For the third time in as many seasons, the Cowboys will travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings. In each of their past two matchups, the Cowboys were coming off their bye week and playing without Dak Prescott. Therein lies the difference, as the Cowboys are now one game removed from their bye and will have their franchise quarterback under center this time.
Another change for this matchup is that both teams enter with winning records. The Cowboys are 6-3 and coming off a disappointing overtime loss to the Packers, while the Vikings just upset the Buffalo Bills in overtime to improve to 8-1. With the Eagles losing on Monday, that makes the Vikings tied for the best record in the NFL. What an opportunity for the Cowboys to rebound in a big way.
The Vikings have caught everyone off guard. They’re in Year 1 of a new regime with general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O’Connell, but a rebuild was not the plan. Players like Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Danielle Hunter, Harrison Smith, Patrick Peterson and additions like Za’Darius Smith made the roster too talented to tear down. But few believed the team was anywhere close to genuinely contending either.
Some, including yours truly, still don’t think the Vikings are contenders, but they’re certainly close to clinching a playoff berth. And with the other three teams in their division all sitting with a losing record at the moment, a division title seems likely. But are the Vikings really frauds?
It’s hard to know, and their win over the Bills only further complicates things. Minnesota has just two wins over teams with a winning record: the Bills and the Dolphins. The Buffalo game came down to overtime, and needed several pretty crazy things to happen to even get there; plus, Josh Allen was playing with an elbow injury that kept him from practicing all week. And the win over the Dolphins happened with Tua Tagovailoa on the inactive list with a concussion, and even then Miami’s backup quarterback also got hurt in that game.
The Vikings’ remaining six wins are against teams with a combined 22-39 record, and their lone loss was against the Eagles. When considering all of that, it’s easy to understand why some aren’t sold on the Vikings. In fact, they’re currently ranked 17th in total team DVOA, a far cry from their gaudy 8-1 record. The Vikings are 17th in offensive DVOA, 19th in defensive DVOA, and 25th in special teams DVOA. All of this looks like an average team that’s played mostly bad teams.
It helps that the Vikings have a bona fide superstar in Jefferson, and O’Connell has built this passing game around him. Jefferson has nearly as many targets on the year as the next two receivers on the depth chart combined. He’s also second in the league in receiving yards and fourth in catches for a first down.
Jefferson has been a machine this year, as evidenced by Cousins posting a 100.4 passer rating when targeting him; for comparison’s sake, that number on its own would rank sixth in the league. But Cousins’ passer rating when throwing to anyone other than Jefferson drops all the way down to 74.6. It’s safe to say that this offense goes as Jefferson does.
That said, Jefferson has been hard to stop all year. He’s been held under 95 receiving yards just twice all year, and it hasn’t happened since September. Even when Jefferson isn’t tearing up defenses, though, Minnesota has fielded a solid rushing attack behind Dalvin Cook. Currently ranked 10th in rushing DVOA, the Vikings only use it sparingly: only four teams are running the ball less than them.
That’s good news for the Cowboys, whose run defense has been gashed in each of their last two games. The caveat there is that their last two opponents are two of the most run heavy offenses in the league, the opposite of Minnesota. In fact, Cousins has the sixth most dropbacks of any quarterback. That’s music to Micah Parsons’ ears, although Dallas will still need to rely on Trevon Diggs to match up with Jefferson and prevent him from wrecking the game.
On the flip side, the Vikings defense has been feast or famine all year. They’re allowing the third most yards per play but are also second in takeaways. And on drives that result in a takeaway, the Vikings are allowing a score 44% of the time.
The Cowboys offense has been humming since Prescott returned from injury, but they’ve struggled with turnovers at inopportune moments. It figures that the offense should be able to move the ball well against this porous Vikings defense, but if they have any more miscommunications then the Vikings will surely take advantage.
It’s safe to say that the Vikings are not nearly as good as their record suggests, but they won’t be an easy out either. They do enough things well to have a chance in any game. The Cowboys have the pieces to shut Minnesota down and secure the win, but they’ll need to avoid playing with their food the way they just did in Lambeau. To that end, this game represents a great opportunity to gauge the mental fortitude of this team after a painful loss just a week ago.