*2003 RANKINGS: Cowboys: offense 15th (12th rush, 17th pass); defense 1st (3rd rush, 1st pass). Vikings: offense 1st (4th rush, 4th pass); defense 23rd (17th rush, 26th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME:
The Cowboys want to test the Vikings' secondary, which received an upgrade with the signing of CB Antoine Winfield. But first Dallas must establish the run and hope RB Eddie George can provide consistent yards. If not, the Vikings figure to have a strong pass rush with DT Kevin Williams and rookie DE Kenechi Udezi, who will come after immobile 40-year old QB Vinny Testaverde whenever possible. The matchup of the game will be between Vikings WR Randy Moss and Cowboys CB Terrence Newman, but Pete Hunter is a liability at the other corner and must tackle well. RB Moe Williams starts for the Vikings with Michael Bennett out, and Onterrio Smith will get plenty of work as well. Minnesota likes to establish the run early to set up deep shots downfield by QB Daunte Culpepper.
Cowboys: George will start his 128th consecutive game. ... Lead the series 13-11. ... Are 30-13-1 in season openers but have lost their past four.
Vikings: WR Randy Moss has eight touchdown receptions in four career games against the Cowboys that averaged 39 yards. ... QB Daunte Culpepper had a 134.5 passer rating in the preseason
PREDICTED SCORE: Vikings 27, Cowboys 20
The other three -- Thornton, Keith O'Neil and Scott Shanle -- are necessary for special teams purposes.
Thornton, a rookie from Texas, will play on three special teams units as well as serve as a nickel pass rusher.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
For much of the week, Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said rookie running back Julius Jones wasn't hurt but just sore.
Jones has practiced all week but Parcells hasn't yet to decide if he's healthy enough to play.
On Thursday, Jones said he wanted to play and wouldn't miss the season opener for anything in the world.
That same day, Parcells officially placed Jones on the Cowboys injury report as probable for the game with sore ribs.
"I would like to see him play, if he can," coach Bill Parcells said. "I'm not sure if he will or not." Jones has bruised ribs with some torn cartilage dating back to the third preseason game against the Titans. He missed the final preseason game against Chiefs. And remains iffy for Sunday's opener. If he does play, it will be with a protective flak jacket type of device. Parcells says it will be a game time decision.
"I don't pressure anybody to do anything," Parcells said. "I have to get my team ready, and play the players that I think this Sunday give us the best chance. If he is not one of them, he won't play. It's not his fault." If Jones is not able to play, it will likely mean more time for ReShard Lee, rather than more carries for Eddie George and Richie Anderson.
Except for running back Michael Bennett, the Vikings appear to be in good health heading into Sunday's season opener against Dallas.
Cornerback Brian Williams (knee), left tackle Bryant McKinnie (knee) and receiver Marcus Robinson (hamstring) looked good in practice Thursday and are expected to contribute against the Cowboys.
Williams isn't ready to reclaim his starting right cornerback position, but he will be available to play in the nickel this week. Without him in that role, the Vikings would have to rely on serviceable second-year pro Rushen Jones as the fifth defensive back and a cast of nobodies beyond that
"Brian looked better (Thursday) than he did (Wednesday)," Tice said. "He was able to go the entire practice today at nickel. It's much more pleasing to me that we are able to rely on him now, it looks like." McKinnie sat out the preseason finale because of a sprained right knee. There was a significant dropoff as Adam Haayer and rookie Nat Dorsey tried to fill in.
"I'm fine," McKinnie said. "I could have played the last game if it was during the regular season." Robinson hasn't played since the preseason opener. The team's prized offensive free-agent signing lost his No. 2 receiver job to Nate Burleson, but appears eager to reclaim it. He will be given plenty of opportunities because the Vikings use a lot of three-receiver formations.
As for Bennett, he might return next week against Philadelphia. But the Vikings are in good shape at running back because the NFL hasn't ruled on Onterrio Smith's appeal of a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Moe Williams will start at running back, but look for Smith to carry the bulk of the load.