The Dallas Cowboys are one of just a few teams with nothing to play for in week 17, their potential Wild Card opponents not in the same situation. Come Wild Card weekend, either the Seattle Seahawks or Minnesota Vikings will be at AT&T Stadium to face the NFC East champion Cowboys. After covering what a rematch between the Cowboys and Seahawks could look like, it’s time to consider the Cowboys match up with a Vikings team fighting for their life on Sunday.
Hosting the winners of the NFC North, the Vikings will need to beat the Bears to play their own way into the postseason. Should the third-seeded Bears pick up their 12th win of the year, the Vikings will need the Eagles to lose (or tie) at the Redskins.
A game away from the Super Bowl a year ago, this season has hardly gone as planned for the Vikings in year one with Kirk Cousins at QB. Yet again, not much has in a crazy division won by the Bears, hardly contested by the Packers and Lions, and on the verge of sending a dangerous Vikings team to the playoffs for the third time in four years.
Minnesota does not feature the same world-beating defense it bolstered a year ago, carrying a Case Keenum quarterbacked offense to the NFC Championship Game. Eleventh in rush yards allowed per game but third in pass yards, the Vikings have not sustained the dominant pass rush that made them a force last season.
Danielle Hunter has turned a seven sack 2017 into a team high 14.5 through 15 games this year, but Everson Griffin has just 5.5 after 13 last year. Where the Vikings have seen progress on defense is in the secondary, with Mack Alexander, Trae Ways, Xavier Rhodes, and Harrison Smith forming a tight back seven.
Cousins has not provided the boost at QB the Vikings were hoping could put them over the edge even with a regression on defense, failing to make the difference in losses to the Bills, Bears, and Seahawks. The Vikings have not beaten any team currently in the playoffs and are 3-4-1 on the road.
The Cowboys have hinted at using their remaining game at the Giants as a tune-up for the playoffs by playing “healthy” starters, certainly in need of improvements on offense. They should feel good about returning home for a first round match up with the Vikings, and their own ability to win a defensive game regardless of how they handle week 17.
Winning their last four games against Cousins when he started for the Redskins, the Cowboys should be more concerned with a Vikings running game that’s found its legs recently. Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray put the Vikings over 100 yards rushing last week against the Lions for the second consecutive week, the first time that’s happened all season. The Vikings are 5-0 when rushing for at least 100 yards with an average margin of victory of 15 points.
Shutout loss at the Colts aside, the Cowboys have not yielded 100 rushing yards since a week nine loss to the Titans. This game became the turning point of a season that went from 3-5 to division winners in Dallas.
At times through a five game win streak earlier in the season, the Cowboys looked just like the magical 2016 team that rattled off 13 wins on the way to the top seed in the NFC. Among the accomplishments of that season, despite a first round playoff exit, was a prime time Thursday win in Minnesota.
Holding off a late Vikings two point attempt to win 17-15, the Cowboys gained big game composure with a rookie Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott winning on the road. Practically seasoned veterans with new starters all around them now, the Cowboys line up favorably against a Vikings team that will need outside help claiming the #5 seed.
A Vikings playoff-clinching win paired with a Seahawks loss to the Cardinals would make them the #5 seed and send them to Dallas while Seattle becomes the #6 seed.
As mentioned, the Cowboys must find an extra gear on offense if they have any hope of making a deep playoff run. Leaning on the best defense they’ve fielded in years hasn’t failed them much this season though, and that’s exactly how their postseason could begin with a tough game against the Vikings in the Wild Card round.
New faces like Leighton Vander Esch can be eager to face off against Cousins, while the Cowboys familiarity with him on defense is left to DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, Byron Jones, and at least four other starters from the last time the now-Vikings starter lost to the Cowboys.
The Vikings, Eagles, and Seahawks all play late games after the Cowboys noon kickoff at the Giants on Sunday, meaning they’ll be in full recovery mode for the playoffs when their opponent is determined.