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Cowboys Hash Marks: Play-calling wasted big performances vs. Vikings

The Dallas Cowboys had the chance to make a statement on Sunday but the only thing they accomplished was another loss to an NFC opponent in the Minnesota Vikings.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett stands on the sideline watching play against the Minnesota Vikings during the first half of an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)


The Minnesota Vikings outlasted the Dallas Cowboys 28-24 on Sunday night, giving coach Mike Zimmer a win over the club that employed him as defensive coordinator from 2000-06. The results elevate the Vikings to 7-3 as they chase the Green Bay Packers for first place in the NFC North. 

Meanwhile, Dallas falls to 5-4 and is in a tie for first in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles, who were on a bye. Perhaps it all could have turned out differently if not for three plays in the fourth quarter.

You're Kellen me, Smalls ⁠—⁠ On the second-to-last Cowboys drive, they penetrated as far as the Vikings' 11-yard line; quite a feat considering the game-winning drive attempt started at the Dallas 6-yard line. The Cowboys got to that point with quarterback Dak Prescott completing five passes on six attempts for 79 yards. There was one Ezekiel Elliott run worth four yards on the drive. 

No one can blame first-year offensive coordinator and play-caller Kellen Moore for calling a run on second-and-2. However, the next two plays were baffling. Instead of putting the ball in the hands of Prescott, who was the catalyst for the offense, or even getting Randall Cobb or Amari Cooper involved, they went with another Elliott run that lost three yards. 

On fourth-and-5 from the 14, with the game on the line, Prescott threw an out to Elliott that linebacker Eric Kendricks tipped away. It was as though the Cowboys brain trust outsmarted themselves during that three-play sequence rather than the Vikings coming up with a plan to neutralize what Dallas was doing best, which was moving the ball through the air.

Cooper and Cobb's big nights — The last time Randall Cobb caught 100-plus yards receiving was Week 1 of 2018 versus the Chicago Bears. He produced six catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. Amari Cooper hauled in 11 catches for 147 yards and a touchdown. Dallas was 4-1 coming into Sunday night when Cooper registered 100-plus receiving yards. In the context of the game, they were the playmakers who were driving the offense. 

The receivers helped Dallas overcome a 14-0 deficit in the first quarter that could have turned the bout with the Vikings into another uphill climb as it was against the Packers in Week 5. However, after big nights through the air, they didn't see a single target after Dallas had that second-and-2 sequence from the 11-yard line. 

Who knows if Cobb will even have another 100-yard receiving game while with the Cowboys? All of the elements were coming together for a comeback, and the Cowboys squandered it.

The linebackers are a liability — Minnesota knew exactly who to go after, and that was the Cowboys' linebackers. Running back Dalvin Cook did not have the Aaron Jones-esque performance that the last NFC North visitors had at AT&T Stadium, but the current NFL rushing leader produced 97 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries along with catching all seven targets for 86 yards. He was the driving force behind the Vikings' offense, and the Cowboys linebackers didn't have an answer for him. 

Expect the remaining offensive coordinators to target Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Sean Lee, and Joe Thomas in the remaining seven games. Some teams will be able to pull it off as Minnesota did, while others may not execute properly and it becomes a liability. Nonetheless, the weak spot of the Cowboys defense has been figured out, and it is an issue they will have to address if they hope to make the playoffs.

What are the odds? — How big was the outcome of this game versus the Vikings? Consider that since 1990, when playoff formats were last tinkered with to allow two wild-cards per conference, 99/136 teams that started 6-3 made the playoffs — so, 72.8%. With the loss, Dallas is 5-4 on the season. Since 1990, teams that started 5-4 made the playoffs 77/161 times, just 47.8%. 

So, if the past is a prediction of future outcomes, the Cowboys saw their playoff odds drop by 25% because of that loss to the Vikings. The good news is that Dallas is 4-0 in the NFC East and the Eagles are 1-1 with a Week 16 rematch. The bad news is that the Cowboys' have a considerably tougher schedule and their lone non-NFC East win is against the Miami Dolphins led by Josh Rosen.

Do you think that the Cowboys will make the playoffs or will their inability to win outside of the NFC East come back to bite them? Share your thoughts with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.