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Cowboys learn valuable lesson in narrow win over Vikings

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Dallas Cowboys got a critical glimpse of what's coming in the near future during their 17-15 win over Minnesota. This was a game that required Dallas to do things that haven't been a big part of its season thus far: playing through mistakes, surviving without contributions from key players, dealing with costly penalties in crucial situations. It's easy to think the Cowboys merely stole a victory when an upset seemed quite possible. It's more important to realize that these are the kinds of games they'll be playing in January, so it's best to get accustomed to them in December.

Simply put, this was a contest the Cowboys should've lost. The Vikings controlled the Dallas offense for most of the contest and Minnesota also won the turnover battle. The raucous crowd inside U.S. Bank Stadium also kept the pressure on Dallas throughout the entire game. For the first time in weeks, it felt as if the Cowboys didn't have immediate answers for the challenges they faced on nearly every series.

The most impressive part about Thursday night, however, is that Dallas didn't quiver in the face of such adversity. It simply waited for the right opportunities and then pounced on them to improve to 11-1.

"This was a tough night and I like to use the word 'fight' as much as 'resilience,' " Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "We just kept battling. We kept fighting. Individually, the units came back to overcome different things. We kept picking each other up. It's the foundation of what we try to do each and every day with the Cowboys and that (approach) was on display."

This isn't the first time the Cowboys have won a tight game. They beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in one of the most entertaining contests of the season -- a 35-30 win -- and they survived the Philadelphia Eagles at home when rookie quarterback Dak Prescott rallied his team to a 29-23 overtime victory after playing poorly for more than three quarters. So they've already shown they can handle the heat that swells in high-pressure situations. They also won those games largely because their stars found ways to dominate.

That was not the case against the Vikings. Prescott only threw for 139 yards and was sacked three times. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott gained 86 yards but 30 came on one carry. Wide receiver Dez Bryant produced 84 receiving yards -- including a 56-yard catch that set up his team's first touchdown -- but tight end Jason Witten didn't catch a pass. Dallas struggled on third downs (1 for 9), in the turnover battle (they lost 2-1) and with penalties (10 for 78 yards).

Like every team, the Cowboys were due to have a game like this. What they should take away from it is that teams that play deep into January learn how to win on their worst days. The Cowboys could've had a ready-made excuse for their sloppiness, that being they were playing their third game over a 12-day stretch. Instead, they simply went out and won, even with all the warts that came with their effort.

Garrett and his players continually referenced how much this team has prided itself on its intense focus, how it can lock in on each game and eliminate all distractions. This was the ultimate testament to that mindset. "It says a lot," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "It's not easy to (win) these kinds of games, especially against a veteran team on the road. This is a tough environment. You get a lot of confidence off that, when you know that you didn't give your best shot but you still found ways to fight."

Witten added that the Cowboys spent a lot of time this offseason talking about how critical it is to succeed in the fourth quarter of games. Dallas went 4-12 last year but as he said, "you don't think that 10 or 11 of those games (came down to) one possession." The difference in this game actually was three plays: Bryant breaking free for his 56-yard catch in the second quarter to set up Elliott's 1-yard touchdown run; a fumbled punt by Vikings returner Adam Thielen that led to an 8-yard touchdown pass from Prescott to Bryant in the fourth quarter; and a failed two-point conversion by Minnesota in the final seconds of the game after quarterback Sam Bradford hit running back Jerick McKinnon with a 3-yard scoring pass.

Keep in mind that Dallas seemed destined to dominate the game before it ever kicked off, largely because injuries have plagued Minnesota all season and Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wasn't even on the sideline after undergoing emergency eye surgery. Dallas learned quickly that other teams are going to fight at this time of year, too. The Vikings were once 5-0 and hailed as one of the most inspirational stories in the NFL, especially after losing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Adrian Peterson. Now they're like every other playoff hopeful in the NFL, praying they can stack enough wins to stay alive when postseason play begins.

The Cowboys don't have that problem, which is why Thursday's game was so important. Prescott and Elliott have shown tremendous maturity in their first seasons but they're also still young. They haven't experienced what it's like to play in the postseason, and they've actually spent most of the year being celebrated for their success. Such treatment can soften most players, leaving them ill-prepared for the realities that come with pursuing a championship.

In fact, some of the most critical plays that happened in the fourth quarter involved both those players. Prescott appeared to secure a crucial first down after scrambling away from the Vikings' pass rush but he slid too short of the down marker (the call was initially ruled a 10-yard gain but scaled back to eight upon replay review). He also fumbled the snap on the next play before Elliott scooped up the football and the Vikings tackled him for what turned out to be a loss of three more yards on third down. So instead of forcing Minnesota to burn its remaining timeouts, the Cowboys had to punt and pray that a beleaguered defense could hold its own.

You can bet that Dallas will find itself in similar situations in the playoffs. It's safe to say that because the Vikings just provided a reliable playbook on how to frustrate a team that hasn't lost since Week 1. As Elliott said, "We knew we had to limit our mistakes but we didn't do a good job at that. It's not the best game we've played all year but when it mattered we made the plays we needed to and got the win."

That is ultimately what matters in the end. Unlike college football, style points don't matter in the NFL and nobody is playing for a championship because their resume looks better than someone else's. The best NFL teams prosper largely because they learn how to not beat themselves. They also understand when it's time to make the plays that decide games.

The Dallas Cowboys did both those things in Minnesota on Thursday night. Older veterans like Witten were pleased to see the growth while younger players like Elliott clearly understood that life is getting much harder these days. It's been a great run in Dallas this year. The way they sustain that success is simple -- by learning from nights like the one they just survived on the road.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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