts the roll-out short short, flips his hips, and unfurls a frozen rope strike to Chris Durham that puts the Lions inside the Cowboys 25 yard line. The ball fits in perfectly over a trailing corner and over-top safety, the turkiest of turkey holes.

The next play is a perfect strike to Calvin, who is knocked down inside the one yard line. With the clock ticking under :15 seconds, the fake spike play begins.

I can’t even write about it, because only the audio does it justice.

Listen here.

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Riley! Riley! Riley!

That Stafford drive can only be described as art that belongs on a mural in the DIA. What’s better is that the touchdown prompted an epic sideline meltdown from Dez Bryant, who’s great game gets completely overshadowed by Calvin and Matthew.

The Lions comeback was so improbable that even the announcers and Fox Sports production team showed where each team would be in their division standings because of the result, the Lions dropping to .500 at 4-4, and the Cowboys at 5-3.

The Lions win a thriller 31-30. Unfortunately, this is where the train stops for Detroit.

You can watch this game in full on YouTube.

January 4th, 2015

Wild Card Weekend, Lions @ Cowboys

The Lions were coming off one of the best regular seasons in franchise history, finishing 11-5 in their first year under Jim Caldwell. The Cowboys had won the NFC East for the first time under Jason Garrett, and both teams had reason to believe that they could be contenders as the NFC playoffs began.

Once more, there was some game-week sounding off from Dallas about a Detroit Lions wide receiver. Except this time it wasn’t Calvin Johnson, they apparently learned their lesson. This time around, it was Lions newcomer Golden Tate. Barry Church said he was looking to get revenge on Tate for a block he levied on Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee that injured him the year before when Tate was a member of the Seahawks.

With Barry Church covering him, Tate threw the first punch in the form of a 51 yard catch and run touchdown on the Lions opening possession. After a Reggie Bush touchdown scamper, the Lions were up 14-0 early.

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Tate’s early score.

However, late in the 2nd quarter Detroit gave up a big play to Terrance Williams, and he went over 60 yards for a touchdown on what was a 3 & 12. The Lions were able to get a late field goal, and went into halftime up 17-7.

The Lions started with the ball in the 3rd quarter, and Stafford had a tipped ball intercepted on the first play. The Cowboys were unable to capitalize however as their stud kicker Dan Bailey missed an uncharacteristic kick from inside 40 yards, crisis averted for Detroit.

The Lions would add a field goal on the next drive, and that would be the last points they scored for the night.

With two minutes left in the 3rd, Jason Garrett chose to go for it from the 1 yard line on fourth down. DeMarco Murray plowed his way in, and the tide shifted. The Cowboys would make it a 3 point game early in the 4th quarter, then it all happened.

Put simply, this was the beginning of all things unholy when it comes to The Detroit Lions and the referees.

With 3rd & 1 from mid-field, Stafford throws the ball to Brandon Pettigrew, who is clearly interfered with by Anthony Hitchens, and the flag is thrown. Dez Bryant runs out onto the field without his helmet on to argue with the refs, which is a 15 yard personal foul penalty on it’s own, but Detroit will have the ball at the Cowboys 30 yard line with 1st & 10 inside 8 minutes.

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Then, inexplicably, Pete Morelli’s crew picks up the flag.

So what should have been 1st & 10 at the 15 yard line turns into 4th & 1 back at the 50 yard line. At least the Lions should be able to pin em deep.

Just kidding. Sam Martin shanks the punt and the Cowboys get the ball around their own 40 yard line.

The Cowboys then convert a 4th & 6 to Jason Witten en route to a Terrance Williams touchdown with 2:32 left in the game that puts them up 24-20. This still yet is plenty of time for the Lions heroic Matthew Stafford. He’s done it twice before against Dallas, why not a third?

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Terrance Williams catches the game-winner.

Except it wasn’t in the cards. The Lions fail to convert a 4th & 3 just inside mid-field and the game is lost. It was a heart-breaker for the team, as well as the last game in a Lions uniform for fan-favorite Ndamukong Suh. The next season, career Lion and the most skilled receiver to ever walk the Earth Calvin Johnson would retire.

In some poetic justice, the Cowboys would go on to lose to the Green Bay Packers after getting screwed on a going-to-the-ground catch rule with Dez Bryant. It still doesn’t fully erase the sting, and I will forever be queasy when thinking about this night in January.

December 26th, 2016

Week 16, Lions @ Cowboys

The 4th installment of our rivalry features less fanfare leading up to the game, and a less exciting result as well. In all honesty, I feel as if it is one of the Lions most embarrassing losses in the Matthew Stafford era.

The game was on Monday Night Football, and the Cowboys were in their first year with Dak Prescott as the starting quarterback. Romo was healthy but now the back-up, his career fate essentially sealed. Sitting at 12-2, the game didn’t even matter for Dallas, who had locked up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs in the NFC.

The Lions, on the other hand, were in control of their own destiny when it came for qualifying for the playoffs, but a loss to Dallas would put the Washington Redskins in the drivers seat for a wild card spot.

So the team with nothing to play for vs. the team with everything to play for, what do you think happens?

Well, if the team that has everything to play for is the Detroit Lions, you lay an absolute egg in prime-time and prove to the world that even if you do make the playoffs, you have a snowball’s chance in hell of doing anything when you get there.

The Cowboys were a good team in 2016, which is why heading into halftime tied at 21 was a pretty good start for Detroit. Zach Zenner had two touchdowns and 67 yards rushing.

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Doc Zenner had a first half for the ages against Dallas.

In the second half, the Lions got outscored 21-0. Zach Zenner either fell off the face of the Earth or got paged for emergency surgery at Parkland Hospital. After getting 12 carries for 67 yards in the first half, Zenner only got 3 totes for 2 goats in the 2nd half. This change in usage was defended by offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter  saying he was at a high snap-count, and that you can’t play 70 snaps a game at running back.

One week later, Zenner played 64 of a possible 66 snaps against the Packers.

This game was capped off with a ‘Philly Special’ type play where Dez Bryant threw a touchdown pass to Jason Witten.

Johsnon Bademosi got roasted in coverage a lot in this game as well with Darius Slay injured. It was the 2nd of 3 straight losses to end the regular season for Detroit, before they flew to Seattle for the playoffs and lost a 4th straight to end the season.

Watch this game’s highlights here.

September 30th, 2018

Week 4, Lions @ Cowboys

It’s a match-up of two 1-2 squads, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.

The Lions have momentum coming off a statement win at home against the New England Patriots, and the Cowboys offense looks dead as a door-nail coming off a loss in Seattle.

Both teams still have their backs against the wall, and a loss would almost certainly put the Cowboys and Lions out of the playoff picture in what is a crowded NFC.

Many of the familiar faces from our previous rivalry games are gone, such as Dez, Calvin, Romo, and Witten, to name a few. Jason Garett has been roaming the sidelines for all of these games, but the Lions now send their out their third coach, Matt Patricia, to face Dallas.

The series is tied 2-2, who comes out on top in game 5?

Lions 25, Cowboys 13.