Thursday January 14th, 2010

Breaking down the NFC divisional battle, Cowboys at Vikings, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, Fox

1. Favre's last stand. Yeah, yeah, go ahead and laugh. Sure enough, Brett Favre has made a second career of lampooning his own indecisiveness. Even Wednesday during a press conference at Vikings' headquarters in suburban Minneapolis, when a questioner said that Kurt Warner hadn't nailed down his future plans, Favre said, "So he's waffling?''

Give Favre points for self-awareness. But the fact is, we have reached that point where every game Favre plays could be his last, for reasons other than injury. He and his family went home to Mississippi last week to "recharge the batteries,'' as he put it, but he also said, "I haven't thought about what next year will be like. All I want to do is beat Dallas. I don't want to even think about next year.''

In nine of the Vikings' first 11 games, Favre's passer rating was 95.3 or higher; he had 24 touchdowns and three interceptions. In the next three games, two of which the Vikings lost, Favre's rating was under 80 and he had three touchdowns and four interceptions to encourage buzz about a flameout like last year's with the Jets. But Favre played well in the last two weeks of the season, including a four-touchdown, 316-yard performance against the in-the-tank Giants. That finish, of course, is another reason to care: Because even if this is Favre's last game, you just don't know what you're going to get.

2. Cowboys bringing the heat. The Cowboys have a devastating pass rush, led by outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (11 sacks), nose tackle Jay Ratliff (seven), outside linebacker Anthony Spencer (six) and inside linebacker Keith Brooking (four). Ware's total, in fact, is his lowest in the past four seasons (20 in 2008, 14 in 2007, 11 ½ in 2006), but the Cowboys' front seven has played more cohesively, especially with 11 sacks in the final three weeks of the regular season and four more on Donovan McNabb in the wild-card round.

This aspect of the game is made all the more intriguing because of the quarterback on the other side of he ball. (Warning: Almost every element of this game comes back around to Favre). It will be fascinating to watch Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie, who has struggled at times, dealing with Ware; but only slightly more so than watching 6-foot-8, 343-pound right tackle Phil Loadholt from Oklahoma playing against Spencer. It's good fun to watch Favre play at all times, but even more so to watch him try to play all day under siege. McKinnie and Loadholt are huge; Ware and Spencer are quick.

Bonus Why You Should Care: The Cowboys' pass rush is getting all the pregame buzz, but it was the Vikings who led the NFL in sacks, so there's a no-respect subplot in play, too. And Tony Romo is a great show under the gun, as well.

3. Can they coach? Prior to last weekend, Vikings coach Brad Childress and Cowboys coach Wade Phillips had combined for zero playoff victories. That's not entirely fair to Childress; he's only in his third year as a head coach and last year's 26-14 home loss to the Eagles in the wild-card round was his first playoff game. Phillips, meanwhile, is hailed in Cowboys' media materials as one of only six NFL coaches to take at least three different teams to playoffs (the others: Bill Parcells, who took four; Chuck Knox, Dan Reeves, Marty Schottenheimer and Dick Vermeil). But Phillips's record was 0-4 before last week's decisive home win over the Eagles.

Yet the point remains: both coaches are still regarded by many critics as over-their-heads coordinators doomed to ultimately fail as head coaches. Phillips has been on Jerry Jones's hot seat since he took over for Parcells in 2007, and while Childress has improved in each of his seasons (6-10 to 8-8 to 10-6 to this year's 12-4 and a divisional title), success is truly measured after Week 17. Childress's season was stained by the ugly Week 15 squabble with Favre (there he is again), which may or may not have been an internal fight for control of the offense. Bottom line is both coaches need to get deeper into the playoffs and neither has shown that he can do it.

A look at the Cowboys' defense by a scout from a team that played America's Team late in the regular season:

"Obviously the big thing is all that speed off the edge with Ware and Spencer. Usually when you've got one good edge rusher -- a [Dwight] Freeney, a [Elvis] Dumervil -- you slide your protection to that guy. You put a back on that side to chip. But with the Cowboys, the problem is they have two edge rushers. If you slide away from Spencer, Ware is one-on-one. If you slide away from Ware, Spencer is one-on-one. So maybe you keep another guy in protection, like [tight end Visanthe] Shiancoe. But he's a big part of the passing game. It's really a tough spot for the Vikings. Whatever they do, Brett's got to get the ball out quickly or he's on his back.

The Cowboys are the trendy pick to rise from wild-card round winner to Super Bowl champion. There's that pass rush, there's Tony Romo looking like he's matured into a first-rate NFL quarterback not just before Thanksgiving, but afterward as well. Miles Austin and Felix Jones are game-breakers. But there's something about Favre and the Vikings and playing at home in the very noisy Metrodome. You can make the argument that the bye week often hurts teams by letting them get rusty; I think it will work the other way for the Vikings. Watch Favre work the short passing game and give the ball to Adrian Peterson on a lot of first downs to slow the pass rush. And watch Jared Allen get to Romo. Vikings 31, Cowboys 29

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