Stephen Weatherly, a rookie defensive end who has yet to play in a game for the Vikings, got his first exposure to Dak Prescott two years ago, when Weatherly was at Vanderbilt and Prescott was garnering Heisman hype at Mississippi State.

"We only played them once. And it wasn't a good game for us," he said, chuckling.

Even then, two years before he took the NFL by storm as a rookie quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, Prescott impressed Weatherly with his composure, obvious leadership skills and athleticism. But perhaps what stood out most was Prescott's competitiveness, which popped out in the film room when Weatherly watched Prescott truck an SEC linebacker who tried to tackle him in the hole.

"I was like, 'This guy is serious,' " he said. "To actually play against him in college and see that translate over to the next level, it doesn't surprise me one bit."

Linebacker Kentrell Brothers, another Vikings rookie desperate to get on the field, played Prescott a year later, when on a rain-soaked day the QB tossed four touchdown passes against a Missouri defense that had been ranked No. 1 in the SEC.

"I think he should have been drafted higher," Brothers said, swearing this wasn't a case of recency bias. "I thought he was the best quarterback in the SEC for sure. The guys drafted ahead of him are pretty good, too. But I just thought he was an all-around great quarterback. It was a good draft pick by [the Cowboys]."

The selection of Prescott in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, along with do-it-all Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick, has helped the Cowboys, who can extend their winning streak to 11 games Thursday night at U.S. Bank Stadium, establish themselves as the NFC's top team. As a result, both rookies are being mentioned as MVP candidates by national media members.

And to think, the Cowboys have freely admitted that Prescott, the 135th overall selection this spring, wasn't even one of the top passers on their draft board.

'Thankful' for opportunity

After drafting Elliott, the Cowboys tried to trade back into the first round to take Paxton Lynch, the former Memphis quarterback who wound up in Denver. They then were reportedly planning to take Michigan State's Connor Cook early in the fourth round, only to see Oakland trade ahead of them to select him.

So, sigh, the Cowboys later settled on Prescott, who by having one of the best seasons ever for a rookie quarterback has kept Pro Bowl passer Tony Romo on the bench.

"To think about them wanting other people, it never bothered me, never has. I'm sure that Mississippi State wanted other people instead of me as well," Prescott said on a conference call. "It's just about being thankful for the opportunity."

Protected by a stacked Cowboys offensive line that Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said is the best he has seen in a long time, Prescott has completed 67.9 percent of his throws for 2,835 yards and 18 touchdowns, with only two interceptions. And his passer rating of 108.6 trails only Tom Brady, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees.

The savvy 23-year-old has also rushed for 180 yards and five touchdowns.

"He's just handled everything so, so well," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said on a conference call. "The on-the-field stuff, the off-the-field stuff, he has tremendous poise and composure. … [I feel that is] infectious throughout our team."

With Prescott whipping passes to Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant and Elliott running behind three former first-round picks up front, the Cowboys rank second in rushing, fourth in total yards and third in scoring at 28.7 points per game

The Vikings scouted Prescott before the draft and had some conversations with him, too. But with Teddy Bridgewater entrenched as their young starter, they opted to take offensive lineman Willie Beavers with their fourth-round pick.

"He was a winner at Mississippi State," Zimmer said of Prescott. "He did a lot of really good things. [So] no, I'm not really surprised [to see him play this well]. You never know with middle-round quarterbacks, but he has done great."

The sidekick

And Elliott, Prescott's buddy in the backfield, has arguably been even better.

Elliott leads the NFL with 1,199 rushing yards, 156 more than the next guy on the list. The 21-year-old is second in the league with 11 rushing touchdowns. And he has snagged 24 passes for 303 yards and another touchdown. Plus, he is already one of the NFL's trustiest backs in pass protection, a difficult skill to pick up.

"He's one of the better backs I've seen in quite a while," Zimmer said. "He's really an all-purpose guy that catches the ball very well out of the backfield. He's quick into the hole. Looks like he's got great vision. … He's good in pass protection, better than rookie backs for sure. He's an impact player on contact. He's built [at] 225 pounds. He's physical. He's a hurdler if you try to cut him. He's special."

It's unclear whether Zimmer stopped there because he was out of praise or oxygen.

With their once-promising season nearing the brink, the Vikings, who still rank in the top three in scoring defense and yards allowed despite costly lapses in recent critical moments, will face their most daunting challenge yet Thursday night.

"Our mentality is that we've lost a lot of close football games, but we do know we can play with anybody," veteran outside linebacker Chad Greenway said.