In order to end a three year playoff drought, the Dallas Cowboys will need to start stringing a couple of wins together. They get a prime opportunity this week, when the 1-6 Minnesota Vikings come to AT&T Stadium (1:00 EST, FOX).
While the Cowboys have endured some rough losses, their problems pale in comparison to the Vikings, who have seen a season that started with so much promise turn into a nightmare. After a promising season that ended with a playoff appearance in 2012, the Vikings' 2013 season has already seen three different quarterbacks start a game for them. The fact that the Vikings have yet to win a game in the United States this season (their lone win came against Pittsburgh in London) only makes this season more difficult.
Each team is coming a high scoring heartbreaking loss. The Cowboys fell to the Vikings' NFC North comrade Detroit last week, in a 31-30 thriller that ended on Lions QB Matthew Stafford's one yard touchdown on a quarterback sneak. The score concluded a drive that started on Detroit's own 20 with 1:04 to play and no timeouts. The real hero of the game, however was WR Calvin Johnson, whose 329 receiving yards fell just seven yards shy of Flipper Anderson's single game NFL record.
The Vikings, who played last week's Sunday Night game, fell 44-31 to divisional rival Green Bay in the teams' first meeting since the Packers beat the Vikings in last year's NFC Wild Card Game. The Vikings kept the game competitive, going as far as taking a 7-0 lead before the game's first snap when Cordarrelle Patterson took the opening kickoff back an NFL record 109 yards for a score. They led 10-7 late in the 2nd quarter until a 76 yard hookup between Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson and a 93 yard punt return by Micah Hyde gave the Packers a lead they'd never give up.
Sadly for the Cowboys, there are no certainties in the NFL. That's a shame because the Cowboys would not only like to start off the second half of the season with a win, but they'd like to go into next week's huge matchup with New Orleans with some momentum. One thing that the Cowboys will have to do is pick up an early lead. Minnesota has probably the best running back in football in Adrian Peterson, but as the Vikings have fallen behind in each of their previous three losses since their bye week, Peterson has gotten the ball less and less. After picking up a season high 140 yards on 23 carries in the London win, Peterson had just 10 carries in the ensuing game, a 35-10 loss to Carolina that the Vikings were out of by halftime, and had 13 carries in each of the following two games. Inexplicably, Minnesota abandons their run game afterwards, opting to put the game in the hands of one of their quarterbacks. For example, in their recent Monday Night meeting with the New York Giants, Josh Freeman…the same Josh Freeman that the 0-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave up on…threw the ball 53 times. I'm sure the fact that the Vikings lost the game 23-7 had nothing to do with that. In the Vikings' four game winning streak that ended their regular season and sent them to the playoffs, Peterson carried the ball 31,25,24, and 34 times. With Christian Ponder, he of a 69.4 passer rating and 2 touchdown passes this season, starting this week, it's important that Dallas force the Vikings into the awkward situation of abandoning the run game.
Other than Peterson, the Vikings' most dangerous weapon may be Patterson, who leads the NFL in total kickoff return yards (703) and average (39.1). It will be up to the Dallas special team to keep him in check, and they've done a solid job in the first half of the season. They have yet to allow a special teams touchdown, and kept the NFL's 3rd ranked return man, Denver's Trindon Holliday to pedestrian numbers (87 returns yards and no touchdowns). The Cowboys can also fight fire with fire, as they have feature the NFL's second leading return man in Dwayne Harris.
Dez Bryant claims that his so-called “meltdowns” last week were all positive, and audio from NFL Network (at least the first outburst between him, Tony Romo and coach Wade Wilson) backed Bryant's claims up, he needs to come back this week with a better performance, especially against a defense that has been ripped to shreds over the past two weeks by receivers like Victor Cruz and Nelson. Bryant's 3 receptions for 72 yards and two TD's might be excellent number for other receivers, but when you're not only yelling and arguing with respected veterans like TE Jason Witten and saying this like you're just as good as Megatron (frankly, Bryant should've never awoken that sleeping giant in the first place), he'll to pick it up against Minnesota.
This game has the words “trap game” written all over it. The Cowboys have seen situations like this before. Last year, needing to win keep a realistic chance at the playofffs, the Cowboy took on a 2-7 Cleveland Browns team, with many expecting them to easily pull it off. The game turned out to be quite an adventure, as the Browns led most of the game and Dallas did squeak by with a 23-20 overtime victory. As much as we hate to admit it, the Cowboys are a team that plays up and down to their competition, and I believe the same thing will happen this Sunday at Arlington. While I'm seeing a win here, don't expect the perpetually mediocre Cowboys to make things any easy doing it.
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Vikings 14