From the full-view team concept, Sunday's 24-21 win wasn't so much that the Vikings won the game, but that Dallas lost it. The 1-4 Cowboys entered Sunday's game having been flagged for 44 penalties – 38 that were assessed and six that were declined because the result of the play was worth more yardage than the penalty.
You might call Sunday a typical day for the Cowboys. Through four games, the Cowboys had outgained their opponents by a lopsided average of 422 yards to 305 yards – a whopping 117-yards-per-game disparity. But it has been penalties and, more shocking stupid penalties, that have killed the Cowboys. While Vikings fans were looking at the game from the home-team perspective, it can only be imagined that the Cowboys fans were ill at how they found another new way to lose.
The Vikings mustered just 93 yards passing and Brett Favre got beat up throughout the game, especially early. Ten of the Vikings' point were the direct result of E.J. Henderson's two interceptions deep in Cowboys territory, and seven more were provided by Percy Harvin's 95-yard kickoff return to start the second half after the Cowboys went to the locker room with a 14-7 lead on the road.
There were failings in all three phases, but it was penalties that killed the Cowboys early, late and everywhere in between. They got flagged 12 times – 11 were accepted and one was declined because Adrian Peterson broke off a 15-yard run. Consider the following scenarios:
Gaffe No. 1 — The Cowboys take a 7-0 lead with five minutes to play in the first quarter and silence the Metrodome partisans. After the touchdown to Roy Williams, Miles Austin does an athletic standing leap frog over Williams, which was viewed as excessive celebration. As a result, the Cowboys had to kick off from their own 15-yard line instead of the usual 30-yard-line starting point. What made this so insulting to Cowboys fans, coaches and owner Jerry Jones was that the team got hit for the exact same 15-yard momentum-killing penalty the week before.
Gaffe No. 2 — Complicating matters even further after the first screw-up, the Cowboys committed an infraction that didn't count in their penalty total when kicker David Buehler, instructed to kick away from Percy Harvin, launched the ensuing kickoff out of bounds, giving the Vikings the ball to start their next drive on the Dallas 45-yard line. The Vikings didn't take advantage, but it was a golden opportunity for a Dallas implosion.
Gaffe No. 3 — Early in the second quarter, the Cowboys took one of their few deep shots downfield. Austin pulls in a pass from Tony Romo, but gets called for offensive pass interference – negating a 68-yard touchdown. Austin didn't get another chance deep downfield the rest of the game, finishing with two catches for 12 yards.
Gaffe No. 4 — Two plays after the touchdown was called back, Dallas was facing a third-and-12 situation. As they broke the huddle, flags flew as it became clear the Cowboys had 12 men in the huddle, thus being an illegal substitution. They got backed up five yards, didn't get the first down, got called for a delay of game one play later and punted.
Gaffe No. 5 — After getting the punt from Dallas five minutes into the second quarter, Brett Favre tried to thread a pass into Harvin. Cornerback Mike Jenkins didn't need to put a hand on Harvin, but does – getting called for a 23-yard pass interference penalty that got the Vikings to the Dallas 30. Again, the Vikings fail to take advantage, but it was all but handed to them had they been able to convert a big play.
Gaffe No. 6 — The Cowboys tied the game with 10 minutes to play and their defense got a three-and-out on the Vikings. Dallas was getting the ball back and Dez Bryant made a big play, breaking off a 34-yard punt return that put the Dallas offense in business on the Vikings 42-yard line. Momentum was high on the Cowboys sideline. Oh, wait. Another flag. A holding call for tackling Vikings gunner Frank Walker as he took off to cover the punt nullified the gain. Instead of starting their next drive in Vikings territory, Romo and the offense started from their own 14 – a 44-yard difference that proved critical when, three plays later, E.J. Henderson made the interception that gave the Vikings field position to kick the eventual game-winning field goal.
Gaffe No. 7 — After burning their final two timeouts for a chance to get the ball with more than two minutes remaining, it appeared as though that would happen. Favre fired a pass over the head of Greg Lewis, but Jenkins grabbed Lewis. The likelihood of the pass being caught was minimal. It may have been uncatchable. It didn't matter. Jenkins made the call a no-brainer by grabbing jersey. For all intents, game over.
Gaffe No. 8 — Dallas still has a dim chance with the Stanford-Cal type of play and they got several laterals off to keep it possible. If this works, it's epic! It would put the Drew Pearson push-off on the shelf. Instead, after two successful backward laterals, a Cowboy throws it forward. Who was it? A fourth wide receiver? A tight end? No. It was Romo – the only guy who throws forward passes for a living, but can't do it 20 yards downfield.
From start to end, the Cowboys did everything they could to kill themselves. They've done it all year. The Vikings deserve credit for making the big plays that won the game for them. But eight self-inflicted gaffes by the Cowboys certainly contributed to the Vikings win. They were the kind of undisciplined plays and mental mistakes good teams don't make – much less in the most important game of their season.
The Vikings can take heart that they made the game-changing plays that won Sunday's contest, but it may have been because, for the first time this year aside from the Detroit game, the kind of mistakes and miscues that plagued Dallas were the kind of things that victimized the Vikings early on. For Dallas fans, the season may well be over. The Vikings' hopes live on thanks in part to the Cowboys' mistakes.
After a brutal day of games in which players were dropping like flies and several high-profile knockout shots were applied, the league announced that players may be suspended for head shots starting next week. The awareness of concussion-related problems is catching up to the game and may affect the way defenders have to play the game in the future – and how the head-hunters will be treated. The league has learned in the past the fines don't quite do the job, especially with players making millions of dollars a year. Keeping them from being on the field with their teammates is the pain.