Coming off the bye week last season, Mike McCarthy reportedly smashed watermelons before the Dallas Cowboys’ away matchup against the Minnesota Vikings. Whether McCarthy has purchased watermelons yet has been neither confirmed nor denied.
But this time, the Cowboys will be playing on Halloween night, in what will likely be a pun and spooky graphics-filled version of Sunday Night Football. The Cowboys are currently 2.5-point favorites according to DraftKing Sportsbook. So with the Cowboys riding a five-game winning streak and the Vikings hoping to solidify their position in the playoff picture, what should we expect?
The Cowboys offense
Over the last four games, the Cowboys offense is averaging 39 points per game. 39 points. There are 23 teams in the NFL that have yet to reach 39 points in a single game this season.
Now to give the Vikings credit, their defense is easily top ten if not top five. Mike Zimmer has once again coached a solid defensive team ranked fourth by Pro Football Focus, sixth by EPA per play allowed, and fifth by percent of drives that do not end in a touchdown. The Minnesota Vikings defense is solid.
But it still doesn’t matter.
Despite the improvement the Vikings have seen in their coverage ability, their rushing defense is not as impressive. On top of allowing 4.5 yards per attempt, their run defense is even worse on first and second down.
Enter the Cowboys offense. Dallas is currently averaging 108.7 rushing yards on first down alone. Since 1994, no team has ever averaged more rushing yards on first downs than the Cowboys are right now. Between the effectiveness of the ground game and Dak Prescott likely to be eased into action, expect a heavy usage of Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott, especially on early downs.
Now we will assume that Dak Prescott plays on Sunday because there is more evidence pointing to this assumption than not. However, if Prescott were to be out, it would only suggest an increased reliance on the ground game.
But since Dak is playing at an MVP level, he will be able to take advantage of the Vikings’ coverage in short-yardage situations. There are very few defenses capable of stopping Dak on third and less than five, and the Vikings are not one of them.
Meaning that the only way the Vikings stop the Cowboys is in the red zone, which doesn’t seem likely. While the Dallas offense has struggled in the red zone, only scoring a touchdown on 56% of their trips, the Minnesota defense is not much better. The Vikings defense is allowing their opponents to score a touchdown on 71% of their trips to the red zone, the ninth highest rate in the NFL.
The game plan is simple for the Dallas offense. Let Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard dominate the ground game on early downs against a weaker Minnesota run defense. Take the burden off of Dak and set him up in favorable conversion situations. Once they get to the red zone, Dallas needs to take care of business against a team that concedes touchdowns.
The Cowboys defense
This is where things get interesting. As it stands now, this is actually going to be a difficult matchup for the Cowboys defense. Yes, it is Kirk Cousins, but it is not going to be a cakewalk.
You probably expect this argument to center around Dalvin Cook, as the Cowboys still struggle to stop the run. But that is not the case. The Vikings have been very inefficient on the ground, running a successful rushing play on three of every ten attempts. Dallas actually should be able to contain the Vikings run game.
Kirk Cousins has been decent, but he still doesn’t pose a real threat. He ranks outside of the top ten in nearly every statistical category for a quarterback; average depth of target, yards per attempt, big-time throw rate, EPA per play, completion percentage over expected, and total quarterback rating.
So, if the Cowboys will be able to stop both the run and passing game, how are they going to struggle?
The answer is turnovers. Kirk Cousins falls behind just Tom Brady and Russel Wilson in terms of turnover-worthy plays. The result is a Minnesota team that has only given the ball away five times this year, one of the lowest rates in the league.
If the Vikings are able to maintain possession, meticulously moving the ball downfield, the game could play out similar to the Patriots game. But Dallas has been able to force mistakes.
To win on defense, the Cowboys have to take advantage of the Vikings’ weak pass-blocking offensive line. With the Dallas offense putting up points, Cousins will have to throw. And when he does, the Cowboys need to generate pressure, forcing Kirk Cousins into throws he is not comfortable making. Then just one turnover can break open the game.
Coaching and Special Teams
With the Cowboys offense, it seems like the only way Dallas doesn’t score will be from a lack of red zone success. But that is not entirely true. Penalties have been an issue, and it could derail any hope of letting Zeke and Pollard win on the ground.
Luckily for the Cowboys, they have had an extra week to address their penalty issues. And for this week especially, the penalties need to stop. The Vikings have committed just eleven penalties on defense all season. Minnesota is a disciplined defense that will not bail out Dallas in long-yardage situations.
Mike McCarthy has been a great coach all season. But the two areas you could criticize him for are a lack of discipline and clock management mistakes. The latter is more random than anything, but penalties can be fixed.
If penalties are not an issue on Halloween night, McCarthy will be able to outcoach Mike Zimmer, the former Cowboys defensive coordinator. At that point, the Cowboys have the game won. But if not, it will be a toss-up.
We should have faith in John Fassel to coach a good game on special teams. Over the first two weeks, the Dallas special teams accumulated six penalties. But since that point, they have committed just three.
Fassel’s squad has been playing great football. Even Greg Zuerlein is 11 for 11 on field goals less than 50 yards since week two.
Essentially, we have to hope that special teams and penalties do not play a factor in this game. The Cowboys can win on both sides of the ball, but the matchup becomes more competitive if you begin to factor in other facets of the game.
While kids across the country dress up as cowboys and vikings, these two teams will be battling it out on Halloween night. With the Vikings hoping to cement themselves in the NFC Wild Card race, they will come out of the bye week ready to play. So grab your bowl of candy and get ready for what will likely become a high-scoring affair.
Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 57.4%
Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 30, Minnesota Vikings 27
Disclaimer: Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.