A weekly look at the Vikings’ upcoming matchup featuring numbers that shouldn’t give the reader a headache or require an advanced mathematics degree to decipher.
For the second time in 18 days, the Vikings let a fourth-quarter lead slip away in losing to Detroit, 16-13. Matt Prater’s two field goals in the final two minutes delivered the Thanksgiving win for the NFC North-leading Lions. Dallas secured its 10th straight victory by hanging on to top Washington, 31-26.
Including seven playoff games, this will be the 30th meeting between the two franchises. The Cowboys hold a 15-14 edge. The most recent matchup occurred in November 2013 when Dallas beat the visiting Vikings, 27-23.
Rookie sensation running back Ezekiel Elliott posted 97 yards rushing for the Cowboys against Washington, his fifth-lowest total of the season. As a team, the Vikings have exceeded 97 yards rushing once all season.
Elliott is averaging 109 yards a game rushing. As a team, the Vikings have totaled more than 100 yards just once in 2016 (104 yards versus the Giants).
Minnesota’s Sam Bradford set an NFL record for highest completion percentage (83.3) on Thanksgiving by connecting on 27 of 31 throws against Detroit. Of course, the record didn’t result in a win.
The Vikings are second in the NFL at plus-12. The Cowboys rank 10th at plus-3.
The week before the Minnesota matchup, Detroit managed just 21 yards on the ground against lowly Jacksonville. On Thanksgiving, the Lions surpassed that total on Theo Riddick’s first three carries. Detroit finished with 94 yards rushing on 19 carries (4.9 per carry).
The Vikings rank sixth in the league by averaging 6.35 plays per drive, yet the team is last in yards per game with 294.9.
According to Robert Mays of The Ringer, Dallas rookie Dak Prescott tops all first-year quarterbacks in NFL history (with at least 250 passes) in the following categories: completion percentage (67.9), interception rate (0.6), passer rating (108.6) and adjusted yards per attempt (9.1)
Bradford was credited with a 41-yard completion to running back Jerick McKinnon against the Lions. In actuality, the play was a 1-yard pass and a 40-yard run.
Threatening Third Downs
Minnesota struggled mightily against the Lions on third down, converting just two of 10. Limited production on first and second down often resulted in third-and-long situations for the Vikes, whose average third-down distance was 7.5 yards. Not counting two third downs wiped out by Detroit penalties, Minnesota was an average of 2.9 yards short on its third-down attempts. For the season, the Vikings are converting 38.67 percent of third downs, which ranks 19th in the league.
Dallas remained effective on third down versus Washington, converting four of eight attempts, even though its average third-down distance was 9.75 yards. Completions of 14, 18 and 26 yards helped the Cowboys move the chains in third-and-long situations. Dallas is second in the league with a 48.48 percent third-down conversion rate.
As previously mentioned, Bradford compiled an impressive competition percentage against the Lions with a 27-for-31 afternoon. However, he averaged only 6.1 yards per pass in throwing for 224 yards. According to Pro Football Focus, only three of Bradford’s throws were aimed 10 or more yards downfield, and his average depth of target (3.5 yards) was the lowest for any QB in 2016.
The Vikings’ leaky, injury-riddled offensive line is a main reason Bradford has to dink and dunk more than any quarterback in the league. While it’s infuriating for fans to continually watch Bradford throw quick passes short of the sticks, the strategy is keeping him somewhat healthy. The Lions didn’t record a sack on Thanksgiving. When the Vikings incorporated more deep dropbacks earlier in the season under former offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Bradford was battered like a piñata.
For the season, Bradford has completed 248 of 348 passes (71.3 percent) for 2,415 yards (6.9 per attempt) and 12 touchdowns in compiling a 98.3 rating. He has thrown three interceptions, including a costly one last week on the potential game-winning drive for the Vikings.
Bradford’s favorite target remains Stefon Diggs, who missed the Detroit game but is likely to play versus Dallas. The second-year wide receiver has caught 67 passes for 747 yards (11.1) and two touchdowns. Bradford’s two other reliable targets are tight end Kyle Rudolph (48-468 and five TDs) and wideout Adam Thielen (45-571 and three TDs).
On paper, Bradford should be able to attack the Dallas defense, which is surrendering 280.4 yards passing a game (31st) and 7.3 yards per pass attempt (16th). Last week, Dallas allowed Washington’s Kirk Cousins to throw for 449 yards and complete 77.4 percent of his passes. According to PFF, the Cowboys pressured Cousins on just eight of his 53 dropbacks. The Washington QB targeted rookie cornerback Anthony Brown, playing for the injured Morris Claiborne. PFF calculates that Brown allowed nine catches on 11 targets for 128 yards and a TD.
The Dallas defense has recorded just four interceptions and 19 sacks. The unit is last in the league in allowing 6.7 plays and 36.9 yards per drive. The Cowboys give up 7.3 yards per pass attempt (17th) and have allowed opposing quarterbacks to register a 101.9 rating.
The stat sheet looked impressive for the Minnesota running attack versus Detroit. Entering the game, the Vikings ranked 15th in rushing attempts (259), but last in yards (700) and per-carry average (2.7). Against the Lions, Minnesota averaged 5.12 yards a carry in rushing for 82 yards. But take away a 22-yard scamper by wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and a few runs out of the Wildcat formation by McKinnon and the Vikings really weren’t much better on the ground. For the season, Minnesota remains last in rushing yards per game (71.1) and yards per carry (2.8). To put that in perspective, Dallas averages 157.3 yards rushing a game and 4.8 yards a carry.
While their play doesn’t stir echoes of the Doomsday Defense, the Cowboys have been better against the run than the pass. The unit is permitting 81.8 yards rushing per game, which is third-best in the league. Opposing teams average 4.1 yards per carry.
A fourth-round pick, Dak Prescott has been a steal for the Cowboys. The rookie has played like a poised veteran in completing 231 of 340 passes (67.9 percent) for 2,835 yards (8.3 per attempt) with 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions. His fourth-quarter passer rating (108.0) nearly mirrors his overall mark (108.4). Prescott also is dangerous with his legs, rushing for 180 yards and five touchdowns. Dallas’ celebrated offensive line has permitted just 15 sacks.
Prescott has many dangerous weapons at his disposal, including wideouts Cole Beasley (58-647 and five TDs) and Dez Bryant (33-550 and five TDs) and veteran tight end Jason Witten (52-553 and two TDs). Elliott is also a threat in the passing game. The running back has snagged 24 passes for 303 yards and a touchdown.
The Minnesota defense has been strong against the pass, surrendering 6.1 yards per attempt (second) and 206.8 yards per game (fourth). Opposing quarterbacks only have a 74.3 rating versus the Vikings, who have produced 12 interceptions and 28 sacks. Last week, however, the Lions were able to exploit Minnesota’s nickel defense a bit. According to PFF, the Lions produced 117 passing yards out of the slot. With Captain Munnerlyn, Terence Newman, Harrison Smith and Mackensie Alexander all battling injuries heading into the Thursday night matchup, the Vikings might be especially vulnerable to Prescott’s magic.
Containing Elliott will be a difficult task for the Vikings, who have been susceptible against the run. Minnesota is allowing 4.2 yards per carry (20th) and 100.2 yards rushing per game (14th). The left side of the Vikings defensive line should be on high alert against Elliott. Last week, Elliott did most of his damage attacking the left side of the Redskins’ defensive front, gaining 67 yards on just seven carries in that direction.
The young running back has been the talk of the NFL this season. Elliott has gained a league-leading 1,199 yards in averaging 4.9 per carry and rushing for 11 touchdowns behind the best offensive line in football. The bruising back also tops the NFL with 71 rushing first downs and 10 runs of 20-plus yards. His lowest production of the season was 51 yards in his debut against the Giants. He has gained at least 83 yards in the other 10 games.
Best of the Rest
Vikings on offense
Vikings points per game: 19.8 (26th)
Dallas points allowed per game: 19.4 (10th)
Vikings total offense: 294.9 yards (32nd)
Dallas total defense: 362.2 yards (21st)
Vikings red zone TD scoring percentage: 46.88 (28th)
Dallas red zone TD allowed percentage: 56.41 (20th)
Cowboys on offense
Dallas points per game: 28.7 (3rd)
Vikings points allowed per game: 17.5 (2nd)
Dallas total offense: 407.6 yards (4th)
Vikings total defense: 307 yards (3rd)
Dallas red zone TD scoring percentage: 64.44 (6th)
Vikings red zone TD allowed percentage: 51.72 (10th)
According to FiveThirtyEight, Minnesota has a 46 percent chance of beating Dallas, a 49 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 2 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl.