With both teams coming off a bye, it’s a big one for them.
After a bye week when the Dallas Cowboys extended their lead in the NFC East just by sitting on the couch at home, it is time to get to work against the Minnesota Vikings. Just on records alone it would appear the Cowboys have the advantage. They are sitting at 5-1 thanks to the five-game winning streak after dropping the close season opener. The Vikings are at 3-3 and hoping to move back into the plus side of things. One thing that may lead to some concerns for Dallas fans is that they have only beaten one team, the Los Angeles Chargers, that currently have a winning record. However, the Vikings have the same issue, but even more pronounced, as all of their wins to date have come against teams under .500 while all three of their losses are to teams that are in the early playoff hunt.
W-L records are important, but there are a lot of other things that go into trying to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the teams. Here is a look at some of the main numbers the teams have posted so far.
What this shows is that the teams are in a way using the same formula for success. High powered offenses (at least in total yards) with middle of the pack defenses. It obviously has worked somewhat better for the Cowboys, but the similarity is clear. It does mean that the teams can use themselves as models for what they face this week, at least to an extent.
Breaking things down a bit more, the teams are neck and neck in passing yards, with Dallas fifth best in the league and Minnesota right behind them at sixth. Running the ball is where the Cowboys have a clear edge to date. They are second in the league with 164.3 yards per game on the ground. The Vikes are no slouches, but still sit back a bit at eighth, averaging 127.8. Their main weapon in the run game is Dalvin Cook. He is one spot ahead of Tony Pollard, and well behind Ezekiel Elliott. They also have a decent second option in Alexander Mattison, who is a respectable 33rd on the yards per game list.
This could be a crucial part of the equation for the game. In the past few seasons, we have seen teams gash the Cowboys badly on the ground, often unexpectedly. There is no reason for Dallas to be unprepared for an above average one-two punch this week. It is going to be a good test to see if Dan Quinn has really improved the run defense.
We discussed a lot of these and some broader topics on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe right here and Spotify users can subscribe right here.
As always, the quarterback matchup is crucial. Both Dak Prescott and Kirk Cousins have very similar yards per game (302.2 vs 294.8 respectively), but Cousins takes more passes to get his numbers. He averages a full yard less per completion, which indicates he is working the short and medium game more than Prescott. Crucially, he has only thrown two interceptions in six games. (Prescott has four.) Given how big interceptions have been for Dallas, this could well be a game where the difficulty in sustaining that could rear its head. Trevon Diggs will have to work hard if he is to maintain his streak to start the season. Like the Cowboys, the Vikings have a strong receiving corps in WRs Justin Jefferson, Adam Theilen, K.J. Osborn, and TE Tyler Conklin. Cook and Mattison are also involved. The coverage skills of Dallas are going to get tested, just as their group will stress the Minnesota pass defense, especially with the anticipated return of Michael Gallup.
Volume stats are one thing, and not always the most accurate way to compare teams. They do not take into account things like the late scores the Cowboys have yielded in the three games they largely dominated from start to finish. The defense played softer late as they just had to run out the clock while never really being threatened. One thing that tries to take game situation into account is the DVOA rating from Football Outsiders. (For an explanation of how it is derived, see the link and click on the explanation for the table at the top.) Here is the picture it paints of the two teams. Positive is good for overall and offense, while negative numbers represent defensive success.
This points out one difference in the two teams. Dallas relies on the offense to provide the most impact, with the defense more middle of the pack (although this shows that the D is doing better than the raw numbers indicate), while Minnesota leans on the defense to elevate the overall performance of the team with a less potent offense. That may be crucial, since defense is much less reliable game-to-game than offense. Further, the performance of the defense is largely driven by the quality of the offense it faces. This could be a big advantage for the Cowboys. They have a consistently high-performing offense to challenge the Vikings, while facing a capable, but not top tier, offense. If DVOA is a good tool for predicting things, Dallas should be able to get the win. And both teams are quite consistent in how they have performed in DVOA.
Football Outsiders also has a metric to evaluate individual performances called DYAR. (Again, the site has explanations for how it is calculated.) It shows that Prescott and Cousins are close in value to their team, with Prescott third in the league and Cousins sixth. But once again, the running game is where the Cowboys should be have a real edge. Elliott is fifth and Pollard is sixth in the league, by far the most potent one-two punch of any team. Cook is way down at 24th and Mattison sits 34th. Their is a similar advantage with the receivers. CeeDee Lamb ranks ninth and Amari Cooper is 13th. Jefferson comes in at 15th while Theilen is down at 30th. It may surprise you to know that the biggest advantage for the Cowboys is at tight end. Dalton Schultz is the second best overall in the league, only behind Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs. Conklin is 22nd.
On paper at least, Dallas should win this game, but we have seen that go awry before. So far, they have avoided the big letdown this year. They need to keep that trend going. If they do, this looks more and more like a different team than in the past. In a very good way.