MIAMI (Reuters) - The Dallas Cowboys return to the NFL playoffs on Sunday after a four-year absence seeking their first Super Bowl appearance since their victory in 1995.
‘America’s team’ ended the regular season with four straight wins, including emphatic victories in the last two -- a 42-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts and a 44-17 cruise against the Washington Redskins.
On Sunday, the Cowboys host the Detroit Lions in the final game of the wildcard weekend.
The action starts with the Arizona Cardinals, hoping to advance to the Super Bowl which will be played at their own stadium, up against the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers, who enter the playoffs despite a losing 7-8 record.
Saturday’s other game features two Northern powerhouses who are in the post-season despite being unable to live up to their recent best -- the Baltimore Ravens and the hosting Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Cincinnati Bengals visit the Colts on Sunday before the Cowboys take center stage.
Dallas quarterback Tony Romo has enjoyed a career-best season with 34 touchdowns, just nine interceptions and 3,705 passing yards.
“His decision making has been excellent,” Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett told USA Today.
”I think we have done a really good job with the environment around him. Obviously we are significantly better than we have been up front, running the ball better than we have in a long time and he has benefited from that.
“But there is no question in my mind he has orchestrated the whole thing. His leadership of the offensive unit has been outstanding.”
The other two outstanding players for Dallas this year have been running back DeMarco Murray, who broke Emmitt Smith’s single season franchise record with 1,845 yards, and receiver Dez Bryant, who enjoyed a Cowboys record of 16 touchdowns.
The Lions faced the prospect of being without key defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, suspended a game for treading on the leg of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers before the Lions had that ban overturned on appeal.
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford has two excellent receivers in Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson.
‘Megatron’ Johnson had 14 catches for 329 yards, the second best performance by a receiver in NFL history, when the teams last met - the Lions winning 31-30 in 2013.
Tate has been on fire this season, putting up 1,331 yards on 99 receptions, so the Cowboys pass defense will need to be alert to two offensive threats.
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes