ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Minnesota Vikings just proved something that will be critical to whatever hopes they have of contending for a championship this season. Despite all the firepower they've amassed in their passing game, this team is at its best when it is pounding the football on the ground. The Dallas Cowboys learned that much in the Vikes' 28-24 win on Sunday night. All Minnesota has to do is not lose sight of how essential this identity can be in the long run.
The Vikings lost a game in Kansas City a week ago because they decided to show the world how much quarterback Kirk Cousins can do in this offense. They beat the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium because they remembered the importance of getting back to basics. Minnesota relied on the tandem of Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison to do most of the heavy lifting for an offense that gained 153 rushing yards on 36 carries. Cousins then did his part by providing efficient and timely playmaking.
"That's what it looks like right there," said Cook, who finished with 97 rushing yards, 86 receiving yards and one touchdown on the ground. "That's the blueprint: Physical football, downhill (and) let's get the job done. We've got some guys up front that can move some people. That's the moving crew right there. Once they are going, they're going. You can sense the look in their eyes when they're ready to get the job done. I could see that look in their eyes tonight."
This probably isn't the offense the Vikings envisioned when they signed Cousins to a fully guaranteed $84 million deal in 2018 and added him to a passing attack that featured two dynamic receivers in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. However, it is the type of offense that makes the most sense for them this year. Minnesota came into this contest with a running game that ranked third in the NFL (with an average of 153 yards per game). Cook was leading the NFL in rushing while also establishing himself as one of the best all-around backs in football.
There's no question the Vikings had some disturbing moments earlier this season, back when Cousins was struggling and Diggs was pouting about the offense's lack of punch. Minnesota then found a nice groove in their passing attack -- with Cousins going on a four-game stretch that saw him throw 10 touchdowns passes and one interception while averaging 315.5 passing yards -- and it felt like the Vikings were hitting their stride. The reality is that everything the Vikes do well revolves around what happens in their run game.
"It just breaks your will," said Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. "That's the one thing about football -- it's a tough sport and if you allow people to run the football against you, then it really deflates you."
"I haven't played with a team in the NFL that does this," said Cousins, who finished with 220 yards and two touchdowns on 23-of-32 passing. "I've never been able to run the ball that well or been a part of running it that well. It's new to me. But when you get people on their heels -- where they're a little bit tired or worn down -- you can keep going and keep plugging."
What's apparent about Minnesota's run game is how much easier it makes life for Cousins. For all the success he enjoyed earlier this season, the Vikings quarterback still can make mystifying decisions and suffer through stretches of confounding performances. Such was the case in the Vikings' 26-23 loss to Kansas City. Cousins sailed passes over wide-open receivers on a handful of attempts in that game and completed just 50 percent of his throws (although he did throw for three touchdowns).
There's no question Minnesota's passing attack has been affected by a hamstring injury that has plagued Thielen over the past month. The Vikings aren't deep at wide receiver and they have to rely on less-proven targets to create plays through the air. That means the running game is even more crucial to what this team wants to do offensively right now. As Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph said, "We know we run the football. And this team is going to win football games by running the football."
The Vikings knew they weren't going to beat the Cowboys on the road by relying heavily on Cousins dropping back time and again. The Dallas pass rush is too strong and the potential for disaster was too high. So Minnesota used the run and a nice mix of screens and short passes to find a rhythm. That approach worked so well that the Vikings held a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, thanks to two 1-yard touchdown passes from Cousins to Rudolph.
The Cowboys fought their way back into the contest -- and even took a 21-20 lead on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Dak Prescott to Amari Cooper -- but the Vikings always found a way to maintain control of the action. Dallas had one opportunity to take the lead late in the fourth quarter, but middle linebacker Eric Kendricks thwarted that effort by knocking down a Prescott pass intended for running back Ezekiel Elliott on a fourth-and-5 play from Minnesota's 14-yard line. Prescott had a final shot at winning the game in the final seconds. That chance ended with Vikings safety Jayron Kearse intercepting Prescott's Hail Mary pass as time expired.
Following the game, Cousins acknowledged that this victory -- which improved the Vikings to 7-3 -- was as important as any this team has had all season. "This was a big win," Cousins said. "I'd like to think it will help spur us on to the next one, but it really doesn't work that way. You have to take them each in their own isolated challenge. But this was a big win on the road, to beat a good football team, especially after last week's tough loss. It showed a lot of character, but we have to keep playing well and turn it into something as we go."
The Vikings now find themselves in a pretty advantageous situation. Four of their final six games are at home and they have another game against each NFC North team. For a team that is just one game behind the Green Bay Packers in the race for the division crown, that's a promising situation. The Vikings will have every opportunity to achieve all the goals they've set for themselves.
The key is that they keep sticking with the same physical approach that has been so beneficial thus far. It's not the coolest style of football in today's wide-open NFL, and the Vikings clearly have several options with the pass, but this is a team that has plenty of elements that can produce postseason success. All the Vikes have to do is keep remembering exactly who they are.