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Cowboys @ Vikings: Game predictions for Andy Dalton’s return

How will the Cowboys do after their week of rest?

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Football Team Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Cowboys are travelling to Minnesota to take on the Vikings in their first game since their bye week. The Vikings are 4-5 and tied for last place in the NFC North, but they’ve also won three games in a row since their own bye week; it helps their odds that all of those wins have been divisional matchups. After undergoing massive personnel changes on both offense and defense in the offseason, the Vikings have settled into a groove as of late.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, seem to be starting a groove-settling of their own. The defense has been steadily getting better each week, and the offense is getting Andy Dalton back into the lineup after an impressive performance from Garrett Gilbert against the Steelers’ dominant defense. It’s strange to say out loud but this 2-7 Cowboys team suddenly looks okay, which is a huge accomplishment for all the injuries this team has endured. An upset of the Vikings isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility.

When Minnesota has the ball

Continue to play good run defense

The Cowboys’ run defense was absolutely dreadful to start the year - Cleveland in particular exposed their flaws in embarrassing fashion - but they’ve shown a major improvement in their last three games. Through the first six games of the year, Dallas was allowing over 173 rushing yards per game and five yards per carry, but in their previous three contests they’re giving up 124 rushing yards per game and just 4.1 yards per carry; they’ve been getting better each of those three games, too, as the 46 rushing yards allowed to the Steelers was the lowest such mark for this defense all year long.

Hopefully that trend continues this week, because the Vikings run the ball a lot. Only the Ravens run the ball at a higher clip, and only three other teams have a higher success rate on their rush attempts than Minnesota. As a result, Dalvin Cook leads the league in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. This offense thrives when it can run the ball with success - the Vikings are 1-5 when quarterback Kirk Cousins attempts 25+ passes - so if the Cowboys want to have a real shot at winning this week, they’ll have to show continued improvement on run defense.

When Dallas has the ball

Set these receivers up for success

One main reason for the Vikings’ dreadful start to the season was that their secondary lost all three starting cornerbacks from last year. During their current win streak, they’ve seen promising performances from rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler and second-year pro Kris Boyd in starting roles that have helped this defense tighten up. But these are still some young and inexperienced defenders, not to mention Dantzler is questionable for this game. They can be exploited by an elite receiving corps.

Enter the Cowboys, whose receiving corps is the only part of this offense that hasn’t been touched by some sort of terribleness thus far. CeeDee Lamb is already one of the best slot receivers in the NFL, while Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup have both continued to play at a high level. Getting a more established passer like Dalton back helps too, but Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore need to focus on how this receiving trio can best exploit this young secondary to move the ball effectively.

Now onto the predictions from your BTB writers...

DannyPhantom:

This is a big game for the Cowboys because it should give us a glimpse of the intestinal fortitude this new coaching staff has implanted into this football team. They have enough pieces to play good football, but do they have the moxy to do it? The Vikings are in a groove right now, and they will present challenges for the Cowboys, especially if [insert QB name here] isn’t able to make good decisions and put the ball where it needs to go.

I still think stopping Dalvin Cook is going to be a nightmare and if the Roller Derby tandem of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are flailing about aimlessly, it’s going to be a train wreck. I want to believe this team has fight in them to give us a good Sunday showing, but my senses just won’t let me do it.

Vikings 28, Cowboys 17.

Tom Ryle:

My biggest hope is that the Cowboys continue the trajectory that looks to have started against the Steelers. I gave them no chance, yet they came within a handful of plays and some questionable calls from the officials of a huge upset. Now they face a less formidable but still decent opponent, with a healthier roster after the bye week. I am probably a bit of a fool, but I feel much more optimistic about this one.

Because the NFC East is so terrible, the Cowboys have an actual shot at making the playoffs as the least bad team of the lot. It could cost them a lot in draft position, but I am not going to worry about that. A lot depends on if Andy Dalton, who appears to be getting the call to start again, can play well, and if the offensive line can keep him upright. I may be setting myself up for another heartache, but I think Dallas pulls this one out.

Cowboys 27, Vikings 23.

Terence Watson:

I have a funny feeling this could be a trap game for the streaking Minnesota Vikings this week. The Cowboys defense has seemingly settled in and are now playing more sound football, while the Cowboys offense is getting back their backup quarterback and their offensive line is starting to gel.

The Cowboys’ main focus on the defensive side of the football is stopping the NFL’s leading rusher Dalvin Cook and on offense it’s getting their own running back Ezekiel Elliott going. If the Cowboys can do both of those things then they have a great shot at pulling off the upset this week. For that reason I have the Cowboys winning this week.

Cowboys 30, Vikings 23

Matt Holleran:

This Sunday, I believe the Cowboys will build off their encouraging performance against Pittsburgh. Slowing down Dalvin Cook will be a tall task for the defense, but Dallas should be able to put up some points of their own. Minnesota does not have the talent on the outside to neutralize all of the Cowboys weapons. I think Andy Dalton plays a much better game than the first time we saw him, and Kirk Cousins makes a game-sealing, fourth-quarter mistake.

Give me the Cowboys, 27-24

Dave Halprin:

The Cowboys have definitely been playing better lately. The run defense is much better since the release of Dontari Poe and the offensive line has stabilized to some extent. But we don’t want to oversell those points since the improvement was basically from the lowest level you can imagine. It was almost impossible to keep playing that poorly. So while the upward trajectory is good, it’s not enough to convince that they have turned a corner yet. Plus, why they went back to Andy Dalton as QB is a mystery.

Vikings 27 - Cowboys 20

David Howman:

I almost talked myself into the Cowboys winning this game, and I’m still not convinced they won’t. But for me it comes down to two players: Andy Dalton and Dalvin Cook. I think Dalton is deserving of this start, but he’s also just been through an incredibly rough month, having what looked like a wicked concussion followed by contracting COVID-19. I can’t imagine it’d be easy to go through all of that and then go play a game against a very physical defense, and therefore my expectations are low for Dalton in this game.

Similarly, my expectations for this defense to stop Cook are low. The improvements we’ve seen from this defense are legit, especially in run support as Antwaun Woods and Neville Gallimore have become a really good duo in the interior. But the Cowboys haven’t faced a rushing attack this good since Cleveland, when things did not go well at all. I think Dallas keeps this one close, but an uneven performance from Dalton combined with a really good performance from Cook puts the home team over the top.

Vikings 23, Cowboys 18