Maybe the Cowboys are turning into a good team, somehow; maybe they’re just getting lucky. Either way, Dallas came out of their bye week and upset the Vikings, who were favored by a touchdown prior to kickoff. Andy Dalton got better as the game went on, the defense racked up two takeaways, and the Cowboys are suddenly one win away from first place in the dreadful NFC East.
There were a lot of things that helped the Cowboys pull off this victory - not getting completely manhandled by Dalvin Cook being a big one - but there were several key moments that turned the tide. These five plays in particular played a pivotal role.
Donovan Wilson rips the ball out of Kirk Cousins’ hands on a sack
After going three and out on their opening drive of the game, Dallas was forced to punt the ball to the Vikings. While the Dallas defense wasn’t rolling over for them, Minnesota was able to move the chains at first. Then, Donovan Wilson made his presence known.
On second and six, Kirk Cousins dropped back to pass and DeMarcus Lawrence burst through the line of scrimmage to wrap up the quarterback’s legs. As he was starting to go down, the blitzing Wilson swooped in and finished the sack, but he also came away with the ball.
Initially ruled as just a sack, Mike McCarthy tossed the challenge flag. Upon review, Wilson wrestled the ball right out of Cousins’ hands as he brought him down, and the play was overturned to be a Dallas takeaway. The Cowboys sent their offense out with just 30 yards to go for paydirt, which they hit three plays later.
Kris Boyd’s illegal shift undoes the Vikings’ great fake punt
After a bad pass from Andy Dalton was intercepted in the red zone, the Vikings started moving the ball, getting close to midfield. Leading 7-6, they had a chance to convert the takeaway into points and extend the lead, taking advantage of the blocked extra point from earlier.
Head coach Mike Zimmer understood that, which is why after the drive fizzled out with ten yards left to go on their own 44-yard line they ran a fake punt. With Dallas going all out for the block, Kris Boyd was left wide open for the pass from punter Britton Colquitt, and Boyd’s catch made it a 23-yard reception.
But Boyd was also flagged for an illegal shift as he didn’t get set before the ball was snapped. Dallas got bailed out on this one, plain and simple. Instead of the Vikings having a first down at the Cowboys’ 33, they were punting it away. The Cowboys ended up scoring a touchdown with that possession, taking the lead on a possession that almost didn’t happen.
Donovan Wilson thumps the ball out and Tank hands off to Jaylon for a big return
What a game for Donovan Wilson. Not only did he have the second-most tackles on the team, but Wilson was responsible for both defensive takeaways. Late in the second quarter and up 13-7, the Cowboys had just turned the ball over on downs after going for it on fourth down and failing.
A big run from Cook flipped field position, and on second down from the Dallas 34-yard line Cousins hit Cook on a shallow pass across the middle. Then Wilson flew in and hit Cook like a locomotive, jarring the ball loose.
The hit is incredible - it’s both clean and rattling - but what comes next is equally good. DeMarcus Lawrence recovered the football, but he hadn’t been touched down yet. Jaylon Smith, in a truly heads-up play on his part, recognized this and ripped the ball from Tank to return it 21 yards. Since there were only 49 seconds left in the half by the time the play was over, those 21 yards on the return were huge; instead of the offense starting at their own 31, where Tank fell on the ball, they started at Minnesota’s 48. As a result, the Cowboys got the ball to the one-yard line before ultimately settling for a field goal to make it a two-score game.
Amari Cooper’s clutch catch on fourth down leads to go-ahead touchdown
Dalton ended up finding Dalton Schultz wide open for the game-winning touchdown late in the game, but it’s important to remember what made that possible. Down 28-24, Dallas got the ball back with four minutes remaining in the game.
They started to move the ball, advancing to the Vikings’ 29-yard line before coming up short on third and long. Facing a fourth and six with just a few seconds to go before the two-minute warning, the Cowboys had to go for it.
Dalton responded by hitting Amari Cooper down the sideline for a ten-yard pickup to move the chains and extend the drive. If the Cowboys don’t convert that play, Minnesota has a chance to run the clock down already being on the other side of the two-minute warning. Instead, Dalton and Cooper kept the drive alive, and five plays later the Cowboys retook the lead.
Aldon Smith’s hit on Cousins forces a turnover on downs
Of course, the touchdown pass to Schultz wasn’t the end of it. The Vikings got the ball back with 97 seconds remaining and one timeout left, setting up Cousins for a game-winning drive. But the drive quickly stalled out and brought up a fourth and six on their own 29.
Obviously, the Vikings went for it and Cousins geared up to launch a deep shot to Adam Thielen. But Aldon Smith came barreling down towards Cousins, smacking him to the turf as the ball was launched. As a result, the pass was out ahead of Thielen and nearly picked off by Xavier Woods.
Without that pressure, Cousins likely makes a better throw, and after a game in which Thielen racked up 123 yards on eight catches, maybe it’s even completed. Smith getting up in Cousins’ grill was a clutch play to force an errant throw and seal the win, giving Dalton an opportunity to line up in victory formation.