If you wondered just how hard the coaching staff and players of the Dallas Cowboys would play with a 2-7 record at the bye, you have your answer. In a back and forth battle with the Minnesota Vikings, they mounted a fourth quarter comeback and then made a crucial defensive stand to win 31-28 in the most complete effort all year. And now, all four teams in the NFC East have three wins, incredibly leaving Dallas right in the thick of the race to represent the division in the playoffs.
It was the strongest first half of the season for the Cowboys. They limited the Vikings to one scoring drive. The defense was pressuring Kirk Cousins repeatedly, and not letting Dalvin Cook get loose on them. Meanwhile, Andy Dalton started finding his targets, particularly CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper. Dallas got the first score of the game on a beautifully designed double tight end screen to Ezekiel Elliott from the 6, then after losing the lead thanks to a one yard Cook touchdown run and the fact the first extra point attempt was blocked, Dalton found Lamb for a four yard TD in the corner of the end zone. The pass was not well thrown, but the catch was just spectacular as Lamb extended and brought the ball in with one hand.
Dallas really dominated the first half, and it was only marred by an interception thrown by Dalton. Elliott was running hard and would go over 100 yards for the game, the defense was as solid as they have been all season, and after so few touchdowns in weeks, they put up two before the intermission. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse after half, as Adam Thielen really started to gash the Cowboys. The Vikings got the second half kickoff and marched effortlessly down the field, with a 51 yard pass to Thielen the big blow. Then, after Dallas couldn’t sustain a drive, Minnesota drove 82 yards to score again, with Thielen finishing it up with a touchdown catch. The Cowboys would regain the lead thanks to the longest run of the season, a 42 yard scoring effort from Tony Pollard, followed by a two point conversion on a run by Lamb. But the Vikings came right back to go ahead again with a 75 yard drive taking only five plays, capped by a 39 yard score to Justin Jefferson.
That made the score 28-24 in favor of the Vikings, setting up the end game. The teams would exchange punts, and the Cowboys got the ball at their own 39 thanks to a 20 yard punt return by Lamb, with four minutes left on the clock. The Cowboys would have to convert a fourth and six to keep the drive alive, but Dalton found Amari Cooper for 10. Cooper had a strong game as well.
That left the Cowboys at the Minnesota 19 at the two minute warning, having to score a touchdown. It was a gut check for a team that has had such a horrible year. Dalton, who was not as consistent as Cousins (who had a perfect QB rating for much of the fourth quarter), after a couple of pass completions got them to first and goal from the four yard line. Then he nearly threw the game away with a pass that should have been picked off by Kris Boyd. But Boyd couldn’t hang onto the ball, and two plays later Andy Dalton hit Dalton Shultz for a touchdown to go ahead by three with 1:37 left on the clock.
It all came down to the defense, which was very good at times, but at others looked like the same old swiss cheese dish we saw so much in earlier games. It would come down to a fourth and six, after one of the best coverage snaps Jourdan Lewis has had denied a completion to Adam Thielen. Then pressure got to Cousins and he overthrew his receiver, turning the ball over to Dallas. (Xavier Woods had a shot to intercept the ball and give the Cowboys three takeaways for the game, but wisely realized that the team had much better field position if he let it drop, so he did.)
Suddenly, the Cowboys had their third win of the season, the first on the road all year, and looked like a far better team than they have in any of the earlier games. It was one where the offense, defense, and special teams all had significant roles. They got solid quarterback play, a very strong effort from Dalton, 103 yards on the ground from Elliott, and a defense that stiffened just enough to stop Minnesota when it mattered.
And there was one big star for that D. The Cowboys have struggled to get turnovers all year, but Donovan Wilson took it upon himself to try and change things. On the first Vikings possession, he and DeMarcus Lawrence met at Cousins, and Wilson ripped the ball loose before Cousins was down, turning the ball over to the Cowboys at the Minnesota 30. It only took the Cowboys three plays to punch it in for the early lead. The extra point would be blocked, but the tone was set for Dallas, who would play hard all game. Then Wilson would deliver an absolutely crushing hit to Cook on a pass reception late in the second quarter, popping the ball out where DeMarcus Lawrence would pounce on it, before Jaylon Smith just stole it from Lawrence and rambled all the way to the Minnesota 48. That would turn into a field goal to give the Cowboys a nine point lead at halftime, their biggest of the year, which should surprise no one who has been paying any attention.
The best thing about all this is that this team clearly is buying into what Mike McCarthy and his coaches are telling them. They fought for this win, and it was incredibly satisfying to see them get it. Don’t talk about draft position to them, because they just put a winning effort on the field, and want to have some more of that.