Cowboys are Vikings’ best test yet

If the Minnesota Vikings truly want a measure of where they are at, the Cowboys offer that as a complete and contending team.

The Minnesota Vikings have big plans and growing expectations for 2015. In the second year of the Mike Zimmer/George Edwards-led defense and the Norv Turner-led offense, the Vikings aren’t simply looking to show improvement in 2015, they’re looking to knock the Green Bay Packers off their perch atop the NFC North.

To that end, there may be no better team for the Vikings to face than the Dallas Cowboys in the one game in which the starters get the most work and is the most reflective of what progress the Vikings are making to rise to the top of the NFC. They likely couldn’t have achieved that against Tampa Bay, who had the worst record in the league last year, or Oakland, who has been dismal for the majority of this millennium. The Cowboys are coming off a 12-4 season and are tough-talking about being the team to beat in the chase for Super Bowl immortality.

The Cowboys always talk a big game, but it now appears they have the horses to back it up. Tony Romo is his generation’s version of Brett Favre. He doesn’t have any titles to his name yet, but he isn’t afraid the roll the dice on a throw into coverage to make the big play that can win games. With a dominant receiver like Dez Bryant, very good receiving options in Jason Witten and Terrance Williams and depth behind them, the Dallas passing offense can pose a logistical threat to the best of defenses. If the Vikings view themselves as an elite defense, the Cowboys will pose as legitimate a challenge as any passing game in the league.

One of the reasons the Cowboys offense was so dominant last year was that the team made a concerted effort to bolster its offensive line and it is arguably the most dominating grouping in the NFL. Dallas invested three first-round picks on the O-line – left tackle Tyron Smith in 2011, center Travis Frederick in 2013 and right guard Zack Martin in 2014. All of them have Pro Bowl ability and have given the Cowboys one of the most impressive front lines in the NFL.

They were so good that DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing in 2014. But when the decision had to be made whether to invest long-term in Murray or Bryant – Dallas couldn’t afford what both of them would command on the open market – the Cowboys opted for Bryant and let Murray fly away to the division-rival Eagles. The feeling was that any running back could succeed behind such an impressive O-line. They are testing that theory to its limit.

It was thought Dallas would go after a running back in free agency or invest a relatively high draft pick on a replacement for Murray. Instead, the Cowboys went the low-rent route, signing discount free agents Ryan Williams (now on injured reserve) and oft-injured Darren McFadden. As one would assume, he’s missed time in training camp due to nagging injuries. The best option may be third-year pro Joseph Randle, a fifth-round pick in 2013. He has showed enough to gain the confidence of the coaching staff that he can be a 20-carry-a-game guy, but until he proves it there are those who believe the 2015 leading rusher for the Cowboys may not currently be on the roster.

Defensively, the Cowboys are going to be a test for Teddy Bridgewater because they have talent at all three levels of the defense. The biggest risks were taken up front, where Dallas signed Greg Hardy in free agency and took talented but red-flagged Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory in the second round of April’s draft. Hardy is facing a four-game suspension, but if he and Gregory can keep their focus on football, they can be as dominant as any pass-rushing tandem in the league.

At linebacker, Sean Lee has proved to be a playmaker and, once he’s healthy, Rolando McClain (currently on the physically unable to perform list) could be a strong addition to the group. Former Vikings starter Jasper Brinkley is in the mix at middle linebacker, but his role is likely to be a part-time, run-stopping backer.

The Cowboys suffered a pretty significant setback when cornerback Orlando Scandrick was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Had Scandrick been around, two first-round picks – Morris Claiborne in 2012 and Byron Jones this year – would be vying for nickel back roles and roster depth. Instead, Claiborne has been pushed into the starting lineup, but if he can ever live up to the promise he had coming out of LSU, the Cowboys secondary could be as formidable as any in the NFL.

There has been some talk of moving Jones to safety – a plan that took a hit with the Scandrick injury – and have J.J. Wilcox move to strong safety to compete with Barry Church. No matter how you look at it, the Cowboys have the athleticism on defense at all three levels that, if they can put it all together, could be a feared group with speed, power and aggression.

In the big picture of things, barring a significant injury, Saturday’s game won’t have any bearing on the standings or where either team expects to find itself in January. There is a fair possibility that the next time the Vikings play the Cowboys, there will be a lot more on the line than there will at AT&T Stadium Saturday night, but it will be an ideal test for both teams to see if they have what it takes to make the next step to the elite level of the NFC.


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