The Vikings won a pretty well played game by both teams, on the road, in prime time, against a winning team. They held on to beat the Cowboys 28-24, leaning more on the offense than defense to get an early lead, and comeback late on a night when the Vikings pass defense gave up a big game to Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb.
But they also contained Ezekiel Elliot the entire game, and came up with a key red zone and late game stop that turned out to be the difference in the game.
Well Played Game by Both Teams
Both the Cowboys and Vikings played well overall. It was a crucial game for both teams as well. Certainly there were plays both teams would like to have back, but for the most part when big plays were made, it was good players making a little better play, rather than taking advantage of another player’s mistake.
It was a hard fought game on both sides, and both coaching staffs. There weren’t a lot of mistakes, basically no turnovers, not a ton of penalties- and a couple that were called probably shouldn’t have been.
But in the end, it was the Vikings that established their running game, which was a key part of both team’s game plan. Unfortunately the Vikings defense wasn’t able to capitalize on making the Cowboys one-dimensional on offense, largely due to the lack of an effective pass rush and some great throws and catches by the Cowboys offense. But the Cowboys’ lack of a running game did trip them up a bit in the red zone, and that proved critical.
Vikings Beat a Winning Team, On the Road, At Night, In Prime Time, On a Big Stage, in a Key Match-up....
It was a critical game for both teams, as the winner would emerge a contender while the loser would still have everything to prove.
These are the games that Kirk Cousins is known to lose. His record in night games is bad. His record in prime time games is bad. His record against good (winning) teams is bad. His record in big games is bad. His record on the road is bad. That’s not to say he’s always played bad in these games, but his team hasn’t won their share of them.
Similarly, this Vikings team was criticized for not having beat any good teams yet this year.
Those narratives were dispelled Sunday night, as the Vikings started strong, and finished with some key plays to secure the victory.
The Cowboys came into the game 5-3 with the top ranked offense in yards, and 5th ranked in points. Defensively, they were ranked 5th in points allowed and 6th in yards allowed. They were also healthy, with no key players inactive.
The Vikings came into the game 6-3 and similarly ranked on defense, but further back on offense. They were also missing their top wide receiver in Adam Thielen, along with starting nose tackle Linval Joseph, and starting left cornerback Trae Waynes.
But they were able to overcome the injuries and rally on the road to beat a Dallas team that played pretty well too. That aspect of the win may be as encouraging as any. It wasn’t as if they beat a team having an off-night, or that was struggling with mistakes most of the game. Dallas played pretty well, but the Vikings beat them anyway.
Nearly Vikings Football
There were many aspects of Vikings football in Sunday night’s game. The Vikings ran the ball 36 times, while passing only 33. They finished with 220 passing yards, and 153 rushing.
That run-heavy (by today’s NFL standards) offense culminated in a 75 yard drive the last half of the third quarter, in which the Vikings ran the ball 11 of 13 plays, including the last ten plays of the drive. The drive resulted in a touchdown on a 4th and 2 run by Dalvin Cook.
Defensively, the Vikings executed the ‘first stop the run’ aspect of Zimmer’s game plan to perfection, limiting the Cowboys 4th ranked rushing offense in yards per attempt (5.0), to a mere 2.3 yards per attempt on Sunday night. And without Linval Joseph.
But while the Vikings were able to make the Cowboys offense one-dimensional, they couldn’t stop the Cowboys passing attack, and were not able to stop them on third-down as effectively. The Cowboys were able to rack up nearly 400 yards passing, and converted 60% of their 3rd downs.
Those numbers were generated in large part because the Vikings pass rush was unable to pressure Dak Prescott effectively much of the game, often giving plenty of time for deeper routes to develop, and making the defensive backs job much more difficult having to cover for longer periods. Amari Cooper had a number of impressive sideline catches, some in good coverage, while Randall Cobb also had over 100 yards receiving - most of which came on receptions late in the play.
But other than the Vikings pass defense, which was up against perhaps the best offensive line in the league- and a top receiver in Amari Cooper- it was a fairly well executed game plan. Play-calling on offense was particularly good, with some twists from previous games to help the outside zone run game, which opposing defenses have focused on shutting down with some success in recent games.
Dalvin Cook was both the Vikings’ leading rushing and leading receiver, rushing for 97 yards and receiving for 86, accounting for half the Vikings’ offensive production. Kyle Rudolph had a few key receptions, including 2 touchdown receptions, in his most productive game in recent weeks. Alexander Mattison also had a couple big runs late, and Stefon Diggs had a couple big receptions to move the Vikings down the field.
Kirk Cousins was near flawless, if also not flashy, going 23/32 for 220 yards, 2 TDs, no turnovers, and a solid 111.5 passer rating. Most of that production came in the first half, starting strong and going 16/21 for 170 yards, 2 TDs, and a 131.1 passer rating, leading to an early 14-0 Vikings lead.
Top Individual Performances
According to PFF, the top performers on offense for the Vikings were Kyle Rudolph, Dalvin Cook, Alexander Mattison, Kirk Cousins, and Stefon Diggs. Defensively, the top performers among starters were Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Anthony Harris, and Anthony Barr. Ben Gedeon and Holton Hill had the best grades on defense, but each had only about a dozen snaps.
There were no elite graded performances for the Vikings. The Cowboys had two elite performances - Amari Cooper and Demarcus Lawrence.
On the bottom side of the scale, Brian O’Neill and Irv Smith Jr. were the lowest graded starters on offense, while Mike Hughes, Jaleel Johnson, and Xavier Rhodes were the lowest graded starters on defense.
Brian O’Neill had a tough assignment against Demarcus Lawrence, but still only allowed 2 pressures. He has yet to allow a sack in 864 pass blocking snaps since being drafted by the Vikings last year.
Mike Hughes was targeted early and often - nearly 40% of the time - yielding 11 receptions on 17 targets for 154 yards, 1 TD and a 113.4 passer rating when targeted. Hughes had two pass break-ups, one which might have been a pick-six had Hughes held on to the ball.
Vikings Emerge as Contenders
The Vikings beat a pretty solid Cowboys team on the road, in prime time. That takes a big bugaboo off the back of this Vikings team, and Kirk Cousins in particular, as both team and quarterback played well in an important game on a big stage.
At 7-3, with only a home game against the struggling Broncos left in November, everything is possible for the key stretch of December games that will determine the Vikings’ playoff fate.
The Vikings also have only two of their remaining six games on the road, which bodes well for a team that has a chance for a first-round bye if they finish strong. The division-leading Packers have 4 of their remaining six games on the road by contrast, including what could be the NFC North title game Monday night, December 23rd, at US Bank stadium. The Packers currently hold the tie-breaker of better division record over the Vikings, and would continue to hold it if the Vikings beat the Packers and both teams won the rest of their games.
The Conference leading 49ers, currently 8-0, play the Seahawks twice, the Packers, Saints, Ravens, and Rams. The 49ers have yet to play a currently seeded playoff team.
7-2 New Orleans play Carolina twice, the 49ers, at Atlanta (who just beat them at home), along with Tampa and Tennessee on the road, and the Colts at home.
Finally, the 7-2 Seahawks host the Vikings on Monday night early in December in another reality-check game for the Vikings, along with the 49ers twice, and at Philadelphia, the Rams, and Carolina.
All of that suggests if the Vikings can beat the Seahawks and Packers, while taking care of business with non-playoff teams, even the first seed is still possible.