If the season ended today, both of the Cowboys and the Vikings would make the playoffs. Dallas would win their division and Minnesota would be the sixth-seeded Wild Card team. Depending on what happens Sunday, that could all change.
With the NFC North-leading Packers only a game ahead of the Vikings, Minnesota needs to win every game they can, especially with the Rams and Panthers (who face Green Bay this week) nipping at their heels in the Wild Card race. The Cowboys, on the other hand, have the chance to get a one-game lead over the Eagles with Philadelphia on the bye; conversely, a loss would drop the two teams into a tie for the NFC East (with Dallas currently holding the tie-breaker).
So the stage is set for a Sunday night primetime matchup with playoff implications on both sides. The Cowboys and Vikings will face each other for the first time since December 2016, when the rookie duo of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott squeaked by a Sam Bradford-led Vikings team 17-15 in Minneapolis.
But both teams have changed a lot since then despite still being led by Jason Garrett and Mike Zimmer. For Minnesota, they’ve replaced Adrian Peterson with Dalvin Cook, who currently leads the league in rushing, and Kirk Cousins is now the quarterback orchestrating the run-first offense. Back then, it was an offense constructed by Norv Turner and Pat Shurmur, but now it’s Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak.
While Dallas still has Dak and Zeke as their two stars, the wide receiver corps is completely different, as is their offensive approach under Kellen Moore; they lead the league in yards per game and are fifth in scoring while still ranking first in offensive DVOA. The Cowboys defense also looks drastically different, especially at linebacker with the emergence of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. The Vikings, however, haven’t seen too many of their big names on defense change; they’re still one of the league’s best in that respect.
While both teams have stars at every level of their defense, it’s the offense that has been the focus this year. After firing their offensive coordinator during the season in 2018, Minnesota retained Stefanski, who finished the season as the interim coordinator, and brought in Kubiak to help re-calibrate the offense. Zimmer wanted a run-heavy offense that controls the time of possession and limits the time his defense spends on the field. Bringing in Kubiak and his offense - primarily consisting of outside zone runs and play-action passes - to pair with the highly regarded Stefanski (who even interviewed for head coaching gigs in the offseason) has paid off, as the Vikings offense ranks eighth in yards, 11th in scoring, seventh in offensive DVOA, and their run game ranks third in the league, buoyed by league-leading rusher Dalvin Cook. It’s everything Zimmer wanted.
It’s also everything the Cowboys wanted to get away from this offseason. The previous offensive coordinator ran a system very similar to what Zimmer wanted, with a heavy dependence on the offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott being perfect. But after dwindling offensive results three years in a row, Dallas moved on and, much like Minnesota, decided to promote from within.
Kellen Moore brought his Boise State style of offense and retrofitted it to Garrett’s Air Coryell philosophy to create an offense that leads the league in yards and DVOA while also ranking fifth in scoring. The cause for concern, though, is the quality of opponent. As it stands now, just over halfway through the season, only two of the Cowboys’ eight opponents have a top ten defense: the Saints, who limited the Cowboys to a season-low 10 points, and somehow, the Eagles.
From a talent and reputation perspective, the Vikings are a lot closer to the Saints than the Eagles, so this will be a big test for Moore and the Cowboys offense. Zimmer is known as one of the NFL’s best defensive minds, so the battle of wits between him and the youthful Moore will be a fascinating bout. So, too, will the battle between a resurgent Cowboys defense and a battering ram of a running game.
The winner will get one step closer to the playoffs, while the loser will have some ground to make up. As we get into November, this is where contenders emerge and make statements to the rest of the league in a game like this. The only question is, which team will be making that statement on Sunday night?