Everything about the Vikings-Cowboys matchup looks close. The national media praises Dallas, but the oddsmakers favor the Vikings in the Metrodome.
The offensive and defensive rankings aren't much help either. They're simply too close to call.
Dallas finished the season second on offense with the seventh-ranked rushing attack and sixth-ranked passing attack. The Vikings had the fifth-ranked offense, 13th in the rushing game and eighth in the passing game. Slight edge to Dallas.
Minnesota finished with the sixth-ranked defense, second against the rush and 19th against the pass. The Cowboys finished with the ninth-ranked defense, fourth against the rush and 20th against the pass. Slight edge to the Vikings.
Even the star players can be matched up relatively evenly. The emerging Tony Romo against the ever-present Brett Favre. Cowboys pass-rushing outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer vs. Vikings pass-rushing defensive end Jared Allen and his supporting cast. Dallas' three-headed rushing attack vs. Adrian Peterson's workhorse ways.
In an ultimately intriguing game, the final could come down to the minutia. Here are seven points to consider for Sunday.
Point one: The explosive play – Bears linebacker Tim Shaw said the key to beating the Vikings is limiting the explosive plays. On the flip side of that, the Vikings learned in last year's playoff game just how quickly one play can devastate a team. In the fourth quarter of the Vikings' wild card game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Brian Westbrook turned a screen pass into a 71-yard touchdown, turning a 16-14 lead into a 23-14 lead that the Vikings couldn't overcome.
Now come the Cowboys.
"There isn't as explosive of a team as they are offensively in the playoffs," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "We kind of chart them differently just in terms of playoff teams' offense. I think they have 123 explosive plays that we looked at through the season here, run and pass. And they've given up only 34 sacks, same as us, 34 sacks. And then defensively, you see them (getting) 42 sacks. They've given up 97 explosive plays. Any of the numbers you look at, they're a top 10 offense, top 10 defense. I said this before, as are we, and something has to give right here."
Last week against the Eagles, the Cowboys had 10 plays of 15 yards or longer, including a 73-yard touchdown run by Felix Jones.
Point two: The underrated guys – This is a game full of stars, but there could be a couple of underrated players making a difference. For the Cowboys, that could come from inside linebacker Keith Brooking. Of course, Brooking also has the advantage of dangerous outside linebackers that have to be accounted for and a Pro Bowl defensive tackle (Jay Ratliff) in front of him. That's a dangerous combination up the gut against John Sullivan.
"They can bring the heat from the outside. With that said, a guy like Brooking, they feature him blitzing," Childress said. "He does a great job of timing up his A-gap blitzes, and I look at the nose guard. Ninety (Ratliff) can bring pressure anyway you want it. He can walk the center back. He can make a quick move and beat you with quickness in there."
For the Vikings, the forgotten player to make a play could be defensive end Brian Robison. He's not a starter, but nobody has more sacks in the last four games than Robison's three, including each of the last two games. Last year, Robison made the most of a starting opportunity in the playoffs when he had seven tackles-for-loss against the Eagles.
"I prepare every week as if I'm going to start the game and I'm going to play that way. I don't treat any week, whether it's a playoff game or it's a preseason game, any different than any other game," Robison said. "It was just a point where I got the opportunities I wanted, opportunities that I needed, and I took advantage of them."
Point three: The penalties – Dallas was one of the most penalized teams in the league in 2009. Green Bay led the league with 118, Oakland was next with 117 and then comes Dallas at 115, tied with Baltimore. The Vikings had 101. A key penalty in the red zone could mean the difference between a touchdown and a field attempt.
According to NFL writer Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, Walt Anderson's officiating crew, which is assigned to the Vikings-Cowboys game, was the only crew to assess 200 penalties this season and led the league in penalty yards. That crew also called more penalties (113) on home teams than visiting teams.
Brad Childress had some fun with Anderson, a Texas native, when asked about the game meaning more to Adrian Peterson, who grew up a Cowboys fan.
"It's more important to anybody that's from Texas – (Peterson), Cedric Griffin, Walt Anderson. It covers lots of people from Texas," Childress said.
Point four: The kicking game – Speaking of field goal attempts, the Cowboys are a kicking team in flux. Nick Folk missed 10 of 28 attempts and was released after the Cowboys ended the Saints' undefeated season. Enter Shaun Suisham, who missed three field goals and an extra point with the Redskins in the first 12 games but was signed by Dallas after Washington released him. He made both of his attempts last week, but he missed one of three attempts in his two regular-season games with the Cowboys.
Meanwhile, Ryan Longwell has been steady, missing only two attempts all season and working with the same holder, Chris Kluwe, for the past four years.
Point five: The crowd factor – Nothing screams bloody eardrums and brings out the advocates for hearing protection like a playoff game in the Metrodome. Childress joked this week that because it's a noon game, the crowd might be in shape to stay loud the entire game. Childress' team needs to give them something to cheer about.
The noise could be one reason the Vikings are undefeated at home this season, but linebacker Chad Greenway said teams are getting used to dealing with deafening environments.
"Teams are so used to it now that I think they have a lot of issues as far as snap counts and stuff pretty well sewed up," he said. "They go on silent counts and that can still affect the tackles on the outside. You have a guy trying to block Jared Allen or on the end, it really shows what you can do as a linebacker moving around giving them different looks – make them think that something's coming and then they get a little nervous. Then they're trying to listen to the snap count or see the ball move, which is a lot going on."
Point six: The PercyCat vs. Tashard's Choice – The Vikings haven't featured the Wildcat, with Percy Harvin taking the direct snap, much this year, but it would be an intriguing time to implement it. I don't expect it to make an appearance for the Vikings, but they do have to be ready for the Cowboys to run their "Razorback" formation in which running back Tashard Choice takes the direct snap. The Vikings haven't faced much Wildcat this season, but they can't afford to be unprepared when Dallas breaks out their version of it.
To that end, the Vikings had two weeks to prepare for Dallas, but coaches warned that they can't install the "two-week game plan" where they make things too complicated.
"The tendency as coaches is to sometimes try a wrinkle here or there during this time, but Brad has really challenged myself and the other coordinators to stay with what we do," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "There may be a wrinkle here or there, but if for some reason, the players are having trouble with it, get away from that. We won 12 games for a reason and you just can't forget that."
Childress admitted he was the same way when he was a coordinator at Philadelphia with two weeks to draw up new wrinkles and he, too, was "admonished" not to get too fancy.
"All coaches, all of us, think we're really smart. We think we can come up with a great scheme – hey, I see that, I know exactly how to beat it," offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. "But we always say, ‘It doesn't matter what we know, it matters what the players know about what we know.' … We need to then just let them play. If you put too much stuff in, you kind of paralyze them a little bit, make them think, ‘I'm supposed to do this.' We want them out there reacting, we want them out there playing fast.
Point seven: The unappreciated angle – All week long, the Vikings heard about "America's Team" and how the national media likes the Cowboys in this game. Dallas won four games in a row, but momentum is a fickle thing. The Vikings need to use that perceived slight on them as motivation to block better, tackle better and execute better. They seem to play better, especially on defense, when they have something to prove.
That said, the Vikings are the higher seed and, despite what seems to be a prevailing perception, they have done better against common competition this year. In common games (against Carolina, Green Bay, the New York Giants and Seattle), the Cowboys are 2-3 and the Vikings are 4-1.
But don't tell the Vikings that. Let them play the underdog role and try to sniff out a victory.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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