NFC Divisional Round Preview: Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings
by Robert Ferringo - 1/13/2010
Now this is more like it. After a weekend of Arena League-esque football the Dallas at Minnesota Divisional Round Game is just what an old-school football guy needs.
The Cowboys (12-5) will line up to crunch skulls with the Vikings (12-4) at 1 p.m. on Sunday in the Metrodome. This game will match up two of the most physically imposing, most bloodthirsty, most rage-filled teams in the NFL and will be a contest of attrition. With two punishing running games and mountainous offensive lines clashing with a pair of maniacal and abusive defenses this game should be more of a throwback to the type of Playoff Football that we’ve come to expect from the NFL.
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Minnesota opened as a 3.0-point favorite but the money has since pushed it off that key number down to 2.5. That total is set at 46.0, down from an open of 48.0.
Dallas comes into this game with a world of momentum. Over the last month they have arguably been one of the best teams in football with four straight wins both straight up and against the spread. This team is playing with a world of confidence. As one Cowboys fan that I know said, “It’s our time.” They are hot. And hot teams this time of year can be gold. (Just ask Arizona last year. Or the Giants in 2008. Or the Colts in 2007. Or the Steelers in 2006. Or the Panthers in 2004. Or the Patriots in 2002. Or the Ravens in 2001. See where I’m going here?)
And I suppose that’s the question, isn’t it; is this finally it for the Cowboys? After years of underachieving and missing opportunities is this finally the year that the Cowboys justify the hype and get themselves in position to win another Super Bowl? Well, if it is then they are certainly going to have to earn it. Especially this weekend.
Standing in their way on Sunday is a one-man institution, Brett Favre. Perhaps the only single player whose hype and attention may match that given to Dallas, Favre was brought to Minnesota this season for one reason and one reason only: to win games like this. And the Vikings have surrounded him with a quintessential team: excellent defense with a savage pass rush and strong secondary, stud running back with elite offensive line, talented receiving corps, quality special teams play. The Vikings were one of the best teams in football all season long and are rested and ready off their well-deserved bye week.
The linchpin for Dallas’ recent surge has been its defense. Dallas has given up more than 20 points just one time since Nov. 1 and over the past four weeks they have allowed an average of just fewer than eight points per outing. As a result, they have stayed ‘under’ the total in eight of their last 10 games.
Offensively, Dallas has been relying on a consistent, athletic running attack to control the clock, the field position, and the game. The strength of the Cowboys has long been their mammoth offensive line and the game plan has been to let them overwhelm the opposition. It has worked. Dallas is 9-for-17 scoring touchdowns in the red zone over the past four weeks in large part because they have been able to bully their way past the pylons.
But here is the rub: I don’t think they’ll be able to do that this weekend. They aren’t going to push around Pat and Kevin Williams, along with the rest of the incomparable Minnesota front four, this round. Dallas was simply too big and strong for Philadelphia over the last two weeks. They don’t have that edge here. Dallas (No. 7 in the NFL in rushing) is going to push. Minnesota (No. 2 in the NFL in rush defense) is going to push back.
Minnesota relies on the same formula to make its money. Their offensive line, particularly the left side of Steve Hutchinson and Bryant McKinnie, can be unstoppable at times. And in Adrian Peterson the Vikings boast an elite back -- some would say the best in football -- in the prime of his career. The Vikings are going to try to force the ball down the throat of an equally game Dallas front seven. Minnesota is No. 12 in the league in rush yards – which is a little misleading because teams generally stack the box to stop AP - while the Cowboys are No. 7 in the league against the run.
While the focus of this game, and in my opinion the most critical aspect, is how the offensive and defensive lines of each respective teams fare against one another, I don’t think that we can say one team has an edge on those fronts. If we approach this contest from that standpoint, of all things up front being equal, then this game comes down to the next two most important things: quarterback play and coaching.
You don’t need me to tell you about what Favre and Romo are capable of. They are elite passers and among the top players at their position. But they also both share an equal trait: a shocking ability to completely implode in critical games. Favre is renowned for his ability to come through in the clutch. But he is also notorious for multiple-interception games that completely submarine his team’s chances at winning. (Especially in domes and in the playoffs.) Romo is a bit more conservative and less likely to go out and throw four or five INTs. But he is also much less proven in terms of leading his team back from a deficit in a hostile environment.
So both quarterbacks bring strong resumes and clear weaknesses to the table. Both teams have full stables of wideouts – with Minnesota getting the check for explosiveness and Dallas getting the check for experience – and the secondaries are No. 19 (Minnesota) and No. 20 (Dallas) in the league against the pass. Again, heading into the game there is not a clear edge for one side as much as there is simply an opportunity to be determined by whichever team can make a play.
As for coaching, my feelings about Wade “I Think I’ll Go With Rob Johnson” Phillips are well documented. And I have a hard time picturing him leading anything to success. However, Minnesota’s Brad Childress is a pretty raw, unproven commodity that has yet to establish that he can accomplish anything in the postseason. In that regard I suppose it’s an advantage for Dallas that they aren’t at a coaching disadvantage for once. (“A ‘push’ is a win” type of thing.)
Another X-Factor in this game will have to be the home field advantage. Dallas has had some struggles on the road this season, although I wouldn’t call them a bad road team. Minnesota has been overwhelming at home this season. They haven’t won in the Metrodome by less than 17 points in their last five games as a host and they haven’t lost at home at all this year. They are 13-2 at home since the middle of last year, but one of those losses was a Wild Card game against Philadelphia last season.
Dallas did win at New Orleans last month. Now, I am hesitant to place too much emphasis on that contest because I feel like it was more of a situational thing for the Cowboys (they were desperate and the Saints were distracted).
Two injuries of note for the Vikings on the defensive side of the ball are Antoine Winfield and E.J. Henderson. Winfield has been back recovering from a mid-season foot injury but has not played at 100 percent. Henderson, the starting middle linebacker and defensive quarterback, is out for the year and hasn’t been in the fold over the last month. Jasper Brinkley has replaced him. Brinkley is a rookie that I was high on coming out of college. However, he has struggled in pass defense at times and if Dallas can get Jason Witten isolated on Brinkley it’s going to be a big play for the Cowboys.
Dallas comes into this game relatively healthy. Marion Barber was a bit banged up last week but will play. (And if Felix Jones is as electric as he was last week it won’t matter.) But other than that any injuries are mere annoyances.
As for trends, the favorite has covered the last seven meetings between these organizations and the Vikings are 5-1 against the spread against the Cowboys (4-0 ATS at home against them). Dallas is just 2-5 ATS in playoff games and 1-4 on the road in the postseason.
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Violence and raw strength is going to be at the foundation of both offense vs. defense clashes. Football is a game of brute force. And the team that can be more effectively violent is going to win. In my opinion the quarterbacks, here as good as they are, can only lose it for their teams. This game will be won in the trenches. It will come down to a couple of short-yardage situations and the club that can consistently find the physical will to reach their objective will be the one banging heads again next week.