It's always fun when two contenders get together and try to battle it out. Lucky for us, that's what we're getting on Sunday Night Football this week. The Minnesota Vikings are 6-3. The Dallas Cowboys are 5-3. And they're set to square off at AT&T Stadium in Dallas.
The game could have massive implications in the NFC playoff picture, what with the Vikings trailing the Packers by one game in the NFC North and the Cowboys currently leading the NFC East. In the interest of brevity, let's get right to the breakdown.
When the Vikings have the ball
The Vikings coming off a somewhat dispiriting loss to the Matt Moore-led Chiefs, snapping a four-game winning streak and dropping their record to 6-3. It was the team's second consecutive subpar performance on offense, which has to be a concern for a team that began the season slowly before ripping off what looked like a wildly impressive three-game stretch. Take even a slightly deeper look at Minnesota's offensive performance, and a trend becomes pretty clear.
The Vikings have played five games against teams ranked inside the bottom-third of the league in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA, and in those games, the Vikes have put up an average of 416.2 yards and 30.2 points per game. In four games against teams ranked 22nd or better in defensive DVOA, however, the Vikings' averages dropped to only 349.5 yards and 20.8 points per game. It's not at all unusual for teams to fare better against poor defenses, but the Vikings' numbers are pretty stark and it's notable that their three-game explosion in Weeks 5 through 7 came against two bottom-third defenses and the Eagles, whose secondary has been a disaster pretty much all year.
The Cowboys defense has not been quite as strong this season (17th in DVOA) as it was a year ago (ninth), but the defense Dallas will have on the field Sunday night is different than the one that has taken the field for most of the season. Byron Jones is back fully healthy and playing at an extremely high level. The same is true of Demarcus Lawrence. Robert Quinn is neither suspended nor injured. Michael Bennett is now in town, and as my colleague Patrik Walker explored earlier this week, . It's possible that the last two games this unit has played have been its best two of the year, with relentless pressure up front forcing the Eagles and Giants into a combined seven turnovers and just 28 points.
Even if Leighton Vander Esch (neck) is unable to suit up due to injury, it looks like this Dallas defense could provide a stiff test for a Vikings offense that has shown itself vulnerable to the quality of opposition. The Cowboys pose a particular test for the Vikings because of their ability to pressure quarterbacks, which even an improved Vikings offensive line has struggled to prevent. Kirk Cousins has been sacked, hit, or hurried on 40.8 percent of his dropbacks this season, per Pro Football Focus, a rate that ranks 28th out of 30 qualified passers.
Pressure up the middle could be a pretty big problem, what with Garret Bradbury and Pat Elflein struggling badly this season (20 pressures allowed apiece) and Bennett and Maliek Collins playing extremely well. If the Vikings have to provide help to the guys on the interior of the line, that could leave Lawrence and Quinn with one-on-one matchups on the outside, and that's pretty dangerous as well.
The Vikings have attempted to counteract pressure with a heavy dose of play-action passing, to which they have turned at the highest rate (35.4 percent) in the NFL. Cousins, as is typical for him throughout his career, has fared extremely well when throwing after a run-fake, posting a 125.8 passer rating with eight touchdowns and just one interception on those throws.
When Cousins looks downfield, he'll be scouring a back seven that has been up and down this season, but better of late. Jones, as mentioned, is back at or near the top of his game after taking a few weeks to ramp up following offseason hip surgery. Since resuming full-time action in Week 3, Jones has allowed only 11 completions. Sub-package corners Anthony Brown (80.4 passer rating allowed) and Jourdan Lewis (68.8) have been solid all season, but Chidobe Awuzie (98.2) has been vulnerable and has emerged as a favored target for opposing offenses.
Awuzie plays almost exclusively at left cornerback, and the Vikings would be wise to line Stefon Diggs up across from him as often as possible without Adam Thielen likely out for this game. If they have to sacrifice Olabisi Johnson to Jones' coverage, that should be just fine so long as Diggs gets to cook. Dallas' zone-heavy style of defense often concedes check down passes to tight ends and backs, counting on their athletic linebacker corps and safeties to come up and make tackles to limit the damage. Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch struggled to do that early in the season, but Smith has played much better in recent weeks, while Sean Lee has played very well in relief of Vander Esch. The real weakness on the back end of Dallas' defense is and always has been safety Jeff Heath, but he's been limited in practices this week after leaving Monday night's victory over the Giants with shoulder and knee injuries. If he can't play, he'll be replaced by Darian Thompson, who might just be an upgrade.
This game looks like one where it would be wise for the Vikings to lean heavily on their running game, particularly Dalvin Cook. Cook has been an absolute monster this season, putting together his longest consecutive stretch of healthy games and leading the NFL in both carries and rushing yards. He's averaging 5.1 yards a pop, and also ranks 12th in the NFL elusive rating, ninth in yards after contact per attempt, and first in carries of 15 yards or more (12). Alexander Mattison has run well behind him, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, ranking 24th in elusive rating and 17th in yards after contact per attempt, and notching seven carries of 15 yards or more.
The only running games the Cowboys have managed to totally shut down are those of the Dolphins, Washington, and the Jets. Every other team has found at least some degree of success on the ground, and considering the Vikings sport one of the best ground games in the league, they should be able to do so as well. If Cook gets going, that could force the Cowboys to drop an extra guy down into the box, and that opens up the play-action deep shot game for Cousins.
When the Cowboys have the ball
After back to back 37-point games, the Dallas offense appears to be back on track following a midseason dip. Coming into this game, Dallas now ranks first in the NFL in yards per game, fifth in points per game, and first in overall offensive DVOA. They're currently the only team in the NFL with a top-four unit (by DVOA) both in the air and on the ground. On Sunday night they face a Vikings defense that ranks seventh in yards allowed per game, fourth in points allowed per game, and seventh in defensive DVOA. This is what we call a strength vs. strength matchup.
If Dallas wants to find success against this Minnesota defense, the best way to do so is to do it early. The Vikings rank just 21st in DVOA on first down, but they're sixth on second downs and fifth on third downs -- the money downs. They become increasingly tougher to beat as you get deeper into your series.
Linval Joseph did not practice Thursday after getting in a full day's work on Wednesday, and he was spotted limping in the locker room. He's the Vikings' best interior defender, particularly against the run. Jaleel Johnson is likely to replace him if he can't go, and while Johnson is a solid player, he's not much of a match for the combination of Travis Frederick and Zack Martin on the inside. The Vikings have been a strong run defense throughout the season, but Joseph is a big part of that and if he has to miss the game or is in any way limited, that could provide an advantage for the Cowboys.
Similarly, the Vikings have been an excellent pass defense due to their combination of pass-rush and coverage capabilities. This is typical of a Mike Zimmer-led defense, and it's how the Vikings have shut teams down over the past several years. But while the pass rush has remained one of the league's best (Danielle Hunter leads the NFL with 54 pressures and Everson Griffen ranks third; the Vikings as a team also rank fourth in Adjusted Sack Rate), the secondary has been leakier this season than it has been in a while.
No. 1 cornerback Xavier Rhodes is just flat out not quite as good as he used to be. Rhodes has allowed a 121.5 passer rating on throws in his direction, per Pro Football Focus, which ranks 109th out of the 122 cornerbacks and safeties who have played at least 200 snaps in coverage. Compare that to 2018 (88.4), 2017 (73.2), and 2016 (47.0), and it's clear Rhodes is simply not the same. Rhodes lines up at right cornerback almost all the time, which means he'll see a heck of a lot of Michael Gallup, who is an explosive downfield threat with a wide catch radius and could give Rhodes some trouble.
Left corner Trae Waynes has not been much better than Rhodes, as he's been hit for a 109.2 passer rating on throws his way, and Waynes will presumably have to do a whole lot of tangling with Amari Cooper, who has continued to shine alongside Dak Prescott since arriving in Dallas. Cooper has been particularly effective in games played at home in Dallas: In nine games at Jerry World, Coopers lines are 5-58-1, 8-180-2, 8-76-0, 10-217-3, 4-20-0, 6-106-1, 6-88-2, 11-226-1, and 5-106-0. That's 63 catches for 1,077 yards and 10 scores in just nine games.
Harrison Smith has once again been excellent in coverage, however, and linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are playing excellent football as well. The Cowboys have shown a willingness to target specific weaknesses in opposing pass defenses such as when they repeatedly targeted Rasul Douglas against the Eagles, so it would not be surprising if this were a game where Dallas attempted to work the ball to the perimeter against Rhodes and Waynes at the expense of Randall Cobb, Jason Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Ezekiel Elliott, who were at the center of the passing attack last week.
The Vikings depend on their front four to get pressure and force mistakes against the somewhat-leakier secondary, but that could be hard to come by against this Dallas offensive line. Prescott has been under pressure on 33.7 percent of drop backs, per Pro Football Focus, which is the 10th-lowest rate in the NFL. But if you exclude the two games where Tyron Smith sat out, Dak's pressure rate is only 28.4 percent, fourth-lowest in the league. This is a unit that keeps its quarterback incredibly clean and allows him time to pick out receivers down the field off of both straight drop backs and play-action. If Smith and La'el Collins can keep Hunter and Griffen at bay, Prescott should be able to find his guys down the field.
With the Cowboys, there's always a concern that they will force-feed the ball to Elliott at the expense of their explosive pass game. That was a big part of their downswing in Weeks 4 through 6, but they thankfully have not gone back to that strategy in the two games they've played since. Elliott is obviously a fantastic player, but it has been shown time and again that the running game is best used in short yardage, goal line, and icing-a-lead situations, and that the best thing you can do with a run is to fake it and then throw the ball over the top of the defense.
Prediction: Cowboys 30, Vikings 26