Just before the bye week, the Cowboys showed exactly what they’re capable of under Mike McCarthy’s guidance. Kellen Moore’s gameplan was perfectly tailored to Garrett Gilbert’s strengths, Mike Nolan’s defense took another step forward and limited the Steelers offense for the majority of the game, and John Fassel’s special teams group created a significant advantage with several splash plays. The result was enough to keep the Cowboys in the game until the very end, nearly handing Pittsburgh their first loss of the season.
Now, the Cowboys are traveling to Minnesota to take on Mike Zimmer’s Vikings. They’ve won three straight games - all divisional games - to improve to 4-5 after a really rough start to the season. It was a tumultuous offseason for the Vikings, who ushered in new coordinators on both offense and defense by way of internal promotions. The Vikings also lost a lot of talent: they traded away Stefon Diggs to the Bills and lost five different key players on defense to free agency, including Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, and all three of their starting cornerbacks. Add in Danielle Hunter’s season-ending neck injury prior to the start of the season, and it’s impressive the Vikings are doing this well.
They started out 1-5 with their only victory coming against the Texans, who fired head coach Bill O’Brien the next day. Minnesota went into the bye week licking their wounds and being pronounced dead by most analysts. But they rattled off three victories since then, and with their next three games consisting of the 2-7 Cowboys, 3-7 Panthers, and 1-8 Jaguars, the Vikings are in very good position to challenge for one of the three Wild Card playoff spots in the NFC.
But they’ll have to first get past Dallas, and hope they don’t experience a similar surge after the bye week. The NFC East is much more within reach for the Cowboys than the NFC North is for the Vikings. On top of that, the only remaining opponent for the Cowboys with a winning record is the Ravens, creating a clear path to the divisional crown. And finally, Dallas is getting Andy Dalton back under center, while still having the option to go back to Gilbert if the Red Rifle struggles.
Most importantly, though, is that McCarthy has a good track record coming out of the bye week. Through his 13 seasons in Green Bay, the Packers went 9-4 in their first game after the extended rest. And of those four losses, two were to then-undefeated teams who went on to appear in the Super Bowl (Peyton Manning’s Broncos and Sean McVay’s Rams), another loss came in overtime, and the other was without Aaron Rodgers under center.
The point is that McCarthy’s teams have been really good at coming off the bye week ready to succeed. And while the Vikings have been playing better football lately, they’re still not really a good team. In other words, if this Dallas team can hang with the Steelers, they have a legitimate shot of beating this Minnesota team.
To the fans who are already trying to figure out what to do with the third overall pick in the draft, that’s not what you want to be hearing. But the reality is that McCarthy, like any coach, is going to do what it takes to get the win at the end of the day. The same goes for the players, especially the ones who could potentially be displaced if they don’t start piling up some wins.
Now, whether or not that actually happens will say a lot about this team. Part of the reason the Steelers game was so close was the success the Cowboys had on run defense. It was a welcome sight, and a reflection of bigger roles for the likes of Antwaun Woods and Neville Gallimore on the interior of the defensive line. But Minnesota runs the ball a lot more. Only the Ravens run the ball more, and the Browns (who gashed this defense for 300+ yards on the ground in Week 4) run it at the same rate.
Not only do the Vikings run the ball a whole lot, but they run it well. Only three teams have a higher success rate on running plays this year, and Dalvin Cook currently leads all qualifying running backs in yards, touchdowns, and yards per attempt. Not surprisingly, the Vikings are third in the league in rushing DVOA, and are one of just four teams with a positive rushing DVOA. It’s been the modus operandi of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, whose offense is heavily based around outside zone runs and quick play-action passes. The presence of Cook, coupled with the inconsistent play of Kirk Cousins and loss of Diggs, has led to Kubiak running the ball even more than normal.
Defensively, the Vikings are starting to gel too. Through the first few weeks, this was one of the worst units in the NFL. Having that much roster turnover, especially in the secondary, can have that effect. But they’ve tightened up, allowing an average of 20 points per game the last three weeks and quickly rising up the DVOA leaderboard; they’re currently 10th in defensive DVOA after being as low as 26th at one point. The Vikings defense also ranks 10th in variance, meaning they’ve been playing very consistent football on that side, and first in strength of schedule, meaning they’ve faced some of the hardest offenses this year.
Really, the Vikings are very similar to this Cowboys team, but slightly farther ahead. Both teams endured significant changes to their coaching staff, lost a lot of key players, and struggled out of the gate - particularly on defense - before starting to get things together. Both teams are also still very much in the playoff hunt, somehow, and need a win this week to help those odds. But whichever team loses will be that much closer to draft season. It’s really a boom or bust kind of game for both teams.