The Dallas Cowboys vs. Minnesota Vikings matchup on Sunday night is a redemption game for many involved. The Cowboys are rolling, but reports from their first practice after the bye week claimed they were sloppy, at least according to mustache connoisseur Dalton Schultz. The Vikings have two former Cowboys, Xavier Woods and Everson Griffen, on their new and improved defense in 2021. Just two years ago, Dak Prescott played arguably his best game as a pro, only to lose late against Kirk Cousins and the Vikings. Which team has the upper hand heading into Sunday Night Football?
Dallas Cowboys offense vs. Minnesota Vikings defense
This is sneakily a powerhouse matchup. At least, if we look at this matchup strictly by the numbers. However, if we look at how the Vikings have faired against the better offenses on their schedule, the results are much more congruent with how we perceive their defense.
They currently rank sixth in EPA (Expected Points Added) per play against. According to the numbers, they rank third in dropback EPA/play allowed, so they’re one of the better pass defenses in the league. Yet, this has been a tale of two halves for Minnesota. They’ve struggled mightily against the run in 2021. They allow a higher EPA/play against the run than the pass.
In their games against the Bengals, Cardinals, and Seahawks, they ranked 20th in defensive EPA/play. That’s not bad against that gauntlet of offenses, but it’s not the 1985 Bears, either. In their next three games against the Browns, Lions, and Panthers, they ranked as the third-best team in EPA/play and first in defensive success rate.
This is just another example of how defensive production is anchored by the opposing team’s offense, and more specifically, the quarterback play (looking at you, Cleveland).
Meanwhile, Dallas’ offense is slowed down so far only by their mediocre red-zone performance. They’re first in points per game despite ranking 24th in red-zone efficiency. The Cowboys are third in rushing yards per play and fourth in passing. They’re practically unstoppable until they get to the 20-yard line.
Dak Prescott vs. Vikings defense
We’ve seen Prescott do it against the Vikings before, but two years in the NFL is everything. These are two markedly different teams than when they met in 2019, so we shouldn’t use that result in our prediction for Sunday night.
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Prescott is one of about 5-7 quarterbacks that, no matter the opponent, he’ll have the advantage. In fact, when it comes to the mental side of the game, only Tom Brady rivals Prescott. It’s what makes him so good despite lacking the physical gifts of Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, and Patrick Mahomes.
And you don’t have to take my word for it. Go to Twitter and look at all the quarterback-specific evaluators gush over Prescott. However, we must also be cautious about Prescott’s ability Sunday night, as he’s dealt with a strained calf for about two weeks.
Cowboys weapons vs. Vikings defensive backs
This is yet another example I just talked about. Dallas’ weapons are so vast and so talented that defensively it would take a genuinely elite group to defend them. Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks are great talents on the second and third levels, but the Vikings are starting Cameron Dantzler, Bashaud Breeland, and Mackensie Alexander at cornerback.
That doesn’t sound like a group ready to take on Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson, Dalton Schultz, Blake Jarwin, Ezekiel Elliott, and Tony Pollard. Kendricks will undoubtedly help to peruse the middle of the field as one of the best coverage linebackers in the league. Yet, he is but one man.
Cowboys offensive line vs. Vikings front seven
This is the most intriguing matchup in this game. The Cowboys’ offensive line has been dominant as a run-blocking unit, and Joe Philbin and Prescott have managed to make the pass protection competent despite looking like an underwhelming unit analytically.
A healthy duo of Tyron Smith and Zack Martin certainly helps, but Connor Williams remains a disrespected player at left guard. Now, they get reinforcements back in La’el Collins, but he must find his way out of the doghouse before we see him on the field.
Meanwhile, the Vikings boast some dogs on the defensive line and one elite player at linebacker. Regardless, their production against the run is awful. That doesn’t make sense, given their roster. Dalvin Tomlinson is outstanding on the interior, and Armon Watts is playing some excellent football as well. Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter aren’t the best run defenders in the league, but they’re both competent in that respect.
So, even though the defensive results show the Vikings should be more successful against the pass than the run, I think things will even out a bit against the Cowboys. As a result, Dallas will have more success through the air than on the ground.
Dallas Cowboys defense vs. Minnesota Vikings offense
The Cowboys rank eighth in EPA/play but only 18th in success rate. They get significant EPA boosts off the turnovers. Although that may be unsustainable, even their success rate alone should be good enough to allow the offense to make up for defensive shortcomings.
Currently, Dallas’ defense is being a bit overrated. They still allow big plays and yards on average. They’ve been much better against the run in 2021 than in years past, but that is what most focus on when they discuss them facing the Vikings.
Minnesota’s passing attack is the real worry, even with Dalvin Cook in the lineup. They’re 10th in passing EPA and just 28th running the ball. DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) is even kinder toward the passing attack, ranking them sixth in the NFL.
Kirk Cousins vs. Cowboys defense
Cousins is one of the most disrespected quarterbacks in the NFL. He’s not a first-tier quarterback, but he borders on that 10-12 range, despite his team’s insistence on running the ball early and often.
Cousins has only thrown 2 interceptions in 2021 to go along with 3 fumbles, although he’s yet to lose one this season. Cousins not turning the ball over is a bad matchup for the Cowboys because their defensive aggression has been their calling card.
Vikings weapons vs. Cowboys defensive backs
Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen alone are enough to make the Cowboys defenders not named Trevon Diggs shudder. Still, K.J. Osborn has been an unexpected delight for Minnesota thus far in 2021.
Anthony Brown is better than Cowboys fans give him credit for, but he’s also not as good as some outlets want you to believe. He’s suffered from a bit of Chidobe Awuzie syndrome, allowing a few plays in blanket coverage simply because he could not get his head around. Carolina and Tampa Bay were struggles for him, but Brown’s played well outside of those games.
The safety play has been a big plus for the Cowboys relative to prior seasons. Now, they have all of their top four back and healthy, rotating when necessary on the back end. But Jefferson and Thielen will undoubtedly get theirs.
Vikings offensive line vs. Cowboys front seven
In what’s become a shocking turn of events, the Cowboys have a bit of a pass rush without DeMarcus Lawrence on the field. Randy Gregory has played like a man possessed the past few weeks, and Osa Odighizuwa has been a difference-maker in the middle.
However, it’s curious to see Micah Parson’s pass-rushing snaps dwindle over the weeks. Against the Patriots, he only rushed the passer 9 times, a season-low. He’s not a good coverage defender just yet, a knock most of us had on him coming out of Penn State.
The other issue is value. I think we can all agree that T.J. Watt is more valuable than Darius Leonard or (insert good coverage linebacker here). Parson’s best attribute right now has been his ability to rush the passer. So why wouldn’t the Cowboys continue to deploy him in that manner situationally?
Anyway, the Vikings’ offensive line has been a wreck. Still, despite poor OL play, Cousins is on pace to only take 26 sacks, another notch in the “sacks are a QB stat” category.
Minnesota’s run game has been a disappointment, and it has at least a little to do with their insistence on athletic linemen, given their propensity to run stretch and toss concepts outside the tackles. They’re getting a bit beat up on the interior, and that could very easily continue against Dallas.
The one positive is how rookie Christian Darrisaw has performed in his first few games of action after suffering an injury early in camp that forced him to miss extensive time.
Betting lines and game prediction
The Cowboys vs. Vikings game is currently a 1.5-point difference favoring Dallas on the road. Given Minnesota has only played in one game separated by more than one score (a win against the Seahawks), it’s easy to project another close contest.
The game should be a high-scoring affair, as the Vikings game against the Cardinals was. Minnesota goes through a gauntlet of the Cowboys, Ravens, Chargers, and Packers in a four-week span. The Vikings are coming off a bye week, as are the Cowboys.
Dallas is the better team, but this feels like a week Minnesota fires all their bullets and wins in a close game to try and build some momentum for the upcoming stretch.
Conversely, the Cowboys are in a battle for the top seed in the NFC, and a loss hurts that cause. But with questions about Prescott’s health and not many conceivably losable games on their schedule, this game feels like a trap.
If they take care of business, it’ll say a lot about their potential. But I think they will start a bit slow in this one.
Cowboys vs. Vikings Prediction: Vikings 31, Cowboys 30