If we can just get through the Chicago Bears game, there’s some smooth sailing ahead. If we can just go into Soldier Field and do what we never do in Soldier Field, then this team can really go on a run. There’s some major gimmes in the next three weeks.
This is the sentiment that every Minnesota Vikings fan in America was tossing around going into Monday night. After back-to-back victories out of the bye, everyone knew a difficult win in Chicago would lead to a stretch of three games against teams with a combined 6-22 record.
Playoff hopes wouldn’t only be alive, they’d be surging.
Well, the Vikings got their big win, and now that surge against “bad” teams starts with Sunday’s match up against the 2-7 Dallas Cowboys.
I’m not trying to find negativity in a sea of positivity here, but I think the team and fans should be on high alert. This matchup has all the makings of an ultimate trap game. Let me count the ways…
Kirk Cousins let out a primal scream after he rolled out and hit Kyle Rudolph for a crucial first down late in the fourth quarter on Monday night. It was the sort of competitive enthusiasm you’d expect from an immensely criticized QB about to get his first win in 10 tries on Monday Night Football. But it wasn’t just Kirk. The entire organization and fanbase felt it. Four wins in 20 years at Soldier Field? Matt Nagy’s dominance over Mike Zimmer? This was an incredibly big moment despite it only moving the Vikings to 4-5.
Now comes the hard part of riding an emotional high back to normality, returning to a focus that allows you to prepare for the next battle. It’s something the Vikings failed miserably at after the Minneapolis Miracle and to a lesser, but still definite degree, after their most recent playoff victory in New Orleans.
Mike Zimmer critics will often lean into their belief that he doesn’t always have his team’s mindset in the right place. Well, he sure better this Sunday. If there’s even an ounce of Monday night still coursing through the Vikings locker room at 3:00 pm tomorrow, they might be in trouble.
The Vikings are playing on a short week. That’s obviously not super unusual, but it’s a bit unusual to play on a short week against a team who’s coming off of bye — especially when you had to travel on that short week.
The Dallas Cowboys had a full two weeks to prepare, and the Vikings only had a measly six days. This is surely an advantage. It’s made even more so due to what I will call the soul-searching factor. When teams are a disaster, but somehow not out of the playoff picture — which incredibly is the case for Dallas in the terrible NFC East — a bye week can present a last ditch opportunity to right the ship.
Look no further than the Vikings bye week for proof of this. Getting rocked by the winless Atlanta Falcons and then coming out of a bye and beating a good Green Bay Packers team shows you the sort of soul-searching that can happen in a two-week layoff.
Dallas’ reprieve is not an ideal situation for the purple.
The Dalton factor
I can’t believe I’m about to type this sentence… but… Andy Dalton has the opportunity to be a difference maker. The Red Rocket, or whatever his nickname is, is arguably the best backup in the league. Even if you don’t agree with that, there’s no doubt he’s a lot better than Ben DiNucci and whoever that other guy is.
With the absurd amount of offensive talent on the Cowboys roster, the step up from a QB who probably shouldn’t ever get to play up to one who is a serviceable backup could be gigantic. And to add to the previous point, the Cowboys have had the bye week to prepare for this step up.
This might be the weakest point of the bunch, but go with me here.
Dalvin Cook is an absolute monster. His MVP campaign is the reason this team is currently playing meaningful games. Is it fair to expect him to continue to carry such a high load of this team’s offense every week? Probably. But is it also fair to expect that at some point, after carrying such a heavy load he might have a bit of a down week? Also probably.
Do I think it’ll happen this week? No. Dallas is a garbage rushing defense giving up over 157 yards a game and 11 TDs this season. But no matter how good a team or player is, regression is real. Dalvin has been carrying a giant load since the bye week, and as mentioned above he’s coming off short rest against a completely refreshed defense. It’s something to look out for.
The Mike McCarthy era has been hilarious so far. While Aaron Rodgers has thrived in Green Bay, his former coach has been a disaster in the Big D. Even when he had a healthy Dak Prescott, the Cowboys weren’t even remotely close to any sort of inspirational play.
Also Zimmer has owned him lately with a 5-1-1 record.
Still, familiarity isn’t great. Especially with the long lead time to prepare. Mike McCarthy knows what Mike Zimmer and this football team wants to do as well as anyone, and he’s had the time to instill a proper game plan. If his players go out and execute, McCarthy could actually play a large role in this match up.
To piggyback off the Cook point, there’s a larger regression concern here and it actually comes from the Dallas offense.
When you hear people in NFL circles speak about regression, it’s often on a larger scale. What did this player or team do last season, and is it fair to expect they would keep up that pace this season?
But I think a case can also be made for the possibility of micro-regressions. In the middle of a season, during a stretch of extreme results, it’s fair to believe at some point things might normalize, even if it’s for just one game.
This brings us to what may be the main concern in this matchup.
The Cowboys have been a turnover disaster this year, losing the season-long battle by 13 turnovers! They’ve thrown eight interceptions and lost 12 fumbles! Although the Vikings have created some turnovers this year they haven’t exactly been ballhawks.
If there’s a regression for any reason, for example Dalton providing stability or the Cowboys skill players executing on a higher level, it could play a dramatic role in the outcome. A turnover-free performance from Dallas could really increase the possible damage of the other risk factors.
Should any of these things individually scare someone into picking Dallas this weekend? Absolutely not. The concern here is that several of them could manifest simultaneously. If the Vikings don’t do a good enough job of playing trap game whack-a-mole, they could be in serious trouble.