ARLINGTON, Texas – They talked about it all week, owning up to it publicly and resolving to fix it privately: The Vikings had fashioned a 6-3 record going into Sunday night without winning the kinds of games that are unavoidable in any kind of a meaningful playoff run.
A victory over the Dallas Cowboys, who were 5-3 and playing at home, would count the same as their victory two weeks before over the visiting Washington Redskins, who are now 1-8.
There’s no selection committee the Vikings must appease, no power ranking formula they must goose. But the Vikings hadn’t beaten an opponent with a winning record in eight tries since the beginning of 2018 and knew something had to change.
It did. The Vikings’ muscular run game, the bedrock on which the 2019 offense is built, allowed them to leave AT&T Stadium with a 28-24 victory that puts them in prime playoff position heading into the final six games of the season.
The Vikings gashed the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense for 153 yards on the ground, holding the ball for 12:21 in the third quarter and taking the lead for good on a 13-play, 75-yard drive that finished with 10 consecutive handoffs.
“And they can’t stop ’em — that’s the good part,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “It just breaks your will. That’s the one thing with football: It’s a tough sport, and if you allow people to run the ball like that against you, it really deflates you, I think.”
After quarterback Kirk Cousins rolled right and connected with Bisi Johnson for a 15-yard pickup on third down, the Vikings’ 10 consecutive runs netted 61 yards. When C.J. Ham was stopped on a third-down attempt from the 1, the Vikings offense never thought about leaving the field. They finished it with a fourth-down score from Dalvin Cook that came on a 2-yard run the NFL’s leading rusher knew was coming: a toss to the right side of the line that would allow him to follow Ham to pay dirt.
“I called that play in my head before it was called,” Cook said. “Look up the stats on that. Get me on the edge. ‘Hammer’ set it.”
The Vikings, who led 28-21 after the two-point conversion, beat a winning team on the road for the first time in nearly two years, in a showdown that was a referendum on whether they were ready to win the kinds of big games that contenders must finish off.
Cousins completed 23 of his 32 passes for 220 yards and a pair of 1-yard scores to Kyle Rudolph, dissecting the Cowboys defense with quick passes to Cook (who gained 79 yards through the air) and keeping Dallas’ pass rush at bay with rollouts that limited the Cowboys to only one first-half sack.
Playing without nose tackle Linval Joseph, who multiple sources said had an operation on a meniscus this week after being ruled out because of a knee injury, the Vikings stood up to the Cowboys’ run game in the first half, holding Ezekiel Elliott to 47 yards on 20 attempts. It was Dak Prescott’s ability to attack the Vikings’ secondary, though, that accounted for most of the Cowboys’ offense and nearly cost the Vikings the game.
The quarterback threw for 397 yards and three scores, delivering outside-the-pocket strikes to Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb and Michael Gallup that singed the Vikings’ banged-up secondary. He became the fourth quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards against the Vikings this season — the most in a season since Zimmer became head coach in 2014 — and nearly drove the Cowboys to a comeback victory.
He’d thrown for 63 yards on the Cowboys’ last significant drive, targeting second-year corner Mike Hughes and moving Dallas to the Vikings 11 with 1:33 to go, when Cowboys coach Jason Garrett suddenly called for back-to-back runs to Elliott. The Vikings stopped him for no gain on second down before Ifeadi Odenigbo shut him down for a 3-yard loss on third down. It set up one final chance, but as Prescott tried to squeeze a sideline throw in to Elliott, linebacker Eric Kendricks ranged to his right and broke up the play.
“It’s complicated, because as soon as the field gets short like that, I feel like we’re really good at red-zone defense,” Kendricks said. “I can see why they ran it, but we’re also good at the run. We made some plays. Ifeadi had a huge run stop in there. We kind of knew, if they would run it, what kind of things they’d run. They had the back offset. We were aggressive, and we left it all out there.”
The Vikings remain one game behind the Packers in the NFC North, but are up a game and a half on their closest pursuers for a wild-card spot, with a head-to-head victory against the Cowboys and two more conference wins than the Eagles and Rams. Four of the Vikings’ final six are at home, with three of those games against losing teams.
“We’re certainly happy where we are, but the next games are going to tell the story,” Cousins said. “People remember how you finish; they kind of forget how you start. I think our start has been fast enough to put us in position to where we can do something, but we’re going to have to go earn it in the second half.”