Without their franchise quarterback and running back, the Vikings opened up 5-0 and were on pace for a Cinderella season thanks to Sam Bradford and a stiff defensive front. But following their Week 6 bye and an ill-fated attempt at a motivational metaphor, the Vikings lost five of their next six games and now rest on the outside of the NFC playoff picture looking in. Blame it on a turnstile offensive line, or an anemic ground game, or the departure of veteran offensive coordinator Norv Turner: The Vikings are not who we thought they are.
In place of the Nords atop the conference is America's Team, reclaiming its throne as the NFL's gleaming star of a franchise. Led by a historically competent rookie duo in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas has rolled through nearly every team it has faced from the lowly Bears and 49ers to the playoff-pining Steelers and Ravens to their division rivals in Landover and Philadelphia. The Cowboys are unquestionably favorites to earn home-field advantage throughout the postseason and have an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot with a win Thursday night and some help on Sunday.
- When Elliott takes the field in front of the Minneapolis faithful, fans might suffer a brief case of deja vu. My stars, I've seen a rookie run like this before... Not since Vikings great Adrian Peterson has a first-year back broke out on the professional stage in such a dominant fashion. Elliott and Peterson's numbers from their rookie years are remarkably similar. Through 11 career games, Elliott boasts 1,199 rushing yards, while Peterson had 1,200; Elliott scored 12 total TDs, while Peterson tallied 12; and Elliott's 1,502 yards from scrimmage just barely outpace Peterson's 1,430. Like A.D., Elliott is a sure lock to win Offensive Rookie of the Year and might even contend for Most Valuable Player. Unfortunately, the great shame of this midweek matchup is that Peterson will not participate. Out since Week 2, the seven-time Pro Bowler was seen running off to the side of Vikings practice this week and is "ahead of schedule" to return, according to coach Mike Zimmer. But Peterson isn't expected back until mid-December, robbing this head-to-head battle much of its potential allure ...
- Which brings us to the reason why Minnesota's season and offense stalled so suddenly after its bye and has stuttered since: the running game and the offensive line. While Dallas' rookie back has 659 rushing yards * before contact* this season, the Vikings' primary backs in Peterson's absence (Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata) have combined for just 603 * total* rushing yards. Total! The Vikings are averaging 71.1 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry, both league worsts by far. (By contrast, Dallas is second in the NFL in both marks.) It's not all the tailbacks' fault, of course; Minnesota's offensive line is one of the shoddiest in all of football. Already without Matt Kalil and Andre Smith, the Vikings recently lost Jake Long, who was having a miserable go of it anyways, for the season with an Achilles tendon injury. The remaining hogs have failed to spur a consistent running game and, to add insult to injury, can't protect the passer for extended periods of time either.
- If Minnesota is to steal a win from Dallas, it will need to follow the big-play, boom-or-bust blueprint used by Pittsburgh and Washington, the only two teams that have given the Cowboys a run for their new money in the last four weeks. Dallas surrendered 400 and 449 yards to Ben Roethlisberger and Kirk Cousins, respectively, in part due to their lack of pass rush, giving both big arms time and space to let plays open up downfield. While the Vikings' dink-and-dunk offense hasn't taken off against inferior opponents -- like Detroit's mediocre secondary in Weeks 9 and 12 -- there is reason for optimism against Dallas.
Minnesota expects to see the return of Stefon Diggs from a knee injury. Diggs is responsible for Minnesota's top receiving outputs on the season, including a 13-catch, 164-yard outing against the 'Skins just three weeks ago. Against a non-existent Cowboys pass rush, Bradford could have success finding Diggs, tight end Kyle Rudolph and others downfield. On passes of 15-plus air yards, Bradford has completed 56 percent of attempts, posted a 134.2 passer rating and has not thrown a pick. The effect of this strategy could be multiplied if Morris Claiborne and Barry Church can't go again in Dallas' secondary because of lingering injuries.
- Everyone wants to draw parallels between Dallas' '90s triplets and the trio currently rocking the Star, with Prescott playing Troy Aikman and Elliott filling in well for Emmitt Smith. But when it comes to Dez Bryant in 2016 matching with NFL Network's own Michael Irvin, things don't add up, aside from their similar jersey numbers and temperaments. Dez isn't Dak's go-to man through the air. That honor belongs to Cole Beasley. While Dez sat out the early portion of Prescott's rookie season with injuries, Beasley stepped in as a reliable possession receiver and third-down option. Beasley is tied for the team lead with Dez with five TDs, and actually leads the team in receptions (58) and receiving yards (647). The slot man has seen at least six targets in each of his last six games and has already exceeded career highs in receptions and yards. Beasley remains the most underappreciated and consistent Cowboy on this offense -- only slightly more than Jason Witten and, on occasion, the entire offensive line.
- Thursday's test is a showdown between two successful ball control teams. Away from Texas, the Cowboys lead the league in time of possession (33:50), thanks to Elliott's grinding consistency. Meanwhile, Minnesota is third in the NFL in time of possession at home (33:04). The Vikings' inability to extend drives on short down-and-distances might keep them from controlling the pace of this week's showdown. But if Minnesota can establish possession and keep Dallas from playing its game and/or handing the ball off to Elliott 35 times, then we'll have a ball game in the fourth quarter.