It all came down to a final drive, with Dallas trailing by four and 4:34 left on the clock. The Cowboys’ defense got one of their rare stops and they got the ball on their own 6 yard line. They then marched all the way to the Minnesota 11. But then, with their quarterback and two of his receivers absolutely on fire, they handed the ball off twice, losing three yards, and leading to an incomplete pass on fourth down that basically sealed the game. The Cowboys got the ball back one more time, but with just seconds left, saw things end on the only turnover of the game, an interception on a Hail Mary into the end zone.
The game was pitched as a battle of the running backs, between Ezekiel Elliott and Dalvin Cook. Cook clearly won that one, as he was very effective both as a runner and receiver. He had 97 yards and a touchdown to go with 86 yards receiving. Elliott never got on track and was a basically a non-factor, only getting 47 yards, including the two failed runs that helped close out Dallas’ hopes. If you just base things on this game, Cook, who is currently leading the league, is clearly the better running back.
That put the load on Prescott, and after the first quarter, he was close to magnificent at times. Repeatedly, he faced third and long, only to somehow find a way to convert. Several of those were to Cooper, who had 147 yards receiving and a couple of physics-defying catches with his toes just barely tapping inbounds. That included a touchdown where the ball was at least a full yard outside of the right sideline of the endzone, but Cooper just leaned with his toes barely in the green and pulled it in. Cobb was just as important a target, piling up 106 yards and adding a touchdown of his own.
Unfortunately, Kirk Cousins was just about matching Prescott throw for throw, converting his own third downs. Several were on screens to Cook, who gouged Dallas most of the night. And Kyle Rudolph had a couple of touchdown receptions, plus several other big catches, including his own highligh reel score where he reached up and pulled in the pass one-handed as he also tiptoed inside the end zone.
A big issue for the Cowboys was that, for most of the game, their defense just could not get a stop. They only forced three punts all night long. Cousins has had some pretty bad games against Dallas in the past, and while he did not have a huge yardage total, he made so many key completions in this one. The pass rush simply could not get to him, despite the interior of the Minnesota line coming into the game banged up, and getting worse as it went on due to injury. Cousins gave them little chance to reach him, as he was firing the ball out quickly and accurately. And Dallas’ defense was particularly vulnerable to screens to Cook, getting burned on almost every one.
An old problem reared its head to start the game. The Cowboys got off to a slow start, as the Vikings dominated the first quarter. The Dallas coaching staff made some questionable decisions, starting with repeated first down runs that didn’t succeed by any measure. They handed the ball to Elliott on five consecutive first downs despite the ineffectiveness. It constantly put the Cowboys behind schedule, and it led to stalled drives on their first two possessions. Things were compounded when the decision was made to try a 57 yard field goal on the first drive, which gave the Vikings the ball at their own 47. They capitalized on it to march easily down the field and take an initial 7-0 lead.
This may have been a case of Dallas getting outcoached, but it also had a lot to do with a failure to execute at key times. Now the Cowboys are back in a tie with the Philadelphia Eagles, and have many questions to answer just to try and keep in the race for the NFC East. It was a day where many teams stubbed their toes, but that is no comfort. A golden opportunity was squandered, again, at home.
There are still games to turn this around, but this one could loom very large down the road. Dallas simply failed, despite some valiant performances on offense.