A trio of Cowboys stars accounted for a season-high six touchdowns to lead Dallas (13-2) to a 42-21 victory over the Detroit Lions (9-6), wrapping up the 2016 finale of “Monday Night Football.” Here’s what we learned:
1. The Lions (9-6) entered the night embracing the possibility of ascending to the NFC’s No. 2 seed with a pair of wins and a Falcons loss to close out the season. The flip side of that scenario, however, is a chance to fall out of the playoffs entirely with a pair of losses and a Week 17 victory for the Redskins over a Giants squad already locked into the No. 5 seed. Detroit must hold off the white-hot Green Bay Packers next Sunday night to enter the postseason by virtue of the NFC North title.
The Cowboys’ victory keeps the Buccaneers’ hopes on life support; Tampa Bay is praying for an unlikely Washington tie to slide into the final wild-card spot. Already in control of home-field advantage for the conference’s road to the Super Bowl, Dallas has a chance for the best record in franchise history (14-2) with a victory at Philadelphia in the season finale.
2. Instead of resting key starters, the Cowboys enjoyed their most efficient offensive performance of the season, highlighted by a long-awaited synchronicity between rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and No. 1 receiver Dez Bryant. Showing pinpoint accuracy while keeping plays alive with his feet, Prescott finished with three touchdowns, 11.2 yards per attempt and a near-perfect 152.7 passer rating — perhaps his finest performance in a brilliant NFL debut season.
3. With a spectacular juggling one-handed catch over Johnson Bademosi just before halftime, Bryant moved past Hall of Famer Michael Irvin for second-most receiving touchdowns (67) in franchise history. He needs five more to pass another Hall of Famer in former Olympic gold medalist “Bullet Bob” Hayes for the top spot. On the first pass of Bryant’s NFL career — one quarter later — he pulled up before the line of scrimmage on an end-around and tossed a touchdown to Jason Witten. He capped off Dallas’ scoring bonanza with a beautiful back-shoulder score in the final stanza. Bryant joined former Patriots wideout David Patten as the only players of the Super Bowl era with a pair of receiving scores and a passing touchdown in the same game.
4. Offensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner and MVP candidate Ezekiel Elliott rushed out to 76 yards and a touchdown in the first half, but spent the majority of the second half on ice after the Cowboys built a comfortable lead. Although he now needs 178 rushing yards in the season finale to break Eric Dickerson’s long-standing rookie record, Monday night’s approach suggests he won’t see enough playing time to make a serious run at the honor.
5. The Lions’ offense was operating at its highest level in weeks, opening the game with three consecutive touchdowns while Matthew Stafford pulled off a convincing Brett Favre impersonation. That gunslinger approach backfired in the second half when Stafford opened the third quarter with an ill-advised sidearm throw across his body into tight coverage for a J.J. Wilcox interception. Stafford was lucky not to be picked by Wilcox on a third-down throw two series later. Credit Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli with a savvy halftime adjustment to a dime shell, removing the deep ball, shrinking the field and daring Detroit to run. In a game it didn’t need after wrapping up the No. 1 seed, the Cowboys’ defense harassed Stafford to the tune of eight pass deflections, nine QB hits and four sacks.
6. Detroit’s defense desperately needs stingy cornerback Darius “Big Play” Slay to return for next week’s showdown with the hottest quarterback in football. Sidelined by a hamstring injury, Slay watched the Cowboys pick on his replacement, former Browns special teamer Bademosi. After holding each of their last eight opponents to 20 points or fewer, the Lions’ defense allowed a season-high 42 points to Dallas.
7. Another reason to believe the Cowboys will be more judicious with their starters next week: They lost cornerback Anthony Brown and defensive linemen Ryan Davis and Terrell McClain to injuries. Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith left the game late in the third quarter when his legs were taken out while blocking on a Darren McFadden sweep. On a positive note, Smith remained standing on the sideline and owner Jerry Jones told reporters after the game Smith was “fine.”