Vikings-Cowboys Preview: Three Keys to Victory
Is it 7:20 p.m. yet?
The Vikings and Cowboys are set to battle in primetime this weekend, and the stakes are high for both teams. There's a ton on the line: playoff positioning, narratives, momentum. Can Kirk Cousins finally win a game like this on the road, against a Cowboys team that he's only beaten once in seven tries? It'll take outstanding execution not just from Cousins, but in all three phases for the Vikings to leave Dallas with a victory.
First, some preview content to catch up on:
- Where are the Vikings in the power rankings after losing to the Chiefs?
- What can we learn from the Vikings' snap counts in KC?
- Adam Thielen's hamstring injury is becoming a bigger issue than anticipated, and Dalvin Cook knows what it's like.
- The Vikings have bounced back from losses twice already. Can they do it again?
- Thielen and Linval Joseph won't play against the Cowboys. Here's the full injury report ahead of Sunday's game.
- The national media thinks the Cowboys are going to win. See their predictions and mine.
Finally, here are three keys to victory for the Vikings:
1. Avoid turnovers (I'm looking at you, Kirk)
One of the things that has allowed the Vikings to play well on offense of late has been their ability to take care of the ball. They've turned it over just once in the last three games, courtesy of a Stefon Diggs fumble early on against Washington. That's an impressive turnaround for a team that had nine turnovers in its first six games, including four against the Packers alone.
Cousins, specifically, has taken much better care of the ball. After turning it over four times (two interceptions, two fumbles) against the Packers and Bears, his only turnover in the last five weeks was an interception that went right through Diggs' hands. That's a big deal for a guy who tends to be fairly turnover-prone. Cousins had the most fumbles in the league (40, including those lost and recovered) and tied for the eighth-most interceptions (46) in his four years as the Redskins' full-time starter.
Holding onto the ball will be absolutely critical on Sunday night, since only four teams have more fumble recoveries than the Cowboys' eight. With talented pass-rushers Demarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn and Michael Bennett likely to apply pressure on Cousins, he needs to make sure he either gets the ball out of his hands or takes a sack. It would also be helpful if Diggs didn't add to his team-leading total of three lost fumbles. Every possession will be huge in what is projected to be a close game.
2. Win the explosive plays battle
Coming into this game, the Vikings lead the NFL in explosive play rate at 14 percent, according to Sharp Football Stats (explosive plays are runs of 10+ yards or passes of 15+ yards). In second place? The Dallas Cowboys, at 13 percent. These are the two best big-play offenses in the league, and whichever defense is more effective in limiting such plays will likely lead their team to victory. So far this season, the Vikings defense has been better than the Cowboys in that department.
The Vikings are coming off an uncharacteristic performance when it comes to explosive plays. They had just six explosive plays in Kansas City, their second-lowest total of the season. Their longest play of the day was a 32-yard catch and run by fullback CJ Ham against a blown coverage. On defense, the Vikings didn't allow a ton of explosive plays, but the ones they did give up included a 91-yard touchdown run and a 40-yard touchdown pass.
How successful the Vikings are in picking up chunks of yardage with Cook, Diggs, and company will determine a lot about this game. Will Cousins have the pass protection to take some shots deep downfield? Can the Vikings run-block better than they did in KC and continue to get Cook involved in the screen game? Defensively, they'll have their hands full keeping Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, and Michael Gallup from springing big gains. Applying pressure on Dak Prescott will be critical.
3. Find a way to win (looking at you again, Kirk)
Football is a team game, yes, but this game will almost certainly be won or lost by the quarterbacks. If Cousins was better last week in the Kansas City, the Vikings would've won the game. He was far from the only reason they lost, but that doesn't mean that statement isn't true. If he goes into AT&T Stadium and plays an outstanding game, the Vikings will probably win.
Cousins said it himself this week: "If you're going to be a playoff team, you have to win tough games in tough environments at some point, otherwise you're probably not getting into the playoffs."
This is the type of game the Vikings didn't win last season. It's the type of game they – and their much-maligned quarterback – need to find a way to win this year. Time to change the narrative, Kirk.