You know what they say about ugly babies?
Well, this game had a face only Cowboys fans could love.
Despite what is certainly their worst offensive performance of the season the Cowboys found a way to pull out the victory on the road against a desperate team that was playing for their playoff lives.
The very first drive of the game was a harbinger of things to come. Ezekiel Elliott started the game off with a 12-yard run, everything is looking great, right?
On the very next play Tyron Smith committed a false start that put them in a first and 15 hole. Normally that wouldn’t be too big of a deal for this offense, but against this defense on the road?
That’s not a place you want to be.
On the very next drive Elliott fumbled with the offense backed up inside their own 20. The officials originally called it a Vikings recovery but after review it was clear that Elliott actually recovered the ball while he was laying on the ground with a Viking on his back before Anthony Barr ripped it out of his arms.
Despite failing to recover the fumble the Vikings still managed to get into field goal range on their next drive as Kai Forbath connected on a 48-yarder to give the Vikings a 3-0 lead The Cowboys offense finally looked to be getting into a rhythm as they drove into Vikings territory for the first time, although a huge Elliott run that would’ve set them up in the red zone was called back thanks to a holding penalty by Doug Free. Just a few plays later Lucky Whitehead coughed up the ball on a jet sweep on third and 1, after actually converting the first down, but Everson Griffen showed great backside pursuit and hustle to pop the ball out from behind, ending the drive.
Even with the offense stalled the defense did a great job of not allowing the Vikings to convert the offensive miscues into points, giving the offense time to get on track, which they finally did late in the second quarter. One of the plays of the game came on a third and 13 that Dak Prescott converted with his legs after being flushed out of the pocket with the offense backed up inside their own 15. Just a few plays later Prescott found Dez Bryant for the biggest play of the game, yards-wise at least, with a 56-yard pass that set up a first and goal from the one-yard line. On the next play Elliott plunged in for the touchdown, giving the Cowboys a 7-3 lead.
As the second half started it was clear that the Cowboys offensive struggles were not behind them. On each of the first two drives it seemed that the offense was finding their rhythm as they started both drives with a first down after just two plays. However, on the third play of each drive Gavin Escobar was called for a penalty, first a clipping call that took the Cowboys from a second and medium to a first and 24, and then a holding call on the next drive that again took them from a second and medium to a first and 20. The Vikings scored a field goal on both possessions following each of those two drives, most notably following a Brian Robison strip-sack that gave the Vikings the ball at the Cowboys 19 on the play directly after the Escobar holding penalty. The Vikings now led 9-7, although you have to give the defense a huge amount of credit for not allowing the Vikings offense to convert that strip-sack into a touchdown when they had all the momentum behind them.
The Cowboys again looked to be getting into rhythm on their next drive as they entered Vikings territory for the first time in the second half. Of course, knowing how this game went you can already assume what happens next. It looked like the Cowboys had just converted a crucial third and 8 to Jason Witten that would’ve taken the ball inside the Vikings 35, instead Elliott was called for holding, pushing them back to a third and 18 at their own 46. Prescott was sacked on the next play, forcing a punt that ultimately changed the game.
Vikings receiver Adam Thielen fielded the Chris Jones punt inside his own 15, it seemed an innocuous play at first as Thielen was quickly taken to the ground. Kyle Wilber popped up with the ball although the referees didn’t seem particularly interested in Wilber’s insistence that he had recovered a fumble, ruling Thielen down. However, Jason Garrett decided to challenge the call and after review it was clear that Wilber actually forced the ball out right before Thielen’s knee touched down, and then managed to recover the ball for good measure. It was an amazing play, and if the defense isn’t going to create turnovers the special teams might as well.
On the very first play following the recovery Prescott found Bryant on a smoke route that seemed like a “run-pass option” type of play, as Bryant beat Xavier Rhodes to the edge for an eight-yard touchdown, giving the Cowboys a 14-9 lead. The margin was later pushed to 17-9 on a 39-yard Dan Bailey field goal, following Elliott’s biggest run of the night, a 30-yarder that he was a half-step from breaking for a 50+ yard touchdown that would’ve ended the game.
After the Vikings failed to move the ball on their next drive the Cowboys had a golden opportunity to end the game with their offense, as they’ve done so many times before. On a second and 9 Prescott looked to have iced the game when he scrambled for what seemed like a first down, although after review it was determined that he started his slide a yard short of the first. On third and 1, and with another chance to ice the game, Prescott and Travis Frederick mishandled the snap, but luckily Elliott was there to recover the ball. The play looked to be an Elliott run up the middle, but instead the Cowboys were forced to punt, giving the Vikings one last opportunity with just over two minutes to play and one timeout.
Of course after keeping the Vikings offense under wraps all night the defense allowed them to leisurely drive 65 yards, capping it off with a three-yard touchdown pass to Jerick McKinnon that left the Cowboys up two, 17-15. With only :25 remaining the Vikings were obviously forced to go for two, but thanks to a false start penalty on right tackle Jeremiah Sirles the conversion was pushed back to the seven yard line. Then, after the defensive line failed to get much pressure all night, Cedric Thornton did a great job of getting immediate pressure on Sam Bradford, forcing an errant throw out of the back of the end zone that had no hope of being caught.
Jason Witten recovered the ensuing onside kick and on a night where the Cowboys offense did everything they could to keep the Vikings in the game, posting their lowest yardage total of the season (264) and consistently shooting themselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers on nearly every drive, it was the defense and special teams that came up big to push the franchise-record win streak to 11. It certainly wasn’t pretty, and there are countless areas that must be improved on if this team hopes to get where they want to go, but winning on the road against a respectable opponent that desperately needs a win when you don’t have anything resembling your “best stuff” is impressive.