The Minnesota Vikings opened "Sunday Night Football" with a beautifully scripted, seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive and took a 7-0 lead on the Dallas Cowboys.

With the Cowboys having ruled out star quarterback Dak Prescott because of a lingering calf injury, the Vikings were given the gift of facing a quarterback, Cooper Rush, who had completed one NFL pass, and none since 2017.

The Vikings were playing at home, in front of a remarkably loud crowd, and they had their best skill position players healthy.

After their opening drive, they managed nine points against a statistically poor defense, and the Vikings' once-proud defense allowed Rush to beat them for a 73-yard touchdown pass and for the game-winning, last-minute touchdown, which came after three missed tackles allowed the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott to convert a third-and-11.

The Vikings squandered a chance to score at the end of the first half and looked discombobulated on their last-chance drive, which ended with Kirk Cousins throwing a pass to nowhere.

The final: The Cooper Rush Cowboys 20, Vikings 16.

This is the kind of game that unravels a season, that destroys confidence, that leads to firings and organizational overhauls.

The Vikings are 3-4 and have not beaten a good team. This week they travel to Baltimore to face a better coach, Baltimore's John Harbaugh, and a better quarterback, former league MVP Lamar Jackson.

This game wasn't a must-win mathematically, but it became a must-win game emotionally when Prescott jogged off the field during pregame warmups.

There would have been no shame in losing to Prescott. Dak and his talented receivers would have been a difficult matchup for a Vikings secondary missing top cornerback Patrick Peterson.

The Vikings' defense should have been good enough to limit Rush, but he lit them up in the second half and especially on the game-winning drive, when all eight plays were Rush completions.

The Vikings' offense should have been good enough to make Rush's performance irrelevant. If they had scored 24 points, they would have won the game.

Cousins' statistics were, as usual, fine, but watching plays unfold live you could see that frequently he chose the safest option instead of looking downfield where receivers were running open. His caution kept the Cowboys in the game.

Adam Thielen scored on the first drive and finished with a strong line — six catches for 78 yards — but sounded angry after the game. Asked about the play-calling and game-planning, he said, "That's not my job but as competitors, yeah, we want the ball, we want opportunities, we feel like we have guys who can go up and make plays. We didn't do those things tonight …

"I'll say this — it's how we all feel. We've got to quit just hanging in games. Every game we just hang around, hang around, just let the other team hang around instead of putting our foot on the gas and going ...

"I would say if you're not frustrated, there's something wrong with you and you should not be on this team."

This is the second consecutive home loss after which Thielen sounded like he wanted to follow Stefon Diggs out of Minnesota.

Coach Mike Zimmer excused Cousins' check-down passes, saying he was under pressure, but that wasn't uniformly true.

As for the Vikings' myriad mistakes, Zimmer said, "Those are the kinds of things that get you beat. We'll continue trying to get better in those situations."

It's too late to sell the still-improving angle. This is Zimmer's eighth year and he has hand-picked his assistant coaches. Since the Vikings beat New Orleans in the playoffs, they are 10-14.

"We're just not as consistent overall as a football team as we need to be," Zimmer said.

There is consistency, and Thielen cited it. For two seasons the Vikings have stumbled against bad or battered teams.

In consecutive seasons, the Cowboys have come to Minnesota and won with a backup quarterback. Last year it was Andy Dalton. This year it was someone wearing what looked like a discount Andy Dalton fake beard.