By Elwyn Henderson
The 11-4 Detroit Lions came into AT&T Stadium Saturday night, December 30th tied with the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco Forty-Niners for the best record in the NFC. The 10-5 Dallas Cowboys are one game out with two games to go in the 2023 regular season.
To say the game was big would be an understatement, but as big a game as it was, the primary thing on everyone’s mind was the induction of former head coach Jimmy Johnson being enshrined into the Cowboys Ring of Honor at halftime of the matchup. It happened many years later than it should have, due to the big ego of both men that led to Johnson’s departure after winning back-to-back Super Bowls with the youngest team in the NFL. Cowboys fans have been bitter for years about that split, knowing their team could have possibly won 3 or 4 more consecutive Lombardi Trophies IF Jimmy had remained the coach. Better late than never, and on this night Jimmy Johnson finally got his just reward for what he did for America’s Team back in the day.
As for the game, Dallas came out on top by a score of 20-19 in a game that had a bizarre ending. The Cowboys won the coin toss and elected to defer to the second half to begin the game. Brandon Aubrey kicked off out of the end zone as is almost always the case, and following a touchback Jared Goff and the Lions offense hit the field for the first time at their 25.
Goff moved his unit down the field to the Dallas 23 but a 3rd down pass fell short of a first down and on 4th down Michael Badgley booted a 41-yard field goal with 10:46 left in the first quarter and Detroit took an early 3-0 lead. The drive was 11 plays, 52 yards and took 4:14.
After a touchback of the ensuing kickoff Dak Prescott let the Cowboys on the field for their first possession of the night.
The Cowboys were moving down the field, but the drive ended when Prescott was intercepted at the Lion 20 by Ifeatu Melifonwu. He returned the pick to the Lion 43 and Goff and company went on offense again.
The visitors picked up one first down and then the Cowboys defense rose to the occasion and forced a punt on the next series. The kick was fair caught by KaVonte Turpin at the Dallas 11 and the Dallas offense began their third possession of the night.
It was a short possession for the home team, but it could not have ended up any better. The first two plays resulted in losses and on the third play it looked as though Prescott would end up being tackled in the end zone for a safety, but SOMEHOW he escaped the defensive pressure and got out of the end zone and tossed a deep pass to CeeDee Lamb. The defender fell down and Lamb ran on into the end zone for a 92-yard TD strike with 3:26 left in the first quarter. Brandon Aubrey hit the extra point and Dallas led 7-3. The drive was 3 plays, 89 yards and took just 1:02.
After a touchback the Lions began their next drive at their 25. The swarming Dallas defense forced a three-and-out and a Jack Fox punt sailed into the end zone and Dallas went back to work at their 20. Thanks to a false start on the first play of the possession, it was a quick three-and-out for the offense and on the first play of the second quarter Brandon Aubrey. The kick traveled down to the Lions 35 and was returned to the 43 and Goff hit the field with his offensive teammates once again.
On the second play of the possession Jourdan Lewis intercepted Goff at the Dallas 45 and Prescott and company returned to try to add to their lead.
It looked as though they were going to do just that, but Tony Pollard caught a Prescott pass at the Lions 2, was hit and fumbled the ball into the end zone and the ball rolled out of the end zone for a touchback and Detroit took over on their 20, ending the drive.
The defense held and forced a punt, but it was faked and the result was a 31-yard pass that put the ball on the Dallas 41 and Goff and his unit was starting in great field position with a chance to reclaim the lead.
Detroit moved the ball down to the Dallas 4 and the decision was made to go for the TD rather than take a certain field goal. A pass into the end zone fell incomplete and Dallas took over on downs at their 5-yard line with 5:39 left in the first half.
The offense moved the ball up to the 37 but had to punt away on a 4th and 13. Aubrey’s kick traveled down to the Detroit 16 and was returned to the 41 where Goff set up for his two minute offense in hopes of putting points on the scoreboard before intermission with 1:40 left to work with.
The Cowboys defense rose to the challenge and gave up just 2 yards in 3 plays, forcing a Fox punt with 44 seconds left in the half after Dallas used their second time out of the half. The kick traveled down to the Dallas 9 where Turpin called for and made a fair catch.
Prescott brought the offense out with 37 seconds left in the half. They ran 2 plays and the half ended with Dallas leading 7-3.
The crowd mostly stayed in their seats in order to watch the Johnson enshrinement into the Ring of Honor. The ceremony was an emotional event for Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, as both men’s voices quivered at times when they were talking and the fans embraced Johnson as if he were their most favorite Dallas Cowboy ever.
Dallas got the ball to begin the second half, but after picking up two first downs they were forced to punt on the next series and Goff began his second half magic at his 26.
The Lions moved the 74 yards in 14 plays over 7:26 and the drive ended when David Montgomery ran into the end zone from 3 yards out with 4:34 left in the third quarter. After a successful extra point kick Detroit took a 10-7 lead.
The Cowboys came back with an 11-play drive that covered 42 yards and tied the game on a 51-yard Brandon Aubrey field goal with 23 seconds left in the third quarter, but their lead was short-lived.
On their ensuing possession Goff led his charges on a 9-play, 78-yard drive that took 3:05 off the clock. The Dallas defense struggled on the possession but came up big when they hard to, forcing a Badgley 30-yard field goal with 12:18 left in the game that put the visitors up 13-10.
Dallas responded on their next possession with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that consumed 4:58 off the clock and ended when Prescott hit Brandon Cooks on an 8-yard TD pass with 7:20 left in the game, making the score 17-13 in favor of the Cowboys.
The teams exchanged punts and then the Dallas defense came up big with 3:37 left in the game when Donovan Wilson intercepted a Goff pass at the Detroit 29.
Prescott led the offense on a 5-play, 19-yard drive that took just 24 seconds. It ended with a 43-yard Aubrey field goal and increased the lead to 20-13 with 1:41 left in the game. Cowboys fans felt like things were under control and their team had the victory, but Goff and the Lions had other thoughts.
Beginning at their 25, Goff chopped up the Dallas defense and moved his unit the 75 yards into the end zone with just 1:18 left in the game. The score came on 11-yard pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown with just 23 seconds left in the game.
Coach Dan Campbell opted to go for a 2-point conversion for the win and that is where the bizarre finish occurred.
On the attempt, Goff completed a pass for what would have been a successful try and a 1-point lead, but a flag was thrown and the Referee Brad Allen said that a tackle who entered the field of play had failed to report, resulting in a 5-yard penalty for illegal substitution. On the next attempt a pass fell incomplete but Micah Parsons was called for a penalty, moving the ball back to the Dallas 3. On the third and final attempt a Goff pass was dropped by the intended receiver at the 1 and the Cowboys took over.
An onside kick attempt was recovered by Lamb at the Lion 43. Prescott came out and took a knee as the final seconds ran off the clock and the ‘Boys escaped with the 20-19 win, leaving both teams at 11-5 on the season.
Dallas closes the season next weekend on the road in Landover, MD when they take on the Washington Commanders in what will almost certainly be Coach Ron Rivera’s final game before being fired after another dismal season.