The Minnesota Vikings returned home after a spectacular defensive effort against the Chicago Bears, only to have a letdown against the previously 2-7 Dallas Cowboys. They failed to capitalize on turnovers, Kirk Cousins’ play dipped when it mattered most and the defense failed to keep Andy Dalton and the Dallas offense out of the end zone at the end of the game.
Cousins played near-perfect football throughout most of the game and didn’t appear to have an emotional letdown after winning on Monday night last week. He hit his favorite targets, Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, early and often, and threw for 314 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
But he was lackluster on the last two drives, and Minnesota lost 31-28.
Here are some stats to consider after the back and forth affair between the Vikings and Cowboys:
Penalties played a huge role in this game. The Vikings received 8 flags for a total of 80 yards on Sunday. The penalties ranged from a Brian O’Neill false start on a 3rd and 8 that put the Vikings even further behind the chains, to an illegal shift by Kris Boyd, who on a fake punt on fourth down failed to get set, wiping away a crucial conversion on a 23-yard play.
Boyd didn’t have a much better afternoon after his penalty: He had an illegal block in the back on the next play, and he dropped a potential interception on the goal-line when the Vikings were still up late in the fourth quarter.
The Vikings kept making crucial mistakes that would wipe away game-changing plays, killing any form of momentum that they had going for them. They ended up costing themselves 50 yards in the penalty battle. Dallas only received four totaling 30 yards.
The Vikings came into this game ranked 31st in scoring points off turnovers. The only team worse than them was the Cowboys.
It became clear early on that whoever won the battle for points off turnovers would likely win the game. The Cowboys struck first when safety Donovan Wilson stripped the ball from Cousins’ hands after delivering what probably was an uncalled helmet-to-helmet hit. After this change in possession, Dallas scored a touchdown on a 6-yard screen to running back Ezekiel Elliott to put up six points — Eric Wilson blocked Greg Zuerlein’s PAT.
The next turnover may have been the most crucial play in the game, as Wilson forced a fumble again, this time putting a hard hit on Dalvin Cook right after he caught a pass, sending the ball flying in the air. Demarcus Lawrence recovered the ball and handed it to linebacker Jaylon Smith who took the ball from the Dallas 31 to the Minnesota 48.
The resulting drive resulted in a Cowboys field goal to end the half. They ended the game with nine points off turnovers. The Vikings ended with none.
This turnover stopped a Vikings offense that was marching down the field looking to put points on the board and go into the half with the lead, while also getting the ball back. It resulted in the Cowboys converting a field goal, which ended up being the margin of victory. According to ESPN, this play shifted the Vikings’ win probability from 57.6% to 40.2%.
The Vikings also had an opportunity to put up points after an incredible Eric Kendricks interception, but they had a drive that stalled out due to a false start and a fake punt conversion canceled by an illegal shift.
Nobody expected the Cowboys, who have struggled to run the football all year, to run all over a Vikings defense that had not allowed a rusher more than 75 yards since the bye week. To shift the scales even more towards Minnesota, Dallas would be without three of their starting five offensive linemen, and running back Ezekiel Elliot had only averaged 3.1 yards per carry since his injury.
Knowing all this, you would expect the young Vikings defense to stuff the Cowboys rushing attack and make them a one-dimensional team. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.
The Cowboys ran the ball incredibly well, averaging 6.3 yards per carry with Elliott and Tony Pollard combined. It didn’t matter if it was Elliot carrying Vikings defenders forward for positive yardage, or Pollard scampering for 42 yards on a play where cornerback Chris Jones inexplicably didn’t tackle him — Dallas punished Minnesota on the ground.
This ended up helping the Dallas offensive line because the Vikings’ pressure could never truly get home when they had to play for the run, too.
In a back and forth game where the defense has been struggling, you would ideally like to give them as much field as possible to defend. The Vikings punt team did not do this at all, allowing the Cowboys’ electrifying rookie CeeDee Lamb to return three punts for an average of 16 yards, including one for 20 yards that set up the final scoring possession.
This is the third game in a row with poor special teams play. The special teams have already allowed two blocked punts, a kickoff return touchdown and a couple of bad snaps on field goals and point-after attempts this season.
Even if this game doesn’t yet lead to the firing of special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf, expect him to be on the hot seat in the coming weeks.
To finish with something positive, Kirk Cousins was phenomenal this week. He posted a passer rating of 140.1 while going 22 for 30 for 314 yards and three touchdowns.
Many people thought that after his first career Monday Night win that Cousins would have a letdown game, reverting to his pre-bye week form. He proved fans wrong this week, punishing a bad Dallas secondary as he got the ball to Thielen and Jefferson down the field.
He wasn’t dinking and dunking the ball either. He had multiple throws that were further down the field, including a 39-yard strike to Jefferson on a play-action.
Cousins has really stepped up his play in the last two weeks, and he will have to keep it at this level if the Vikings are to sneak into a Wild Card spot.