The last time the Vikings played a game at the Metrodome, in the second half of the game, with a win already well in hand, the fans at the Metrodome began chanting, "Let's go Cowboys!" It seemed a strange chant to the uninitiated, because the Dallas Cowboys have been a reviled rival of the Vikings for decades. But for the Vikings to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs, Dallas beating Philadelphia later that same day was required. Not only did the Cowboys win that game to lock down the NFC East Division title, they also earned a repeat matchup with the Eagles.
For those who wanted Dallas, they got their wish and they will be coming into the Metrodome about as hot as any team in the league. Not only are they riding a four-game winning streak, but three of those have come against playoff teams – on the road to end New Orleans' perfect season and twice in a row against the Eagles. They are clicking on all cylinders – both offensively and defensively – and will give the Vikings all they can handle Sunday.
One of the reasons for the Cowboys' turnaround has been the play of quarterback Tony Romo. As the Cowboys stumbled out of the gate to a 2-2 start, much of the blame was directed at Romo. He was struggling without a go-to wide receiver that Terrell Owens had been for him and some speculated that much of his success was attributable to having a talent like Owens at his disposal. But, since their bye week after Week 5, Romo has been as sharp as any quarterback this side of Peyton Manning. He threw for 4,483 yards with 26 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. While he takes a lot of shots deep down the field, his penchant for big interceptions has gone away. He hasn't gone into a shell and become a game manager, but has become a fully developed quarterback capable of sticking the dagger into an opponent and beating them with his arm. If the Vikings defense doesn't pressure him in the pocket and force him to get rid of the ball, he is capable of picking them apart with short passes and screens before taking a kill shot deep over the top.
One of the reasons for the Cowboys' sustained success over the last three months is a running game that has become a three-headed beast. Marion Barber was the focal point of the rush offense, but had just 214 carries – less than 15 a game. He rushed for 992 yards and scored half of the team's 14 rushing touchdowns and led all Dallas running backs with 26 receptions. But his grip on the featured back job is being threatened by Felix Jones. Injured much of his rookie season and somewhat this year, Jones is as explosive as any running back in the NFC. He had just 116 carries, but gained 685 yards – a 5.9-yard average. He blew up in the wild card win over the Eagles, breaking off a 73-yard touchdown that salted the game away. As if those two aren't enough, when injuries depleted the running back roster last year, relative unknown Tashard Choice was thrust into the spotlight and posted a pair of 100-yard games. His role has been diminished this year – rushing 64 times for 345 yards and catching 15 passes – but he has become a solid third-down back, and when the Cowboys employ the Wildcat formation (which, in honor of Arkansas-raised owner Jerry Jones, Dallas calls the Razorback formation), Choice is the one who lines up under center. Fullback Deon Anderson sees plenty of field time, but he is used exclusively as a blocker. In 16 games, he had no rushing attempts and one reception, but his lead blocking is exceptional.
The biggest difference in the Cowboys offense came when the team was on bye. The decision was made to move wide receiver Miles Austin into the starting lineup and the result was phenomenal. In the first four games of the season, Austin had just five catches for 81 yards. In the final 12 games, he caught 76 passes for 1,239 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has become the Cowboys primary deep threat and has solidified his position as the go-to wide receiver on the team. That job was supposed to go to Roy Williams. The Cowboys gave a first-round pick at midseason in 2008 to acquire Williams, who was nothing short of a bust in his first half-season with the Cowboys. While things improved this year, it wasn't all that dramatic. He caught just 38 passes for 596 yards, but seven of those went for touchdowns. Patrick Crayton, who also serves as the team's primary punt returner, is the No. 3 guy. He led the team in average yards per reception (16.8), but caught just 37 passes for 622 yards and five touchdowns. The team has decent depth with rookie Kevin Ogletree and fourth-year man Sam Hurd, but their contributions are more on special teams than as offensive weapons.
The Cowboys could have a matchup nightmare for the Vikings at tight end – an area the Vikes have struggled with during the season. Jason Witten has picked up much of the slack left in the wake of the T.O. divorce. Although he scored just two touchdowns, he finished second in the league among tight ends with 94 receptions and topped 1,000 yards receiving. He is a favorite target of Romo's and will be expected to catch a half-dozen passes or more, which will put plenty of pressure on the Vikings linebackers to keep him contained. Also fitting in the mix is second-year man Martellus Bennett. A speed tight end with good hands, Bennett caught just 15 passes this year, but could be an important part of the Cowboys offense. Expect to see Dallas take at least a couple of shots with Bennett deep down the seam in hopes of finding a mismatch with either linebacker or safety coverage.
With all good teams, a lot of the production they gain is the result of a strong offensive line. Big O-lines have been a staple of the Dallas offense for decades and nothing has changed over the years. The Cowboys have the biggest offensive line in the NFL and they are not only strong run blockers and pass protectors, they pull out on sweeps at the second level of the defense and can create big plays from screens, draws and misdirections. The line is stacked with 12-year veteran Flozell Adams at left tackle and eight-year vet Marc Colombo on the right side. Adams is starting to show some of the signs of age, but at 6-7, 340, he is a mountain to get around. Colombo missed seven games with a broken bone in his leg, but he returned to action last week and is expected to play most of Sunday's game. If he needs a breather, he will be replaced by third-year man Doug Free, who played surprisingly well as Colombo's replacement. On the inside, the Cowboys have Kyle Kosier and Leonard Davis at guard and Andre Gurode at center. Davis was an unqualified bust at tackle with the Cardinals and raised some eyebrows when he was given a big contract by the Cowboys. But, at guard, he has become one of the best maulers in the business. Gurode has been one of the league's better centers for some time and Kosier has shown marked improvement over the last two seasons. The Vikings will have to find an answer for this group, because they have shown the ability to be a dominant force as a unit.
As good as the Cowboys offense has been this season, it is the defense that has some analysts projecting them as the NFC representative in the Super Bowl. The Cowboys run a 3-4 defense and the star of that group is outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. He led the Cowboys with 11 sacks and is going to likely require the Vikings to give Bryant McKinnie some help on the edge to keep him off of Brett Favre. He is a relentless pass rusher who creates problems consistently and forces quarterbacks to either abandon the pocket or throw the ball sooner than they want. The line is anchored by nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who finally is receiving some of the recognition he deserves. He was named a Pro Bowl starter at defensive tackle and has played at a Pro Bowl level the last two or three seasons. He can occupy two offensive linemen and still create problems with running up the middle. He is flanked by Igor Olshansky and Marcus Spears. Olshansky isn't flashy, but is a lunch-pail type end that gets the job done. Spears has lost a little of his zip on his pass rush, but with Ware on his shoulder, he gets a lot of one-on-one coverage and is still capable of making big plays. Depth is decent with Jason Hatcher coming in at the end rotation and Junior Siavii backing up Ratliff at tackle. This will be a huge test for the Vikings offensive line, because the Cowboys can collapse the pocket up the middle as well as from the edge, making them doubly dangerous.
The linebackers are led by the aforementioned Ware, who acts as much like a stand-up defensive end as he does an outside linebacker. Perhaps no player has improved over the course of the season more than outside linebacker Anthony Spencer. A part-time player his first two seasons, there were some whispers that he could be a bust. But he came on strong both as a pass rusher (six sacks) and a run stopper in the second half of the season and is playing at as high a level as any player on the Cowboys defense with the exception of Ware. On the inside, the Cowboys went out in free agency to sign Falcons veteran Keith Brooking. He has enjoyed a renaissance in Dallas and has become a vocal team leader. He is flanked by seven-year vet Bradie James, who is a good wrap-up tackler who is capable of chasing plays to the sideline. Between the four of them, they create a formidable quartet capable of dominating games. If there is a weakness here, it is depth. Rookie Victor Butler backs up both outside positions and former Ohio State linebacker Bobby Carpenter has never lived up to expectations. If the Cowboys sustain an injury here, it would seriously downgrade the talent level, but, as long as their starters are on the field, they are a force to be reckoned with.
The secondary is strong as well. One of the most pleasant surprises of 2009 has been the play of cornerback Mike Jenkins. As a rookie in 2008, he struggled at times and had shaky confidence. He has turned that around this season and has become an excellent cover corner who leads the team with five interceptions. Seven-year veteran Terrence Newman mans the other corner position. While not a flashy game-changer, he is strong in coverage and rarely gets beat over the top. At safety, the days of Roy Williams being a highlight-film hitter and a liability in pass coverage are over. The Cowboys addressed the position the last two years in free agency, bringing in veteran Ken Hamlin in 2008 and Gerald Sensabaugh this season. Both are adept at making plays and big hits and Sensabaugh can cover like a cornerback when called on. Depth is thin with Orlando Scandrick backing up both corner spots and second-year man Alan Ball as the primary backup at both safety spots.
The special teams could have a big impact on the game. Two years ago, Nick Folk was the Pro Bowl for the kicker for the NFC. But, after missing 10 of 28 field goal attempts this season, he was cut loose and former Redskin (and former Cowboy) Shaun Suisham was signed. The potential aspect of the game that will be of interest to Vikings fans is kickoff specialist David Buehler. A fifth-round draft pick with a booming leg, he led all kickers with 29 touchbacks. Because of his leg strength and kicking indoors, he will likely kick to Percy Harvin. If he sails them five yards into the end zone, Harvin likely won't bring them out. But, if one or two come up short, he will have a chance to break a return that could quickly change momentum in the game.
Of the three teams the Vikings could have faced in their first playoff game, the Cowboys were likely the one they wanted least. Capable of winning games both offensively and defensively, they will be a stiff test for the Vikings, who may have to play nearly error-free to come away with a win Sunday.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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