FanHouse Preview: Cowboys at Vikings
Is it better to have momentum in the playoffs or is it better to be well-rested and playing at home? We may never settle that debate, but Sunday's game between the Cowboys and Vikings will provide evidence in one direction or the other. The Cowboys are the hot team in the NFC by virtue of their four straight wins and consecutive dismantlings of the Eagles. The Vikings enter this game after struggling down the stretch until the final six quarters of the season renewed hope.
Were those quarters a sign of a team coming back together or was it just luck that they drew the hapless Bears and Giants in their final two contests? A little bit of each. There's no denying the offensive prowess the Vikings possess and no one should feel comfortable taking on a defense that has Jared Allen coming off the corner. The issue for them will be whether or not they can just flip the switch and go back to being the team they were early this season.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, are all systems go right now, from Tony Romo to Felix Jones to DeMarcus Ware. Even Roy Williams did some positive things last weekend. There's no more waiting for the other shoe to drop and no more reason to believe that Dallas is just going to beat themselves the way they did in past seasons.
Three Key Questions
1. Can Brad Childress come up with a plan that wins him his first career playoff game?
2. Will Cowboys kicker David Buehler, the NFL leader in touchbacks, give Percy Harvin a chance to make a big play in the return game?
3. Is Vikings linebacker Jasper Brinkley, the replacement for injured starter E.J. Henderson, up to the task of covering Jason Witten?
Player in the Spotlight: Bryant McKinnie and, to a lesser extent, Phil Loadholt will have a lot to say about who wins this game. Ware and Anthony Spencer are making life absolutely miserable for opposing quarterbacks right now and the Vikings tackles need to make sure Brett Favre has enough time to make plays on Sunday. McKinnie is the particular concern because of the way he was abused by Julius Peppers in Week 15. He was benched that night and if that happens again (or if they have to keep the talented Visanthe Shiancoe in to block) there isn't much chance the Vikings are ending up on top.
Dallas' Path to Victory: Keeping things balanced on offense is job one for the Cowboys. They can neutralize Allen to a large extent by running at him with Jones, Tashard Choice and, assuming he's healthy, Marion Barber. The balance will slow down the pass rush, give Romo time to scan the field and do damage with whichever target is open. It might not lead to the offensive explosions of the last two weeks, but the Cowboys are so deep on offense that high-percentage, low-risk plays should be there most of the day. The same holds for defense. The Cowboys don't need to get exotic; they just need to fill their gaps, execute their assignments and make the Vikings beat them.
Minnesota's Path to Victory: On offense, the Vikings should try to use Ware and Spencer to their advantage. It's tempting to go for the big play down the field to Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian or Harvin, but it would make more sense to drop screens and run draws with Adrian Peterson in order to make the pass rush slow down. Accomplishing that would make life easier for Favre to get the ball to the game-breakers as the game progresses. There are plays to be made against the Cowboys secondary, you just need to remain upright long enough to make them.
Prediction: We haven't discussed the Metrodome yet, something that needs to be entered into the equation before coming up with a final prediction. The crowd is going to do a lot to make sure that the Vikings don't show up with any rust from their two weeks off waiting for this game to start. That should take a blowout off the table, but it doesn't seem like the 'Boys are going to be thrown much by playing in front of a hostile crowd after their trip to New Orleans. In the end, the shaky play of the Vikings' offensive line and depth of the Cowboys are going to tip the scales in the favor of the visitors. Cowboys 28, Vikings 24.