DALLAS —

The Dallas Cowboys are beginning a brutal stretch of their schedule to open the second half of the season with three games in the next four contests coming against teams with winning records. The make-or-break section of the docket all starts with a prime-time matchup against the Minnesota Vikings. 

These two teams do have a history and they will build on it on Sunday as both squads look to survive in a crowded NFC playoff race. Who can forget the original Hail Mary from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson in the 1975 NFC Divisional Round or the Hershel Walker trade that set Dallas up for their dynasty run in the early 1990’s?

These NFC combatants have met 30 times since 1961. The Cowboys have won 16 of them. They have also meet in the playoffs a total of seven times with the Cowboys besting the Vikings four times. Dallas has won the last two matchups and look for their third consecutive win against the Vikings in the all-time series. 

The last time the Cowboys and Vikings met was on December 1, 2016 in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott’s rookie season meaning Dallas has yet to face Minnesota with Kirk Cousins under center after he joined the Vikings in 2018. The Cowboys, of course, are quite familiar with Cousins from his time in Washington. 

The Cowboys are coming off back-to-back blowout divisional wins while the Vikings look to right their ship after a close loss to the Patrick Mahomes-less Kansas City Chiefs. With the scene set, here’s a look at the keys to a win for the Cowboys:

Slow down the Purple People Eaters

The Vikings are known for their defense, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the team is led by a defensive minded coach. The former Dallas Cowboys’ defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has this defense playing at a top five level pretty much annually. The Cowboys will need to step up their protection in this game, even with a top flight offensive line that is having a great year keeping Prescott upright. 

However, even with the heralded unit, the Cowboys will be facing two top-tier pass rushers. The Dallas blockers will need to have their best games to slow down Everson Griffen (5.5 sacks) and Danielle Hunter (tied for 4th in the league with 8.5 sacks). One way to avoid the pass rush threat is to get the ball out quickly and utilize the running game with Elliott to neutralize their impact so to speak. 

The line for Dallas has been able to help Prescott to his best season throwing the ball to date, but this is the most dangerous pass rush they will have faced so far this season. Should the Cowboys limit the effectiveness of the Viking’s rush, it would allow Dak to attack the secondary.

Remind Kirk Cousins of his time in Washington

The Cowboys will be facing Kirk Cousins for their ninth time and they have had great success over the years against the former division rival signal caller. However, as mentioned, this will mark the first time that he will play against the Cowboys as a member of the Vikings. 

Minnesota won’t have one of their best receivers in Adam Thielan, so Dallas will need to focus on not allowing Stephon Diggs to be a gamebreaker against the secondary. The goal should be to take away Diggs and force Cousins to beat them another way.

With that in mind, the Dallas pass rush will need to continue how they have played in recent weeks, and especially how they performed against the New York Giants where they hassled rookie Daniel Jones all night. The Vikings have allowed 16 sacks in nine games this year which is 7th best in the league but still six more than the Cowboys have allowed. 

Michael Bennett will be counted on again to get pressure inside to create mismatches and allow DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quin to wreak havoc from the outside to mess with the timing of Cousins’ throws. The best way for the Cowboys to throw off the Vikings’ game plan is through disruption up front.

Beat strength with strength

The Cowboys have turned the ball over 12.9% of the time which is 11th in the NFL according to Pro Football Reference. Meanwhile, Minnesota creates turnovers 14% of the time which is the 8th best in the NFL. In a game between two playoff contenders that looks close on paper, the takeaway battle could be the deciding factor.

Otherwise, this game becomes a battle of strength versus strength. The Cowboys are a top tier offensive team with a defense that can make stops and the Vikings have a top tier defensive team with and offense that can put the necessary points on the board to win close games. The game on Sunday will likely come down to which top unit makes the most plays. 

Luckily for Dallas, Dak Prescott seems to thrive in these types of situations. When the lights are the brightest, Prescott raises his game. The Cowboys are 6-1 against teams with top five defenses with Dak under center and he’s sporting a 105.9 passer rating in those games.

It is time for Prescott to prove once again that he will be worth every penny he has coming to him on a new extension that will surely be offered after the season.

Prediction:

With this likely being a grind-it-out sort of matchup, look for the Cowboys to top the Vikings 23-17 to retain their grip on the lead in the NFC East and keep pace in the rest of the NFC.

Do you think the Cowboys will be able to fend off the Vikings on Sunday night to stay atop the NFC East? Share your predictions with Patrick on Twitter @DraftCowboys.