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Five things to watch when the Cowboys host the Vikings on Sunday night

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What will you be keeping an eye on?

Philadelphia Eagles v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Don’t look now, but the Dallas Cowboys have won two in a row. There is nothing like facing off against divisional foes to get them back on a winning streak. But this week, things get a little tougher as they’ll face a 6-3 Minnesota Vikings team that has won four of their last five games. Looking at the numbers, it’s surprising to see just how close these two teams compare to each other, indicating we’re in for a good prime time battle.

The nice thing about this comparison is you can see just how close the defenses match up to each other. This is a great thing considering the Vikings have consistently been one of the better defensive units in the league since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach.

But what’s even more satisfying is how the Cowboys offense is statistically a top five team across the board. This is what we are hoping separates these two teams. Here are five things to watch when these NFC playoff-contenders square off on Sunday night.

1. Can the Cowboys offense keep rolling?

Despite their struggles at times, the Cowboys players believe they are a strong unit who have just encountered some self-inflicted bumps in the road at certain points in the season. Turnovers, penalties, and a couple poorly executed gaffes at the wrong time have kept them off the scoreboard this season. Looking at their yardage totals, that would indicate they have a point. The offense does indeed roll up and down the field.

While it’s true that it’s a 60-minute game and we shouldn’t get too worked up about what happens early when the team ultimately puts out a pretty impressive offensive showing, it’s still a little frustrating to witness these missed opportunities. The Vikings aren’t a team that will allow you to overcome mistakes. What we are hoping for is that the Cowboys offense starts hot, stays hot, and puts together a strong performance against a good defense.

One thing they can hang their hat on is that the offense doesn’t disappoint the home crowd as they have moved the ball extremely well in all four of their games at AT&T Stadium this year.

2. Don’t get your goose Cook’ed in the running game

Dalvin Cook is a talented running back and we are finally getting a good glimpse of what the Florida State star can do at full strength. The Vikings running back currently leads the NFL in rushing with 894 yards on the ground. Cook is punishing opponents with a powerful running style that is comprised of brute force combined with a sharp quickness that has made defenders miss all year.

Once he gets that momentum going, he’s a tough player to bring down. Unless defenders can square up on him, he’s likely to just bounce off them. What makes things even harder is his ability to swiftly cut without slowing down, keeping this locomotive firing away as he works up to top speed. And then once he gets into the open field, it’s goodnight Irene.

This is worrisome because the Cowboys can be really bad at overplaying the initial direction of the play, only to get burned when the runner jump cuts to the outside. The Packers Aaron Jones has the same build as Cook and in some ways a similar running style, but Cook’s talent adds another level of danger. If the Cowboys defense doesn’t play disciplined and players don’t stay in their gaps, this game has the potential to be one of those where the opponent runs all over them.

3. Watch out for play-action

Last year, the Vikings were a pass-heavy offense. They attempted the sixth-most passes and finished with the third-fewest rushing yards in the league. Things are different these days. Minnesota now has the third-most rushing yards, and no team has attempted fewer passes this season than the Vikings. In fact, did you know that they beat the Atlanta Falcons 28-12 in the season opener with Kirk Cousins only attempting 10 passes? That’s insane.

Not only do the Vikings run the ball a lot, they also like defenses to keep thinking they’re running it as they have the highest play-action rate (35.4) in the league. When you combine that with the 51.9 rush play percentage, you end up with a team that is at the very least creating the appearance of running the ball 87% of the time. Those traits create a lot of opportunities to sucker the defense to cheat down to defend the run, only to burn them deep through the air.

Stefon Diggs was non-existent last week against the Kansas City Chiefs, but before that game, he reeled off three straight games with at least 140 yards. Watching him tear up the Cowboys NFC East rivals is very enjoyable. Watching him do it against the Cowboys... is not.

4. Get after Cousins

Cowboys fans are very familiar Kirk Cousins as we watched him play in seven games against Dallas during his time spent with the Washington Redskins. And in those games, we watched him lose quite a bit. Cousins has a career record of 1-6 against the Cowboys, with the only victory coming in 2015 when both he and Kellen Moore threw three touchdown passes when the Redskins come out on top 34-23 in a meaningless Week 17 game.

Fortunately, for Cousins - he’s not in Washington anymore. He has a defense to back him, and can leverage off a strong running attack. It’s a nice recipe for success as we all saw first hand in 2014 when Tony Romo had one of his best seasons of his career despite airing it out considerably less than he had in previous years. And just like Romo back then, Cousins’ efficiency is quietly going unnoticed.

While Cousins has been outstanding when he’s had time to throw, things get a little dicey when he’s under pressure. The Vikings interior offensive line has struggled as their center Garret Bradbury and left guard Pat Elflein have each allowed 20 pressures. The presence of Maliek Collins and recently added Michael Bennett should pose a problem for the Vikings offensive line. Unfortunately for Minnesota, they can’t provide much help because they also have to deal with DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn on the edge.

The Cowboys are coming off one of their strongest performances on the defensive line and if that is a sign of what’s to come, they should be able to put pressure on Cousins.

5. Win the big play battle

Both teams can strike fast with big play ability whether it be on the ground or through the air. Limiting big plays on defense will be important, but the Cowboys offense also must exploit the Vikings weakness on defense, and that just so happens to be their secondary.

Veteran corner Xavier Rhodes isn’t the All-Pro he was a couple years ago as he can be a liability in coverage at times. Speaking of liability, former blue-chip draft pick Trae Waynes can be exploited as well. The Vikings will compensate by laying back a bit and giving up the short stuff, but they can be vulnerable to big plays if they bite on double moves. Amari Cooper loves to dupe his opponent with this type of chicanery.

If the Cowboys offensive line can give Dak Prescott time, there could be a lot of big plays out there to be had.