8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Cowboys -3, Over/Under: 43.5
A pair of teams traveling in very different directions clash tonight at U.S. Bank Stadium, as the reeling Minnesota Vikings host the surging Dallas Cowboys on Thursday Night Football. 2016 has to be the most pleasantly surprising campaign for the Cowboys (10-1, 1st in NFC East) in years, as the team is riding high on a 10-game winning streak, the longest in the franchise’s long, rich history. However, it’s not necessarily the fact that they’ve reached this point as to HOW they’ve got here, and more significantly, WHO has led them. With Tony Romo out for over two months with a fracture in his lower back, this season had the makings of being every bit as lost it’s predecessor was, but thanks to the heroics of two Rookies, Jason Garrett’s charges have found themselves sporting the best record in the NFL heading into December. Simply put, Tailback Ezekiel Elliott and Quarterback Dak Prescott have played well beyond their years, and continue to improve with each passing week. Elliott, the No. 4 Overall Pick in the Draft is a serious contender for not just Offensive Rookie of the Year, but MVP as well, rushing for 1,119 yards on a healthy 4.9 yards per carry, scoring eleven touchdowns, while proving to be just as dangerous in the passing game, reeling in twenty-four receptions for 303 yards and another score. To give you an idea just how special this kid has been, the only players in NFL History that have rushed for more yards through the first eleven games of their career are Eric Dickerson and Adrian Peterson. RESPECT. And then there’s Prescott, the unheralded Fourth Round Pick who was supposed to be little more than a steward until Romo returned, but for all intents and purposes may have RETIRED the 11-year veteran. The kid out of Mississippi State has been deadly efficient, completing 67.9% of his passes for 2,835 yards on an impressive 7.74 Net Yards per Attempt, with eighteen touchdowns and just two interceptions, while scoring another five times by using his legs. Week after week, the critics keep waiting for these kids to finally slip up, and week after week they’ve proven their naysayers wrong. Of course, a huge proponent of their sustained success has been the tremendous play of the Cowboys’ Offensive Line, which continues to be recognized as head and shoulders above their competition; Prescott has been granted plenty of time to progress through his reads, while Elliott has enjoyed a plethora of holes to run through. However, the group that this unit has benefitted the most is the Defense. That’s right, folks, Dallas’ Defense is rarely heard from primarily due to the fact that they’re rarely on the field to begin with; these guys have been operating under the most ideal of circumstances, as the running game has propelled this team to No. One Overall in Time of Possession, while the Offense in general has committed the second-fewest turnovers in the league. Basically, that translates to their Defense having to work the shortest amount of time in the NFL, while rarely being put in a compromising position in the form of defending a short field. In fact, Garrett’s Defense has seen the fewest amount of Drives run against them (108), and have only spent 109 snaps ALL SEASON without the benefit of playing with a lead. Seriously, Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli couldn’t ask for a better situation for his charges to be in. With that said, it’s become rather alarming that this unit hasn’t been more productive given the advantageous position their teammates on the opposite side of the ball keep putting them in; despite habitually playing with a lead, the Cowboys have been able to muster just nineteen sacks (28th Overall) and ten takeaways (27th Overall) through eleven games, while also forcing the fewest Three-and-Outs in the NFL. Furthermore, they haven’t forced a turnover in four consecutive games, which is the longest period of time that a team has gone without doing so during a winning streak in NFL History. This would lead many to believe that at some point these guys will be exposed, but given the struggles that their opponent has exhibited offensively of late (which we’ll get into shortly, it would be surprising if it happened tonight.
Meanwhile, what began as an unexpectedly promising campaign for the Vikings (6-5, 2nd in NFC North) has suddenly turned into a desperate struggle to keep their heads above water. By now, you’re all acquainted with their story; Sam Bradford was acquired weeks before the start of the Regular Season after Franchise Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater shredded about every ligament in his knee during Training Camp, only to see All-Pro Tailback Adrian Peterson land on Injured Reserve with a torn Meniscus two games into the schedule. Undeterred, Mike Zimmer’s charges defiantly ran off five consecutive victories to begin the campaign on the strength of an efficient Offense coupled with the league’s most suffocating Defense. However, the further removed they become from their ensuing Bye Week, the more that those earlier results appear to have been merely Fool’s Gold. Indeed, the general consensus all year was that it would only be a matter of time before the mounting injuries would begin to effect Minnesota, and as losers of five of their past six outings, it appears that those predictions were in fact correct. The Offense, which had committed just one turnover during their undefeated start, has committed seven in the six weeks since. The Offensive Line, which played a key role in keeping Bradford upright, has been decimated on the flanks, with BOTH Starting Tackles (Matt Kalil and Andre Smith) on Injured Reserve, while former Top Pick Jake Long (who was acquired midseason to replace them), tore his Achilles two weeks ago. Oh, and did we fail to mention that venerable Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner, who admirably cultivated a solid gameplan with a unit bereft of talent, inexplicably QUIT in early November. As you can imagine, the Vikings have tanked on this side of the ball, averaging just 16.5 points on 288.5 Total Yards, including a miserable 71.5 rushing yards over the course of the last six games. Unfortunately, this has left Bradford in a very precarious position, forcing the maligned former No. One Overall Pick to carry an Offense with very little support to be found. Through his first four starts of the term, Bradford remarkably exceeded expectations (particularly given the insanely quick learning curve), so much so that Management was forced to consider him as their long-term answer at Quarterback, completing a stellar 70.4% of his passes for an average of 247.5 yards on 7.9 yards per attempt, six touchdowns and most importantly ZERO interceptions. However, as his protection continued to deteriorate and the rushing attack struggled to find it’s legs, the 29-year old began to revert to the form that forced him out of St. Louis and Philadelphia; in the six games since the Bye Week, Bradford continued to complete a high percentage of his throws (71.8%), but for fewer yardage (237.5) and at a drastically reduced clip (6.4 yards per attempt), with six touchdowns and three interceptions. Furthermore, he’s been sacked eighteen times in the past six games, on 8.1% of his dropbacks in comparison to 6.4% of his dropbacks through his first four starts. And now the influx in pressure is beginning to take it’s toll on him physically, for Bradford has limped throughout practice this week with a sprained ankle leaving Zimmer to pronounce him as Probable for tonight’s affair. At this point, the only conceivable way that the Vikings will be able to get into the Postseason once again is if Zimmer and his Staff can coax a herculean effort from the Defense over the final five weeks. Simply put, this unit has been TERRORFYING all season, yielding 17.5 points (2nd Overall) on 307.0 Total Yards (3rd Overall), including 206.8 yards against the pass (4th Overall) on just 5.2 Net Yards per Attempt (2nd Overall), along with another 100.2 yards against the run (14th Overall) on 4.2 yards per carry (20th Overall). They’ve been able to consistently create turnovers (20), forcing at least two on six occasions thus far, which has been crucial given how dreadful their comrades on the opposite side of the ball have been in terms of sustaining drives. Hell, these guys even score, returning two interceptions and a recovered fumble for touchdowns, while Special Teams has also factored into the equation with Marcus Sherels (2 TD) and Cordarrelle Patterson (1 TD) reaching the End Zone via Punt and Kickoff Returns. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes (4 INT, 1 TD, 9 PD) has been a STUD in the Secondary, while Defensive Ends Everson Griffin (6 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR) and Danielle Hunter (7.5 SK, 1 FF, I FR, 1 TD) have provided relentless pressure, and Linebackers Eric Kendricks (67 TKL, 1 INT, 1 TD, 8 PD) and Anthony Barr (49 TKL, 3 PD, 1 FR) should both be on their way to the Pro Bowl. In many ways, these guys have been the antithesis to their counterparts in Dallas, for they’ve logged more time on the field than any other Defense in the league. Buckle up boys, given the run that the aforementioned Elliott has been on, you might be out there for a long time once again.
Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 17, Vikings 13