'Thursday Night Football' prediction: Playoff hopes stay alive as Vikings beat Cowboys
Minnesota needs a win to keep pace in the NFC playoff race
In many respects, the 2016 Cowboys are a lot like the 2004 Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger was a rookie forced into action in Week 2 when starter Tommy Maddox went down with an injury, and, well, the rest is history.
That group finished 15-1, earned homefield advantage in the playoffs, and made it to the AFC Championship game, where they ran into Tom Brady and the Patriots just as Big Ben was hitting the rookie wall and running out of gas. The '04 Steelers were built around a good offensive line and running game, and great defense. It made Roethlisberger's life eminently easier.
Without Tony Romo, who suffered a back injury in late August, Prescott and the Cowboys lost the regular-season opener to the Giants -- and then proceeded to reel off 10 straight victories, including huge wins against the Packers and Steelers, and a sweep of the Redskins.
It's slightly more complicated than it seems, though probably not much more. The three-word answer: Prescott and Elliott.
Prescott was not only a capable replacement for Romo, he played at such a high level that Romo convened a press conference earlier this month to concede the job. Consider this: In 2013 and 2014, Romo's last two full seasons, he ranked third and 10th in Football Outsiders' value-per-play metric. Prescott is currently No. 2 behind only Tom Brady.
Over those same two years, Pro Football Focus graded Romo as the 13th- and seventh-best quarterback. They rank Prescott No. 7 this season. That's not to say Romo wouldn't be his usually efficient self had he stayed healthy, but it does shine a light on just how amazing Prescott has been in his place.
Skeptics could point out that Prescott has the luxury of sharing the backfield with Elliott, currently the NFL's best running back, according to Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus, and anyone with just a passing interest in football.
And the hyper-skeptical might also note that both Prescott and Elliott enjoy playing behind the league's best offensive line. We won't argue that, but that's the same offensive line that couldn't save the 2015 team from the backfield of Weeden, Cassel and Darren McFadden. At some point, you have to acknowledge that Prescott and Elliott are a big part of the 180 in Dallas.
Now the question becomes this: Can the Cowboys can finish the regular season strong, and more importantly, can Prescott -- and, to a lesser extent, Elliott -- avoid that rookie wall that doomed Big Ben and the Steelers?
The good news: If that's the Cowboys' biggest problem as we head into December, they're in better shape than just about everybody else. The bad news: If Prescott shows signs of slowing -- and, honestly, we haven't seen any cracks in the armor -- Dallas will have to prove they can compensate.
For now, we'll file this under "Looking for problems where none exist."
The Vikings, meanwhile, might be just 1-5 since their 5-0 start, but they're also a team in the playoff hunt, which makes them dangerous this time of year. Their offense continues to lack anything resembling a downfield passing attack, which is good news for an average Cowboys defense, though Sam Bradford has designs on changing that following a Thanksgiving Day loss to the Lions. He finished 31 of 37, but only threw for 224 yards, which works out to 6.1 yards per attempt.
"I think schematically, that was just kind of how we decided to attack [the Lions]," Bradford said this week. "But I think after last week, we realized that we've got to be a little more balanced in how we go out there and do that."
Bradford ranks fourth in Pro Football Focus' deep-passing stat, completing 57 percent of his attempts with a passer rating of 135.4. Unfortunately, it's not all unicorns and rainbows. Via ESPN.com's Ben Goessling: "According to ESPN Stats & Information, only 18.2 percent of opponents' passing attempts have traveled 15 yards or more this season against the Cowboys, which is the 10th-fewest in the league."
"I think every team presents the opportunities to go downfield," Bradford continued. "I think you look at Washington and what they were able to do in the game last week. They hit them for quite a few big plays, so I think it's just a matter of getting the right plays dialed up at the right time against the right coverages."
Sounds good in theory. Whether Bradford can translate that into points is another matter entirely.
CBSSports.com's Pete Prisco's prediction
Both teams played last Thursday, so they will be rested. The Vikings have lost five of six, while the Cowboys have won 10 straight. This will be a tough one to get 11. I think the Vikings, who are playoff desperate, slow the run game and pull off the upset.
Prisco's pick: Vikings 20, Cowboys 17
It's easy to pick the Cowboys -- they've won 10 straight and are 3.5-point road favorites. But the Vikings are playing for their playoff lives, and we're excited to see what defensive mastermind Mike Zimmer has in store for Prescott and Elliott. It's going to take their best game of the season, but we think this could be their turning point.
Our prediction: Vikings 14, Cowboys 10
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