ARLINGTON, Texas – Typically it takes something atypical for an NFL road team to beat a good team in prime time when that home squad is converting nine of 15 third downs, amassing 443 yards and not turning the ball over until throwing a Hail Mary as time expires.
Sunday night at AT&T Stadium, the atypical moment for the Vikings was one heck of a gutsy decision by coach Mike Zimmer to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 2 with 15 minutes and 8 seconds left in a back-and-forth game.
Instead of settling for an easy field goal and a 23-21 lead entering the fourth quarter, Zimmer made the hard decision and was rewarded with a Dalvin Cook touchdown and a seven-point lead that proved to be the difference in a 28-24 win over the Cowboys in front of another boisterous group of traveling Vikings fans.
“We were going to empty the bullets tonight one way or the other,” Zimmer said. “So that was really the mind-set going in.”
Was it especially hard making that call considering the Cowboys had just stuffed fullback C.J. Ham for a 1-yard loss on third down?
“It’s always hard,” said Zimmer, who came into the game with a 5-16 record against road teams that went on to finish the season with winning records.
There was little doubt what the Vikings were going to do when they lined up on fourth-and-goal.
There were no receivers. Kirk Cousins was under center in an I-formation with Cook behind his fullback, Ham. There were two tight ends — Irv Smith Jr. and Tyler Conklin — tight to the left. Kyle Rudolph was tight to the right.
“It was a great decision to go for it and a great call [by offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski],” Ham said. “It feels amazing to get it done like that. We got big [in our alignment] and empowered our will. Everybody won their one-on-one matchups when the defense knew exactly what we were going to do.”
Cook took the handoff going to his right. Right guard Dakota Dozier, who was in for injured Josh Kline, took care of his man. Right tackle Brian O’Neill was knocked onto his backside, but Cook sidestepped him.
Ham kicked a defensive back out to the right. Rudolph sealed a linebacker. And Cook rocketed into the end zone with his 10th touchdown of the season.
“For us, we know we run the football,” said Rudolph, who had two touchdown catches while also blocking for a running game that had 153 yards on 36 carries (4.3). “And this team is going to win football games by running the football.
“Any time you can get the ball in Dalvin’s hands, all it takes is a little bit of a crease. You don’t want your guy to make the tackle, so you do everything to eliminate him.”
Cook finished with 97 yards on 26 carries (3.7). He had five carries for 27 yards on the drive he capped with a touchdown.
In fact, on that 13-play, 75-yard march, the Vikings ran the ball 11 times for 58 yards. The last 10 snaps were all runs, including four carries for 35 yards for backup Alexander Mattison.
After Cousins completed a 15-yard pass to Bisi Johnson on third-and-6, the Vikings had first-and-10 at their 44.
Mattison went right end for 4. Cook right end for 4. Cook left end for 14. Mattison left end for 12, and then 3. And Mattison left tackle for 16 more to the 1.
The Cowboys and everybody watching knew the Vikings were going to keep running the ball on Zimmer’s command.
“And they can’t stop it,” Zimmer said. “That’s the good part. It breaks your will. That’s the one thing. Football is a tough sport, and if you allow people to run the ball like that against you it really deflates you.”