Cowboys filled with stars, but still .500

The Cowboys are loaded with talent at several levels of the offense and defense. Even so, they have struggled when they get into shootouts and with their health.

Few teams in the NFL have been more frustrating to their fan base in recent years than the Dallas Cowboys. Given the moniker "America's Team," the Cowboys have been extremely mediocre – posting just a .500 record since the start of the 2007 season despite being immensely talented on both sides of the ball.

The Cowboys are a Jeckyl-Hyde type of team that can look like a world-beater one game and an expansion team the next. When the Cowboys win, they tend to win big – having beaten St. Louis 31-7, Washington 31-16 and Philadelphia 17-3 in their last three wins. But they have a 4-4 record that is worse than it should be. Dallas could have beaten Denver in Denver, but a late interception by Tony Romo helped Dallas come away with a 51-48 win, the loss to unbeaten Kansas City by one point (17-16) and most fans know what happened in the final minute against Detroit last week.

The Cowboys have a star-studded lineup that starts with Romo on offense. He has thrown for 2,216 yards with 18 touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 101.7. If not for Peyton Manning's incredible season, Romo could be in contention for Offensive Player of the Year. One of the most critical parts of the Dallas offense has been the emergence of DeMarco Murray in the backfield. He has missed time this season with an ankle injury but is expected to be back Sunday. He is averaging almost five yards a carry and has become a dominant running back. Health is always the biggest concern with Murray, but, when he's healthy, he is as dangerous as just about any running back in the league.

The emergence of Murray has made Dallas much more multi-dimensional in terms of what they can do offensively, but when the Cowboys want to get pass-happy, they have the weapons to do a lot of damage on offense. Dez Bryant is on the short list of the best wide receivers in the game and he is capable of putting up enormous numbers every week. Tight end Jason Witten literally never leaves the field – he has been on the field for every Dallas offensive snap this season, which is nothing new for him. Witten is Romo's security-blanket receiver when he needs to convert on third down or his primary read is covered. It isn't unusual to see Witten catch eight to 10 passes in a given game, so he will require attention. Miles Austin continues to be plagued by chronic hamstring problems, but, in his absence, Terrence Williams has emerged as a big-play threat opposite Bryant. He has caught 26 passes, is averaging more than 17 yards a catch and has scored four touchdowns this season. It would be one thing if the depleted Vikings secondary just had to deal with Bryant, but the combination of Witten and Williams makes Dallas' passing game even more volatile and dangerous.

One break the Vikings will get Sunday is that they won't have to deal with DeMarcus Ware, one of the game's most dominant pass rushers. He is officially listed as doubtful, but he is expected to miss Sunday's game, as is cornerback Morris Claiborne – one of the best cover cornerbacks in the league. But, even without them, the Cowboys have plenty of weapons on defense. Jason Hatcher is one of the best run-stuffing defensive tackles in the game, linebacker Sean Lee is a ball hawk who is going to have his share of Pro Bowls coming in his future, and cornerback Brandon Carr and safety Barry Church will help the Cowboys pick up the void left by Claiborne's absence.

The Cowboys have the worst-rated defense statistically, but much of that is the result of routinely getting in offensive shootouts. It happened with Denver. It happened with the Giants. It happened with Detroit. There are some concerns as to whether the Vikings have the firepower to get into that kind of game, but if you're going to beat Dallas, you have to do it by matching them punch for punch. Without Ware and Claiborne in the defense, opportunities will be there, but the Vikings will have to play an error-free game if they intend to go on the road and come away with a win in Dallas.

The Cowboys have been an underachieving team in terms of the talent on their roster in recent years and this season is no exception. If not for a couple of critical mistakes, an argument could be made that the Cowboys should be 6-2 or even 7-1 and not 4-4. But they are what their record says they are. If the Vikings can keep from turning the ball over and making big plays when they present themselves, they have a chance of pulling off the upset. However, the Cowboys are a team loaded with talent on both sides of the ball and Minnesota will be hard-pressed to come out of Big D with a win because, on paper, Dallas would appear to have an enormous advantage heading into the game. Still, the Vikings have a puncher's chance. It just won't come easy because Dallas is much better than its 4-4 record would indicate.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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