The Vikings survived comeback attempts by Jared Goff and Sam Darnold to get to 3-3 before their bye week. The quarterback they ultimately could not stop was Cooper Rush, owner of one NFL regular-season completion before Sunday night.
Rush, making his first NFL start for Dallas in place of the injured Dak Prescott, directed an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the game's final minutes, hitting Amari Cooper on a 5-yard end-zone fade over Cameron Dantzler for a touchdown that delivered the kind of stunning defeat the Vikings had managed to stave off in two games before the bye.
The Vikings have now blown second-half leads in their past three games; they never led by more than seven on Sunday night, but let the Cowboys (6-1) creep back into the game. The Vikings went 1-for-13 on third downs; their 7.6% conversion rate was the worst single-game mark in the NFL this season, and they went three-and-out on three consecutive drives in the second half.
"We've got to quit just hanging in games," Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen said. "Every game we just hang around, hang around, hang around, let a team hang around, instead of just putting our foot on the gas and going. We went down and scored on the first drive; we have to put our foot on the gas. I don't know what we need to do that, but we've been saying that since Week 1."
The Vikings began the game willing to test the Cowboys defense downfield, but drifted into a conservative offensive approach throughout the night. They lost defensive end Danielle Hunter to a shoulder injury just before halftime, and their sack leader watched the second half in street clothes, as Rush got more comfortable testing the Vikings secondary.
The quarterback completed 14 of his 23 second-half passes for 225 yards and a pair of touchdowns, gaining confidence as the Vikings offense seemed to pull back.
Kirk Cousins went 16 of 20 for only 79 yards in the second half. His average throw, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, traveled only 4.2 yards downfield.
"I think it was a combination of coverage and pressure," Cousins said of the Vikings' lack of downfield shots in the second half. "I think you trust your reads, you trust the way you've played. You also understand the situation of the game, and understand how you need to play."
After Prescott's lengthy pregame workout ended with a meeting between Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, owner Jerry Jones and chief operating officer Stephen Jones in U.S. Bank Stadium's west end zone, Dallas made the decision to sit Prescott and give Rush his first start.
The Vikings started the game with a 75-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 20-yard scoring pass from Cousins to Thielen, who faked as though he was blocking for a screen, shed Trevon Diggs and found a hole in the Cowboys' zone.
Early on, the Vikings' pass rush seemed to bother Rush as he tried to decipher their coverages. The quarterback forced a throw over the middle to Dalton Schultz that turned into an interception for ex-Cowboy Xavier Woods after Harrison Smith tipped the ball.
The Vikings led 10-3 before halftime, and got one more chance to add points when Noah Brown couldn't outrun Bashaud Breeland and catch up to Rush's go ball before halftime.
But on the ensuing drive, the Vikings couldn't get lined up quickly enough following a 13-yard Cousins scramble, and let the clock run down instead of calling their final timeout. They took a knee to end the first half.
Asked afterward if he had the ability to call timeout, Cousins said, "I just let 'Zim' [coach Mike Zimmer] handle the timeouts, because I never know quite what the coaches want to do and what they're thinking play to play. I was just going to play where we're at, and let them call the next play."
With Hunter ruled out at the beginning of the second half, the Vikings couldn't get as much pressure on Rush in the second half. On the first drive of the third quarter, he made his first big throw of the night.
He fired a post route to Cedrick Wilson, who beat Mackensie Alexander and split the Vikings' safeties, turning Smith around as the veteran gave chase. The 73-yard touchdown tied the score 10-10, as a sizable contingent of Cowboys fans roared while Vikings fans reacted in stunned silence.
The reaction turned to boos as the Vikings offense stagnated, and on the Cowboys' final drive, things boiled over.
To open the drive, Rush hit Cooper for 33 yards — on a play where the receiver twice bobbled the ball before catching it — and came back with a second consecutive completion over Breeland to Cooper for 18 yards.
The Vikings drew a defensive delay of game penalty on a third-and-16 with 1:04 left on the final drive when Zimmer tried to call consecutive timeouts. By rule, officials are not supposed to grant the second timeout, but if an official mistakenly grants the second timeout, the team is penalized 5 yards.
"I screwed up," Zimmer said. "I forgot that I called one. I knew the play that they were running, it was really the same play they hit down the middle against us for a long touchdown. And somebody said, 'Call timeout,' and I did. The official wasn't supposed to grant it. Anyway, it's not his fault. We ended up getting a 5-yard penalty."
The penalty made it third-and-11 instead of third-and-16. After an underneath throw from Rush, Ezekiel Elliott broke tackles from Anthony Barr and Woods on his way to a 15-yard gain. Rush hit Cooper for the game-winning score on the next play with 51 seconds left and the Cowboys had won their sixth game in a row.
With the Vikings out of timeouts after they got the ball back, they could get no closer than their own 42 before Cousins threw incomplete with Randy Gregory bearing down on him to end the game.
The Vikings are only a half-game behind the Panthers for the NFC's final playoff spot, but they'll face back-to-back road games against the Ravens and Chargers. Without a victory in their toughest road swing of the season, they could be fighting for their playoff lives by the time they return home to face the 7-1 Packers on Nov. 21.
"I would say, if you're not frustrated, there's something wrong with you and you shouldn't be on this team," Thielen said. "You shouldn't be a coach if you're not frustrated. ... We've got to find a way."