When the NFL releases its schedule, there are several games fans circle on the calendar. For the Minnesota Vikings last year, it was a trip to Tampa Bay that was not only an excuse to get away from a harsh winter but a game that turned out to be the turning point of their season.
This year, several games could tell us which way the Vikings’ season will go. The most intriguing is their showdown on Halloween night against the Dallas Cowboys. Several storylines will come into play, but the most interesting backstory originated from last year’s matchup.
The Cowboys and Vikings were heading in opposite directions before their Week 11 contest. After Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 5, Dallas had lost four-straight games and were floundering with Andy Dalton under center.
Meanwhile, the Vikings had won three-straight games after their 1-5 start. Minnesota was hosting the Cowboys, and this game should have been where the Vikings climbed back to .500 to make a playoff push.
Little did they know, Mike McCarthy had something up his sleeve. When the Dallas head coach gathered his team the night before the game, he lined up several watermelons with a goal written on each of them. Like an overweight Gallagher, McCarthy started smashing the watermelons with a sledgehammer, which rejuvenated his team.
It wasn’t quite the muppet-slashing fiasco from 2016, and the Cowboys responded with one of their best games of the season.
Minnesota’s defensive line was unable to generate pressure on Dalton, and he threw for three touchdowns, including a last-minute dagger to CeeDee Lamb. The game also had other quirks, such as a helmet-to-helmet hit that wasn’t called and a business decision by Chris Jones that led to a long Tony Pollard touchdown.
The 31-28 loss played a significant role in sinking Minnesota’s season. After the loss to Dallas, they had to run the table to make the playoffs. This became the game that got away.
But if the memory of that loss is enough to keep Mike Zimmer up at night, he should also be terrified of what Dallas could become this season.
Prescott is expected to be back in time for offseason activities, while Dallas’ offensive line, which was without three starters in last year’s game, will be at full strength. If they get a second-year leap from Lamb in addition to the already strong receiver duo of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, the Cowboys could easily jump back to their early-season form.
Oh, and we haven’t mentioned Ezekiel Elliott, who remains the foundation of their offense.
The bolstered Vikings defense will still have to deal with an offense that averaged 32.5 points in their first five games. That’s bad news for a unit that ranked 29th in points allowed last season.
It should also be mentioned that the Vikings will need to win this game. Their early-season schedule is filled with several games they should win, but none of them will be easy victories. With the looming threat of a “Buffalo game” mixed in, it’s conceivable that the Vikings could be a 3-3 or 2-4 team when they face Dallas.
A loss would also be crippling to Minnesota’s late-season hopes. After the Vikings host Dallas, they’ll head out to Maryland for a date with Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. Then they’ll head out to the West Coast to face Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers before coming back home for a divisional matchup with the Green Bay Packers.
Even if Jordan Love starts that game, the Packers have a foundation of a team that has produced back-to-back 13-3 seasons. If the tailspin continues, they’ll have to go back west to face the San Francisco 49ers, who should be improved following a season where half their roster was injured.
That puts pressure on the Dallas game. If the Vikings can come out of the bye with a win over the Cowboys, it could put them in a good position entering the toughest stretch of their schedule. If they lose, it could be the beginning of the end of their hopes next season.