After a week to collect our thoughts and get our emotions under control, fans of the Dallas Cowboys will park themselves in front of their television sets to see the team in action. Granted, the last four times we’ve done that, things haven’t gone so well as the Cowboys are riding a four-game losing streak.
The Minnesota Vikings are going the other direction. After losing five of their first six games, they’ve now won three in a row, knocking down each of their divisional foes. They have their sites on making a push for the postseason, while the Cowboys are stuck in purgatory between winning the NFC East or shooting for premium draft position, both of which are still obtainable.
The Cowboys are playing better, but will they be up for the task against a hot Vikings team? Here are five things to keep an eye out for when these two teams meet up on Sunday.
1. Now, they’re Cook’n
When you have the second-worst run defense in the league, the last person you want to square off against the league’s top running back, but that’s exactly what the Cowboys will have to do as they’ll try to contain Dalvin Cook. His 954 rushing yards leads the league despite Cook missing two games with a knee injury. That’s due to his impressive 119.3 yards per game which is 15 yards more a game than last year’s rushing champ, Derrick Henry.
Last year, Cook ran all over the Cowboys defense. Not just in rushing attempts, but as a receiver as well. In total, he combined for a 183 scrimmage yards as poor angles and weak tackling attempts turned small gains into bigger gains. If the Cowboys defense is late in reacting or struggles to wrap up, it could mean a huge game for the Vikings star running back.
2. Which rookie wideout will shine?
The Cowboys caught a break when CeeDee Lamb slid to them in the first round. The two Alabama receivers (Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy) went ahead of Lamb in the draft, but the Cowboys rookie has outperformed those two guys so far this season. His 44 receptions lead all rookies this season.
As fortunate as the Cowboys were to get Lamb, the Vikings have to be feeling pretty good about the guy they got five picks later as they scored LSU’s Justin Jefferson. The Eagles even had a shot at Jefferson as they picked one spot ahead of the Vikings, but selected wide receiver Jalen Reagor instead. Both Lamb and Jefferson are having great season as you can see how each of them have performed throughout the year.
Jefferson now leads all rookies in receiving yards. While Adam Thielen leads the team in receiving touchdowns, it’s the rookie who is doing all the leg work, churning out all the yards. Lambs trajectory has flattened out a bit, as one might expect with the loss of Dak Prescott; meanwhile Jefferson keeps building on a fantastic rookie season.
The Cowboys are hopeful that Chidobe Awuzie is healthy enough to help the cornerback group; however, the loss of Trevon Diggs could be an issue as the Vikings two star receivers stretch this secondary.
3. In their defense
A month ago, these two teams held the honor of being the two worst teams in the league in terms of defenses allowing the most points scored. The Cowboys were dead last, allowing 36.3 points per game while the Vikings were next giving up 32.0 points per contest. Both these units were thought to be better defensive teams as Minnesota finished fifth-best in points allowed last season while the Cowboys pulled in a respectable 11th-best a year ago. Both defenses had some talented pieces, but they just weren’t putting it together on the football field.
Things have improved in recent weeks for both teams. The Vikings defense has averaged 18.3 points allowed over their last three games, where they’ve given up season-low in points scored for each of their last three opponents. The Cowboys defense has had three straight games where they haven’t given up more than 25 points in a game. That may not seem like much, but that’s a nice improvement considering they allowed at least 34 points in each of their previous five games.
While this game will feature a lot of big names on the offensive side of the ball, don’t be surprised if it’s the defense that steps up an decides this one.
4. Seeing Red again?
It’s still unclear which Cowboys quarterback will be starting under center on Sunday. The team may go back to Andy Dalton now that he’s no longer in concussion protocol and is COVID-free. In reps spread across three different games, the veteran quarterback is 52 of 85 passing (61%) with one touchdown pass and three interceptions. He has a 64.4 quarterback rating.
In just one start for the Cowboys, Garrett Gilbert has completed 21 of 38 passes (55%) with one touchdown and one interception. He has a 72.6 quarterback rating. Garrett showed a lot of poise against the Steelers, and many fans would like to see him get another shot. But the coaching staff may feel Dalton is the way to go. The Cowboys must have some viable quarterback presence if they’re are going to stand a shot at winning this game, but can Dalton be the guy who can get it done?
5. A little special something?
When these two teams faced off last year in November, the Cowboys had a small glimmer of hope after the defense came through with a big third down stop at the Vikings 10-yard line with just 24 seconds left. Punter Britton Colquitt kicked it just 44 yards leaving Cowboys returner Tavon Austin with a wide open space for a potential return. Unfortunately, a mix up in communication caused Austin to call a fair catch, wasting an opportunity for a big play.
The Cowboys have a new specials teams group, and they are throwing the kitchen sink at trying to find a way to make a splash. The Vikings special teams group has been a little suspect lately. They had two punts blocked against Detroit a couple weeks ago, and allowed kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson scamper off for a 104-yard touchdown on Monday night. Don’t be surprised if the Cowboys special teams group once again puts on their fancy pants in effort to come away with a big play.