Matthew Coller is a published author and football writer who covers the Vikings. He also writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, in addition to hosting a livestream on the Bring Me The News YouTube and Facebook pages every Tuesday. You can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
The last three times the Minnesota Vikings have faced off with the Dallas Cowboys, each game has told the story of the season.
Last year, the Cowboys came into an empty US Bank Stadium and beat the Vikings with Andy Dalton at the helm. If you blocked out the memory of Minnesota’s 31-28 loss in late November, here’s a quick recap: The Vikings put together over 400 yards of offense but couldn’t stop the run and then failed in the clutch on both sides of the ball.
That was very much typical of how they lost games in 2020. Four times during that season the Vikings produced at least 25 points and came up short in the waning moments and missed the playoffs by a single win. They didn’t have a good enough defense and their offensive line was too flawed to hold together for game-winning drives against even mediocre defenses.
In 2019, the Vikings beat the Cowboys 28-24 on Sunday Night Football. They leaned heavily on their running game with nearly 150 yards combined between Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison and Kirk Cousins made enough plays and didn’t turn the ball over. Dallas got nearly 400 yards out of Dak Prescott but the Vikings’ defense came up with a late stop to walk away with a win.
At the time, it looked like a season-defining win but ultimately Dallas missed the playoffs and their head coach was fired, taking some shine off that national TV victory. The Vikings ultimately proved to have an effective offense when Cook was rolling but enough flaws in their offensive line and defense to struggle against good teams. They only beat one winning team in five tries that year and sputtered in the playoffs when they couldn’t run against the 49ers.
The 2016 loss to Dallas was perfectly representative of a crazy season of bad breaks. That was the night in which Mike Zimmer couldn’t coach due to an emergency eye surgery. The Vikings’ defense played remarkably well against Prescott, who had his lowest passing total of the year, yet Minnesota still caught a couple tough bounces and lost. Adam Thielen fumbled a punt and the referees blew an obvious roughing the passer penalty on the Vikings’ potential game-tying two-point try.
The ‘16 season featured Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson getting hurt along with crushing last-minute losses to Detroit (x2), Washington and, of course, Dallas. They mixed in a plane going off the runway in Green Bay and a protestor hanging from the ceiling in Week 17.
So what will this year’s contest against the Cowboys on Sunday Night Football tell us?
Over the first six games of the season, the Vikings have played five barn-burners. They have lost the tight games against good teams and won the tight games against bad teams. The combined record of their opponents in the three victories is 5-15. The record of opponents who beat the Vikings is 16-5.
If the theme of 2020 was a defense too weak to close out wins and 2019 was a club that could only come through against flawed teams and 2016 was the year of disaster striking, the 2021 motif has been playing up or down to the competition.
In Week 1, the Vikings tripped out of the gate and fell behind against the Bengals but they came firing back against a team that now has a case for the best in the AFC and came within a fumble of winning in overtime (or within a last-second stop of a tie). In Week 2, they racked up 33 points and over 400 yards of offense but missed a potential game-winning field goal.
The last two weeks, however, they have allowed the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers to nearly pull off miraculous comebacks. Greg Joseph needed a 54-yard field goal to defense Detroit and a coin flip aided the Vikings’ win in OT versus the struggling Panthers.
Does that mean the Vikings are destined to play tight with the 5-1 Cowboys and falter in the end?
Well, that depends on whether they allow another theme of the season to be the points they left on the board.
Zimmer said on Monday that during the team’s bye-week self scout, they looked at why there have been so many three-and-outs this year. The Vikings have 19 of them, which is tied for the league lead. That’s the cause of how an offense that has shown such explosiveness at times could also rank 16th in percentage of drives in which they produce points.
They have also struggled on a weekly basis to score when a door is cracked open to either get an edge or close out an opponent. They got up two scores against Arizona but gaffed at the end of the half and let them back in the game. Carolina blocked a punt to take the lead in the third quarter after the Vikings bumbled drives that could have put the Panthers’ struggling offense on ice.
If the Vikings have a long stretch of offensive ineptitude or leave points on the table at the end of the half, they will lose. Dallas ranks No. 2 in the NFL in percentage of drives ending in points and No. 1 in points per game at 34.2. PFF scores them as the NFL’s best run blocking team and Prescott is making an argument for league MVP.
This isn’t Andy Dalton’s Dallas Cowboys, folks.
If the Vikings can either stifle Dallas’ offense or fight fire with fire and beat them in a shootout, we would have a new theme to talk about: Legitimate contention.
While it would be flawed to judge any team on a single week, a win over Dallas would justify all the time the Vikings spent telling the world that they were a good team after they fell to 1-3. It would show that they should be a scary team to the NFC’s best and that they are capable of maneuvering through the incredibly rough terrain that’s coming in the form of Baltimore, Los Angeles and Green Bay.
More than anything, it would further the confidence that has been built up for Cousins over the past few weeks of game-winning or tying drives and possibly push the Vikings to trust him more through the air.
Of course, if they have a national TV disappointment, it’ll capture the last three years of bouncing back and forth between being good enough to beat the Lions’ of the world but not the big ‘Boys.