The Detroit Lions had a chance to lock up a playoff spot Monday night against the Dallas Cowboys, but the NFC East champions thwarted those plans with an emphatic 42-21 win at AT&T Stadium that showcased the hosts' breathtaking balance.
The Cowboys tied a franchise record with 13 wins—a mark they also hit in 1992 and 2007. The Lions, meanwhile, dropped to 9-6.
Dallas could have opted to rest its big guns with the NFC's No. 1 seed sewn up, but head coach Jason Garrett refused to take his foot off the gas.
Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott continued to pass with the composure of a veteran, throwing for 212 yards and three touchdowns, including a 25-yard dime to Dez Bryant (four receptions, 70 yards, two touchdowns) that helped tie the score at 21 one minute before halftime:
Like his first-year partner in crime, running back Ezekiel Elliott remained on a torrid pace, gashing the Detroit defense on 12 carries for 80 yards and two touchdowns. The MVP candidate's two scoring runs came from one and 55 yards, with the latter showcasing his breakaway speed, via the NFL:
According to Pro Football Focus' Nathan Jahnke, Elliott has logged 22 carries of at least 15 yards this season. In 2015, no player had 20 such runs.
With their passing and rushing attacks firing on all cylinders, the Cowboys decided to break out a bit of trickery to secure a decisive two-touchdown edge with a shade over four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
After starting the possession at its own 5-yard line, Dallas marched downfield in expedient fashion and capped the seven-play, 95-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown toss by Bryant to tight end Jason Witten.
The Lions, however, didn't always look so listless.
Though it fell apart at the seams after halftime, Detroit scored on each of its first three possessions to keep pace with—and then take a lead over—the Cowboys during a first half devoid of defense.
In a surprising turn of events, the Lions' 30th-ranked ground game propelled the team to a strong start.
With Theo Riddick (wrist) inactive, South Dakota State product Zach Zenner starred with a career-high 67 rushing yards and two touchdowns. To put those numbers in perspective, Zenner had one rushing score in his career and 198 yards this season prior to Monday's breakout performance.
Yahoo Sports' Brad Evans joked that he resembled a certain video game legend:
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford was sharp in the first half, when he found receivers with passes from absurd angles and picked apart the Dallas secondary, but his decision-making turned reckless in the second half as the Cowboys' defensive intensity ramped up exponentially.
All told, Stafford finished 26-of-46 passing for 260 yards with an interception and a one-yard rushing touchdown in a showing that reminded CSN Authentic's John Middlekauff of a celebrated former gunslinger:
Stafford's Jekyll and Hyde effort left the Lions to fight an uphill battle, and Detroit's ill-timed defensive collapse in the second half squashed any hopes the team had of stamping a ticket to the postseason.
As a result, the Lions are in a tight spot.
While they're still alive for a postseason berth, they must beat the Green Bay Packers in Sunday's de facto NFC North title game at Ford Field.
Matched up against Aaron Rodgers and a team that's riding a five-game winning streak, Detroit will need to defy the odds to avoid a late-season collapse.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, can coast.
Garrett opted not to rest his starters against the Lions, but he should be able to do so without worry when Dallas travels to the City of Brotherly Love for a meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 17.
"Tonight was not perfect, but there was a lot of good, competitive spirit and good fight that will serve us well going forward," Garrett said, per NFL Total Access.
Garrett also updated reporters on the condition of left tackle Tyron Smith—who left the game late with an apparent right knee injury.
"We don't think it's going to be that serious," he said, per the Dallas Morning News' Brandon George. "He seemed good after the ballgame."
As for the lack of a Tony Romo sighting, owner Jerry Jones explained the team's thinking regarding the backup quarterback.
"We don't feel like any gain we'd get from him stepping out there and running a few plays [would be] worth the risk," he said, per George.
Fox Sports Detroit relayed video of Lions head coach Jim Caldwell breaking down the loss:
"Guys are hurting right now," Caldwell said, per Brad Galli of WXYZ in Detroit. "That's what happens when you lose. But our guys are resilient."
Looking ahead, Stafford remained optimistic about the position his team is in.
"Beginning of the year, you tell us Week 17 got a chance to play Packers at home for the division I’m taking it all day," he said, according to the team's official Twitter account.