Thursday October 14th, 2010

Typically when my editors and I hash out which game I should cover on any given NFL weekend, a matchup of sub-.500 teams doesn't make the radar screen or get even token consideration. But Sunday's Dallas at Minnesota showdown is no typical meeting of 1-3 teams. And off the top of my head, here are 10 reasons why:

1. If you love the NFL playoffs, this game is like starting them in mid-October. Call it what you will, the Desperation Bowl, the Panic-Button Bowl, but the Cowboys and Vikings are in survival mode and virtually playing for their season Sunday in the Metrodome. Dallas and Minnesota were two of the most popular preseason picks to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, but somebody's coming out of this game with a 1-4 record and greatly diminished hopes of playing meaningful games in January.

How diminished? Glad you asked. Since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format for the 1990 season, 240 teams have made the playoffs in those 20 seasons. Just 11 of the 240 were at least three games below .500 after their first five games of the season or later. That's 4.6 percent, or less than a 1 in 20 chance. That's the mountain the loser will be facing.

"I think every game after this is elimination,'' Dallas outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said this week. "If you lose this game, the next game is even worse. How do you feel if you're coming out of this game 1-4? [A] 2-3 [record] sounds better and that's what you want. You want to get those numbers on the front end.''

And for the record, neither the Cowboys nor Vikings have ever climbed out of a 1-4 hole to make the playoffs, with Dallas entering the league in 1960 and Minnesota starting play in 1961. The five teams that have started 1-4 and made the playoffs since 1990 all won their division: the 1992 Chargers, 1993 Oilers, 2002 Titans, 2002 Jets and 2004 Packers.

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2. A lot can change in the span of 272 days. It's probably getting hazier in memory by the minute in Dallas or Minnesota, but when kickoff rolls around, it'll be exactly nine months since these teams met in the NFC divisional playoffs, in the very same stadium. And who doesn't like a playoff rematch?

The Vikings pummeled the Cowboys 34-3 last Jan. 17, registering the second-largest rout in the franchise's 45-game playoff history. The 31-point loss also was the second-worst in Dallas playoff history (58 games). For Brett Favre and the 2009 Vikings, that game was as good as it got. Favre threw for 234 yards and four touchdowns against Dallas, three of them to his favorite target, receiver Sidney Rice.

Who knows, but that might wind up being the final big victory of Favre's 20-year NFL career. The next week the Vikings lost 31-28 in overtime at New Orleans in the NFC Championship Game, with Favre playing the goat with his ill-timed interception late in regulation. His highlights have certainly been few in 2010.

There was even some bad blood between the teams toward the end of their playoff game, when some Cowboys players, notably linebacker Keith Brooking, thought the Vikings were classless and guilty of running up the score with a tack-on touchdown pass to tight end Visanthe Shiancoe at the two-minute mark. Brooking even made a point of expressing his views to the Minnesota sideline.

Since that game, which doubled as the first and only playoff win so far for Vikings head coach Brad Childress, the teams are a combined 2-7, and not much has gone right for either one of them. Dallas is stubbing its toe big time in the attempt to become the first team to ever play a Super Bowl on its own home field, and Minnesota's Super-Bowl-or-bust season so far has seen far more melodrama than magic.

3. One of the quarterbacks is dealing with a tabloid-style off-field distraction involving a woman, and for once Tony Romo has nothing to do with it. Favre already stood up in front of his team before Monday night's game against the Jets and offered tears and an apology for putting the club through the whole Jenn Sterger saga, so who knows what emotional card No. 4 will play in a must-win setting like this?

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Against the Jets, Favre certainly looked like he was distracted by something for about two-thirds of the game, but then he flipped a switch and played his 41-year-old butt off until throwing that game-deciding pick-six to Jets cornerback Dwight Lowery. With the NFL still investigating his alleged lewd messages to Sterger in 2008 as a potential sexual harassment violation under the league's personal conduct policy, Favre will be playing his first home game beneath a very different kind of spotlight.

How will the good folks of Minnesota respond to their carpetbagging hero, whose halo doesn't shine quite as brightly this year? I'm guessing it depends on how he plays, but that's just 21 years of covering the NFL talking. Maybe the reception will be cooler than a Minnesota evening in mid-October. And that might just be the vibe coming from Deanna Favre if the TV cameras manage to find her in a Metrodome luxury box.

4. History could be made Sunday, providing Favre doesn't play. As if there's not enough going on with the Vikings starting quarterback, he has a case of tendinitis in his throwing elbow, and he said Wednesday that he would consider sitting out a game or two this season if it got any worse. Favre has an NFL-record 289-game starting streak that dates to September 1992, so that would be the football equivalent of Cal Ripken pulling himself out of the lineup.

Favre didn't practice Wednesday and seemed in obvious pain after making certain throws late in the Jets game, grabbing at his elbow. Childress said the Vikings will parcel out his practice reps in an attempt to not overwork the elbow, but Favre himself admitted he needs as much practice as he can get about now. (You might have heard, he wasn't in Vikings training camp and also has a new receiver to get in sync with).

That adds a layer of intrigue to Sunday's game; just because Favre starts the game doesn't mean he'll finish it. We could see Vikings backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson at some point, and maybe even early if Favre's elbow gets sorer rather than better once he's loose.

5. The Prodigal Son returns. Any other week, Randy Moss returning "home'' to play his first game back in Minnesota as a Viking since the end of the 2004 season would be the screaming pregame headline. What do we have it at, No. 5? That's about right.

Upon arriving from New England last week, Moss predicted his second go-round as a Viking would be "a fun ride.'' But early on in that Jets game, with the rain pouring down on him and very few footballs coming his way, I didn't think it looked like he was having all that much fun.

But then he caught that rainbow of a 37-yard touchdown pass from Favre in the third quarter, sparking the Vikings comeback, and you could see the makings of what might be in store in Minnesota in the final three months of the season. Moss finished with four catches for 81 yards and the touchdown in the loss to the Jets, and he was definitely a factor that New York had to account for.

And the good news just keeps right on coming for the struggling Cowboys.

6. Moss forgives, but never forgets. At least that's what he said this week, in reminding us of his mantra when it comes to the Cowboys' infamous snub of him in the first round of the 1998 NFL Draft. Dallas owner Jerry Jones last week playfully tried to apologize once again for overlooking Moss that April, and there's little mystery why. As Moss promised after Dallas, his favorite team growing up, passed on him, he has been a one-man wrecking crew against the Cowboys over the years.

Dallas is 0-7 against Moss, with the future Hall of Fame receiver having beaten the Cowboys with three teams: Minnesota (5-0), Oakland (1-0) and New England (1-0). In those games, the most recent of which came in 2007 with the Patriots, Moss has caught 11 touchdown passes and rolled up 734 receiving yards (104.9 per game).

"I always forgive, man, that's in the Bible,'' Moss said this week in a conference call with the Dallas-area media. "I always forgive but I never forget. Jerry Jones, I still respect his organization, the accomplishments that he has made over the years. I don't hold a grudge and I'm not bitter about the situation -- this is my 13th year in the league. Like I said, I forgive him but I don't forget. We're still cool.''

Yeah, they're still cool, but will Moss once again whip the Cowboys like a rented mule? That's the only question that will matter on Sunday.

7. We might just get our first head-to-head matchup of Moss versus the next Randy Moss. Give Jones credit for learning his lesson from 1998. When he had a chance for a do-over of sorts this year, he traded up for the chance to select Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant with the No. 24 pick. Bryant's mixture of obvious game-breaking talent amid a backdrop of some character questions reminded me of Moss's pre-draft standing in '98. But this time, Jones didn't hesitate.

Bryant missed practice Wednesday with a sore ankle and ribs, but he is expected to play against the Vikings. He hurt the ankle last Sunday in the Cowboys' 34-27 home loss to Tennessee. So far this season, his impact has been modest as a receiver, with 17 catches for 180 yards and no touchdowns in four games. As a punt returner, Bryant has been very solid, with eight returns for 11.3-yard average, including a 62-yard touchdown against the Bears in Week 2.

Wouldn't it be a great story if Bryant's breakout game as a receiver (eight catches for 56 yards at Washington in Week 1 is his best showing so far) came in Minnesota, with Moss there to witness it? I'm sure the Cowboys, and Jones in particular, wouldn't mind seeing that little plot twist unfold.

8. Can the Dallas D stop the guy they call A.D.? Last week, the Titans' Chris Johnson dented the Cowboys for 131 yards rushing on 19 carries, with a pair of 1-yard fourth-quarter touchdowns. The game before that, Houston's Arian Foster, the league's top ground-gainer, hit them for 106 yards on 17 carries. Now they get the challenge of facing one of the NFL's other glamour running backs, Adrian "All Day'' Peterson.

Dallas's run defense had a streak of 19 consecutive games without allowing a 100-yard rusher before Foster ended it. Now the Cowboys are streaking in the wrong direction in terms of stopping the run. Peterson ranks third in the NFL in rushing, but tops the NFC with 480 yards on 88 carries, despite having played only four games. He's not had a game this year with fewer than 87 yards rushing, and totaled 145 in a Week 2 loss to Miami and 160 in a Week 3 win over Detroit.

"He's one of the hardest runners in the NFL,'' Ware said. "It doesn't get any easier. You've got to be ready for a guy like Adrian who can catch the ball out of the backfield, [and] run the ball really hard. We've got to be physical and we've got to be physical up front, especially the front seven.''

9. It's called returning to the scene of the crime. The Dallas offensive line got humiliated in the playoff loss to Minnesota, giving up six sacks of Romo and letting the Vikings' ferocious four-man line harass the Cowboys quarterback all day long. That game led to the end of the Flozell Adams era, with Dallas reshuffling on the offensive front.

But it's hard to detect much progress in the ensuing nine months, because the Cowboys allowed -- wait for it -- six sacks in last week's loss to the Titans. Some of them might not have been the line's fault, but the unit did not play well no matter how you cut it. Starting right guard Leonard Davis was benched for Montrae Holland in the first half, and right guard Marc Colombo's unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (he fell to the ground in a football-spiking celebration of Jason Witten's game-tying fourth-quarter touchdown) helped set up Tennessee's game-winning touchdown.

The good news for the Cowboys offensive line is that the Vikings D-line isn't playing any where near as well as it did last January. Minnesota has just six sacks in four games, but the Vikings defense is ranked fifth overall. Defensive end Ray Edwards leads Minnesota with just 1½ sacks, with sack machine Jared Allen stuck on one drop of the opposing quarterback.

10. As good as the drama might be on the field, it could be even more interesting in the losing locker room. One of these teams is going to be very desperate indeed early Sunday evening, and that could breed dissension and the start of a season's true unraveling. Already this week, embattled Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips received a vote of confidence from both Jerry and Stephen Jones, who assured the media that no coaching change is in the offing. But that's one of those situations where if you even have to ask the question, it's not a good development, no matter what the answer.

"It's par for the course anywhere,'' Phillips said, in a conference call with the Minnesota media. "We're bad coaches now and we're bad players, but we've only played four games. We'll see how it ends out. That's the most important thing, is how the season ends and how you finish. People react everywhere. I'm sure it's up there, too.

"If you're expected to win, and you don't win, then everybody has got all these excuses and reasons and blame this and blame that. The realization is we've both got good teams and I think we'll both bounce back.''

Um, they can't both bounce back this week, unless a tie would keep hope alive in Dallas and Minnesota. Phillips is right, of course. It's how the season ends and how you finish that matters. But sometimes the finish comes long before the season really ends, in a most unexpected way. That's the brink upon which the Cowboys and Vikings already find themselves. And only one of them will get to take a big step back from it on Sunday.

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