That was ugly. Beyond coyote ugly. But after all was done, it still wound up as the eleventh win in a row, continuing this amazing season for the Dallas Cowboys. The Minnesota Vikings outplayed the visitors for much of the game, but came up short in the end. The game was marred by Cowboys turnovers, a noted lack of offensive efficiency, and some of the highly questionable officiating (affecting both teams) that we have come to expect in the NFL. It makes awarding a game ball a bit problematic.
So for a game that was so out of character for the Cowboys, we’re going to go a bit out of the box. This game ball goes to the punting unit for Dallas, because they not only were very good and had arguably the biggest play of the game, but because their counterparts on the Vikings were so dismal.
This also allows a chance to recognize something that is often overlooked. The Cowboys don’t just have a great placekicker in Dan Bailey, whose field goal in the fourth quarter turned out to provide the winning margin. They also have a very good punter in Chris Jones, who also holds for all the points Bailey puts on the board. Jones had another fine night punting the ball, in a game where he was called on to make a real difference in field position. He averaged 46.2 yards on six punts, and had a long of 55. That was in sharp contrast to the inept performance of Vikings punter Jeff Locke, who repeatedly got off very poor punts and only averaged 32 yards on his seven, including kicks of 33, 32, 25, and 16 yards. That 33-yarder led to the Bailey field goal after the Cowboys started the drive with excellent field position at their own 46. This was put out in jest - sort of.
Jeff Locke gets a Cowboys game ball tonight.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) December 2, 2016
That difference in field position was crucial in a game where the Vikings defense effectively throttled the Cowboys’ potent offense on all but a scant handful of plays, and where Dallas knew that Sam Bradford would not lead his team on long scoring drives. Bradford proved them wrong on the last Minnesota possession of the game, but for the most part, things held up. The long punts by Jones, including one 55-yard beauty, simply gave the Vikings too much field to work with for most of the game.
But Jones is not alone, because the punt coverage caused the turning point of the game. With the Vikings leading 9-7 in the fourth quarter, Kyle Wilber (with help from Vince Mayle) knocked the ball loose from Adam Thielen, and Wilber then wrestled the ball from him on the Minnesota eight-yard line. That set up a touchdown pass to Dez Bryant that the Cowboys almost certainly would not have won without. The punt coverage almost got another turnover on a muff later in the game, but were not able to get to the ball fast enough.
It is certainly arguable that the special teams, particularly the punting unit, won this game for Dallas. It was really a team effort, but both the offense especially made enough mistakes to have lost it as well, including many penalties in critical situations. Offensively, only Dez Bryant was really outstanding, while DeMarcus Lawrence had his best game of the year with nine pressures, although he did not get a sack or a tackle. Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens were also forces on the field. Meanwhile, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott did not take the game over the way they normally do.
But those guys who were out there when the Cowboys had to punt the ball away earned some recognition this game. It was a badly played, hard-to-watch affair. And it was a win, which still gives it a certain beauty. For their part in getting it, the punt unit gets this game ball.