ARLINGTON, Texas – The man in the middle was alone, on the outside, looking back.
Eric Kendricks had spent Sunday night sifting through blockers and applying shoulders to one of football’s best running backs. Now the Dallas Cowboys were isolating him on the biggest play of the game.
Kendricks picked up Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys’ star back, as Elliott ducked out of the backfield and veered hard toward the sideline. The Vikings led by four points at AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys faced fourth-and-5 and sent Elliott on a down-and-out so they could pick up a first down with less than a minute remaining, to give themselves up to four more chances to torment the Vikings’ tattered secondary.
Kendricks is a fine athlete, but he is not Elliott, a rare blend of power and speed. Kendricks is not a superstar. He does not wave an invisible spoon in front of his mouth every time he makes a play.
But Kendricks stuck a fork in the Cowboys. As he chased Elliott, he turned his head, saw the ball in flight, dived and knocked it away as the Vikings’ sideline erupted in raised fists and voices. The Vikings won 28-24 in prime time, with Kendricks acting as the football version of a closer.
“Lights out,’’ Vikings running back Dalvin Cook said. “He’s been the reason my game has been sharpening since I got here. When you play against an All-Pro linebacker like that…
“I think he’s so underrated at his position. Flies around. Does everything. Covers guys. Sticks his head in there. Special talent, man, and he’s a special person off the field.’’
Kendricks leads all NFL linebackers with 11 passes defensed this year. That’s strange, because as a middle linebacker his first priority is stopping the run.
“He’s a savvy player,’’ tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “He’s very savvy in coverage, and obviously he’s athletic and fast.’’
With nose tackle Linval Joseph missing the game and perhaps a month or more after having knee surgery, the Vikings had to slow down Elliott without their best run-stopping lineman. Kendricks spent half the game smashing into Elliott and the other half turning and watching Cowboys receivers torch the Vikings’ once-stout secondary.
Prescott threw for 397 yards and three touchdowns, and didn’t throw an interception until his last-second heave to the end zone. Perhaps the Cowboys should have taken note of his success, because, facing second-and-2 from the Vikings 11 on the last drive, they ran the ball twice to Elliott, losing 3 yards and setting up the fateful fourth-and-5.
Elliott bolted out of the backfield. Kendricks wasn’t surprised.
“I was in man-to-man,’’ he said. “I had no help. Honestly, I just …’’
Kendricks paused, exhaled, and shrugged. “I was just locked in,’’ he said. “I knew it was me and him. I knew I had to guard him. I guarded him. I don’t know how else to explain it. I felt like the ball was coming to me, and I knew what I had to do.’’
Often in NFL locker rooms after games you can see the players willfully controlling their emotions. That wasn’t the case late Sunday night.
Vikings owner Zygi Wilf walked around, giddy, loudly chatting up players. Kirk Cousins, Cook and Kendricks grinned and held game balls for a photo. Kendricks and his fellow linebackers ran to the locker room, regrouped, then revisited the field for their annual group photograph.
Kendricks stood, chatting with Cook, shaking his head at Prescott’s accuracy. Cook admitted that this was “a big one,’’ after blowing a game at Kansas City the previous week.
Thanks to Kendricks’ play, the Vikings are 7-3, with an excellent chance of being 8-3 entering December.
“When the lights are on, you’ve got to show up,’’ Kendricks said.
The eyes of Texas were upon him late Sunday night, and Kendricks made them wince.