It is crunch time in the NFL and the Vikings will get an up-close look at the best the League has to offer when they play host to the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night. Dallas enters with a League-best record of 10-1, while the Vikings return home looking to return to their winning ways after falling to Detroit last week.
Here are five storylines to watch in the buildup to the Vikings-Cowboys matchup on Thursday…
1. Vikings defense looks to rein in a couple rookies
There is plenty of substance to go with the Dallas Cowboys style in 2016, particularly on offense. The Cowboys enter Week 13 ranked fifth in total offense (407.6 yards per game) and third in scoring offense (28.7 points per game), plus they do an exceptional job of taking care of the football with only seven giveaways this season (second fewest in the NFL). Even more incredibly, they're doing it with a pair of rookies making most of the highlights. Do-everything RB Ezekiel Elliott, taken fourth overall in this year's draft, has taken the League by storm. Elliott leads the NFL in rushing attempts (243), rushing yards (1,199) and rushes of 20+ yards (10), and he's second in rushing touchdowns (11). In tandem with Elliott is QB Dak Prescott, who is part highlight machine and part caretaker of the football. Prescott has a flashy 18-2 touchdown-interception ratio and 8.34 yards per attempt average (third in the NFL), he's a 67.9% passer and he's authored a passer rating of 108.6 (fourth in the NFL) in his first 11 career starts. The Vikings defense has been up to every challenge so far in 2016, but Thursday's may be the greatest of the season.
2. Playoff picture comes into focus
Entering Week 13, the Vikings are on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs. The Vikings opponent, however, is the focus of the playoff picture. At 10-1, Dallas is riding high as the NFC's top seed and boasting the best record in all of the NFL. The good news for the Vikings is they aren't far off track even after dropping five of their last six games. At 6-5, the Vikings have one fewer win than the NFC's No. 2-seeded Seahawks, and their one game back of NFC-North leading Detroit (Detroit owns the tie breaker, too). With five games to play, the playoff picture is far from developed. But it is beginning to come into focus.
3. Bradford wants offense to be more explosive
Sam Bradford has done a lot of things correctly in his short run as Vikings starting quarterback. But he wants to add another notch to the belt. He wants the offense to become more explosive. Speaking with reporters on Sunday, Bradford said "we've got to find a way to create more explosive plays" and added it can come from a variety of methods, from play action to deeper route concepts. One thing that can help Bradford and Co. accomplish this goal is the return of Stefon Diggs. He didn't play in last week's loss to Detroit, but there's reason to be optimistic he can return to the lineup for Thursday night's game against the Cowboys. It's not a certainty that Diggs will be back, though, so the injury report this week bears monitoring.
4. Texas-sized matchup: Vikings DL vs. Cowboys OL
You can file the matchup of the Cowboys offensive line versus the Vikings defensive line under the "something's gotta give" category. The defensive line has been a strength of the Vikings ever since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach, but they're playing particularly well this year having combined for 23.5 sacks, which is second most among defensive lines behind only Seattle's 24.5. Dallas' offensive line is the best in the NFL and it boasts the best lineman in the NFL (LT Tyron Smith), according to comments by Zimmer on his weekly radio show. Illustrating the impressive play by Dallas front five is the following: Only four teams have allowed fewer sacks than Dallas' 15; Dallas is No. 3 in yards per carry at 4.8; Dallas leads the NFL in 1st downs gained on the ground with 109; Dallas has converted four of their six 4th downs with rushes. It can be argued that this is the toughest matchup to date for both groups, which makes for some must-see TV on Thursday night.
View photos of Pro Bowl candidate Kyle Rudolph from the 2016 season so far, and make sure to visit vikings.com/probowl to vote.
5. Kyle Rudolph poised to make team history
Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph is poised to make team history. His next touchdown reception will be the 28th of his career and it will tie the Vikings all-time mark for touchdown receptions by a tight end, which was set by Steve Jordan. Two more touchdowns, and Rudolph will be the club's new record holder in that category. Dallas allowed two touchdowns to Redskins TE Jordan Reed last week, something you can be sure was noticed by Rudolph and Vikings Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur, who is also the Vikings TEs coach.