By Joe Gunther
The Minnesota Vikings were the last team to lose a game this season. They started 5-0 and were considered one of the league’s best. Now, they have lost five of six and sit on the outside looking in at the playoffs.
Their next road to recovery will be the most difficult they have faced this season. The Dallas Cowboys come to US Bank Stadium on Thursday with both teams having a full week between games. The Vikings fell to the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving just before the Cowboys defeated the Washington Redskins on the same day.
Cowboys Season Record
The Cowboys dropped the season opener at home to the New York Giants, but have won 10 straight since. They have defeated the Redskins twice—once at home and once on the road—as well as the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers on the road and Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens at home.
The players everyone talks about on the Cowboys offense are rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. The duo has helped the Cowboys move from the fourth-worst record in the league last season to the best so far this year.
However, they are hardly the sole reason for the team’s success. The Cowboys’ offensive line is the best in the league. They control the game by opening holes for Elliott and giving Prescott a clean pocket to throw from. The leaders of the group are left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin—these guys are annual Pro Bowlers. Right tackle Doug Free is in the Pro Bowl discussion. Left guard La’el Collins has only played three games this season, but backup Ronald Leary could start for the majority of the teams in the league.
It is critical for the Vikings’ defensive line to consistently get into the Cowboys’ backfield. They have to move the line of scrimmage backward on first and second down consistently and make the Cowboys one-dimensional.
On paper, the Cowboys defense isn’t great. They are 21st in yards allowed (362.2 per game) – 31st in passing (280.4) and third in rushing (81.8). However, they play off the offense. They make plays when they need to and the offense does such a good job of scoring that their mistakes and shortcomings don’t hurt them.
The reality is this defense is a better match-up for the Vikings than maybe any they have played this season. The Cowboys are not a great pass rushing team with just 20 sacks (25th in the league). The Vikings should be able to give Sam Bradford time to throw in this game, as the Cowboys’ secondary really struggled to stop the Redskins from throwing deep on them in Week 11. The question is whether the Vikings can take advantage of the opportunity or not.
Cowboys Players to Watch
The Cowboys player to watch on offense is Cole Beasley. The slot receiver will be a more difficult match-up, especially if Captain Munnerlyn doesn’t play, in which case Dez Bryant or Terrance Williams will be on the outside. The smaller, quicker receivers that have a greater route tree are the ones that have the most success against the physical Vikings cornerback. Munnerlyn or Mackensie Alexander will have their hands full with Beasley.
On defense, the guy to watch is Brandon Carr. He leads the Cowboys in passes defensed and has one of the team’s four interceptions. If Stefon Diggs plays for the Vikings, he could find himself matched up against Carr most of the game.
The Vikings have to string together some wins. With five games remaining in the season, Minnesota is a half game out of a playoff spot. However, they are one game behind the division leaders, but lose the head-to-head tiebreaker. They also currently lose the wild card tiebreakers to the Redskins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Eagles, who are behind the Vikings in the standings after losing to Green Bay on Monday night. It is an uphill battle for the Vikings to make the playoffs.
Beating the Cowboys would be a big boost that could give them their confidence back with four very winnable games to finish the season.