Vikings-Cowboys game plan

The Vikings are going to have to counteract the quick-passing game of Tony Romo and find a way to keep him off-balance. The Cowboys defense has a nice streak of its own when it comes to stopping the run. There are interesting matchups all over the field in this divisional playoff game.

VIKINGS

The Vikings have had the better part of two weeks to prepare for the Cowboys and that might be a good thing, especially for Minnesota's defense.

Arizona established a template for how to beat the Vikings on Dec. 6, when Kurt Warner used a quick-rhythm passing game to help the Cardinals to a 30-17 victory that wasn't even that close. Carolina followed with a similar plan two weeks later that resulted in a 26-7 victory for the Panthers.

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and his receivers are capable of repeating this plan and it will be made that much more difficult by the fact Dallas has an outstanding tight end in Jason Witten.

The Vikings have struggled against top-flight pass-catching tight ends, and Witten certainly qualifies as one. Minnesota led the NFL this season with 48 sacks, but the defensive line can't sack Romo if he doesn't have the ball in his hands.

Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier is going to have to devise a plan that perhaps sends occasional blitzes or at least keeps the Cowboys off balance and in second- and third-and-long situations so Dallas is taken out of the quick-passing game.

The Vikings are also going to have to be sound from a tackling standpoint, something that did not always happen this season.

On offense, the Vikings have become known as a pass-first team with Brett Favre at quarterback. Running back Adrian Peterson rushed for 100 yards in only three games this season and did not have a 100-yard game in the final seven games.

Peterson had a season-low nine carries in a 44-7 victory over the New York Giants in the regular-season finale. If the Vikings want to beat Dallas, however, Peterson is going to have to be a bigger part of the game plan.

The Vikings still will need to stretch the field with the pass but no matter how well Favre plays the bottom line is Peterson is this team's greatest offensive weapon. And offensive superstars can't be used only as decoys in the postseason.

COWBOYS

The Cowboys must stop running back Adrian Peterson first and foremost and then try to stop the Vikings' passing game. The Cowboys have not allowed a 100-yard rusher all season, but it's safe to say they have faced no one like Peterson. They must gang tackle and then try to go for the football to create turnovers. If they can stop the run, they should be able to get pressure on quarterback Brett Favre. Offensively, the Cowboys must establish the run and then take shots down the field to receiver Miles Austin and tight end Jason Witten.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Vikings LT Bryant McKinnie, who was voted to the Pro Bowl this season, vs. Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware, who finished tied for seventh in the NFL this season with seven sacks. McKinnie struggled mightily against the Panthers' Julius Peppers in Week 15 in part because a sprained ankle left him with little mobility. Even though McKinnie should be feeling much better at this point, especially with just having had a week to rest, the Vikings are likely going to have to get him some help against Ware. That could mean having tight end Jim Kleinsasser line up on the left side alongside McKinnie at times or having fullback Fahu Tahi provide chip help. The issue is that Ware can rush from either side so the Cowboys could cause some real issues.

Vikings RT Phil Loadholt, who has been far better in pass protection this season than many expected, vs. Cowboys OLB Anthony Spencer, who was third on the Cowboys with six sacks. Spencer has been playing very well and Loadholt will either get a tough test from him or Ware for much of Sunday. A second-round pick by the Vikings last April, Loadholt came to Minnesota with the reputation of being an excellent run blocker but not as strong in pass protection. But Loadholt certainly has played like a guy who deserved to go in the first round for much of this season. He will have to keep it up if the Vikings are going to keep Brett Favre healthy on Sunday.

Vikings WR Percy Harvin, who was named the NFL's offensive rookie of the year, vs. Cowboys nickel back Orlando Scandrick, who had only one interception this season. This is going to be a matchup that Favre tries to exploit on a consistent basis. Harvin, who was second on the Vikings with 60 catches for 790 yards and six touchdowns during the regular season, often lines up in the slot and thus should get matched up on Scandrick. Harvin is a top talent and obviously Scandrick is not. This means that while Sidney Rice and Bernard Berrian might be closely guarded in multi-receiver sets, Harvin might be open. The key here is how much blocking help the line ends up needing because the more tight end help that is brought in the fewer wide receivers that might be on the field.

Cowboys WR Miles Austin vs. Vikings CB Antoine Winfield. When healthy, Winfield is one of the league's best cornerbacks. But he has not been healthy all season and he is not healthy now. He missed six games with a foot injury and has been liability in the secondary since his return. That is not a good matchup with Austin, who has blossomed into a game-breaking receiver. The Cowboys look to him for big plays and will certainly target Austin against a gimpy Winfield if they can get that matchup.

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