EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings have displayed a boost of confidence and energy during their three-game win streak, but plenty of work remains.
Minnesota has rattled off three straight victories to move to 4-5 on the season and now faces a stretch of three consecutive home games that begins Sunday against Dallas. Kickoff is at 3:25 p.m. (CT) from U.S. Bank Stadium.
If the Vikings can get to .500 this weekend, they would also pull closer to a potential spot. The Cardinals, who lost Thursday night, are 6-4. Minnesota also already has a win over 5-5 Chicago, which is on a bye in Week 11.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph and quarterback Kirk Cousins know this is the time to keep the pedal to the metal.
"I've said it before here, but each week that you win, the next week becomes that much more important," Rudolph said. "We've fought like crazy the last three weeks to put ourselves back into a situation to be in this thing.
"It does us no good if we don't come home and take care of business this week to get to 5-5," Rudolph added.
Said Cousins: "While it's great to win three in a row, we're 4-5. You know, we're not 7-2 and we're not leading our division. I don't feel a sense that our season has turned around. I feel we've done some good things the last few weeks, but we have a lot of work up ahead to get to where we really want to go."
The Cowboys also have plenty to play for despite being 2-7. Dallas resides in the NFC East, where Philadelphia leads the division with a 3-5-1 mark.
Here are three areas to watch in Sunday's contest, as compiled by Eric Smith and Craig Peters of Vikings.com:
A pair of rookie stars | By @Eric_L_Smith
There were a whopping six wide receivers taken in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and arguably the top two standouts thus far will be on display Sunday.
Justin Jefferson — the 22nd overall pick — is not only one of the top rookie wide receivers in the league, but is also one of the league's best overall first-year players. CeeDee Lamb, whom Dallas selected at the 17th spot, has also proven to be a star.
Through nine games, both players have three scores. Jefferson leads all rookies with 762 receiving yards (on 42 catches), while Lamb has a rookie-best 44 receptions for 595 yards.
Jefferson said this week while he doesn't know Lamb well, he did notice his big plays at Oklahoma.
"We never really talked that much or anything, but I definitely watched him and saw his play in college," Jefferson said. "He's definitely a tremendous receiver, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the defense has for him this week."
Added Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer: "He's a long, wiry guy that catches the ball well and has great speed. Runs a lot of routes, especially out of the slot. They isolate him quite a bit on the nickel backs and linebackers. Does a really good job, he's a good football player."
Jefferson is having perhaps the best rookie season for a wide receiver since Randy Moss in 1998, when the Hall of Famer had 69 catches for 1,313 yards and a rookie-record 17 scores.
Jefferson may not get to the touchdown mark, but he's on pace to pass Moss in the other two categories.
"It's a dream come true to be performing on this level in the NFL and just being in this place and being blessed with the things that I've been doing so far," Jefferson said this week. "It's definitely all good and all, but we're just focused on winning out this season and getting a chance to win the Super Bowl."
View photos of the Vikings preparing to take on the Cowboys during practice at TCO Performance Center.
Improve the 3rd phase | By @Eric_L_Smith
All eyes will be on the Vikings special teams Sunday after back-to-back dismal performances.
In Week 9 against the Lions, the Vikings had a pair of punts blocked. And in Week 10, the outcome was even worse with a kickoff return allowed for a score, a botched PAT snap, a near-muffed punt and poor punt coverage, even if Minnesota did recover a the ball after the Bears muffed a punt.
The Vikings have managed to secure wins despite the miscues on special teams, but Zimmer doesn't want to tempt fate with a third straight poor performance in that phase.
"We've got to play a lot better on special teams than we have recently," Zimmer said. "I think they've had a good week.
"They've worked real hard, and we've grinded them really hard this week," Zimmer added. "I'm anticipating it's going to show up."
Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Marwan Maalouf also expressed optimism at how the young players on his units have responded this week in practice.
"We've got to improve what we put out on film last week, obviously," Maalouf said. "But I'm happy with our effort and what our young guys are doing,
"[We're] giving them more reps in practice and just keeping them involved and making sure that they understand our fundamentals and what we expect out of them," Maalouf added.
The Vikings currently rank last in the NFL in punt return average (1.7 yards per return) and net punt average (33.8 yards) and are 23rd in allowed kickoff return average (24.6).
Emphasis on containing Elliott | By @pcraigers
The Cowboys are depleted on the offensive line and are missing starting quarterback Dak Prescott, but Dallas still has running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Since entering the NFL as the fourth overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, Elliott has been one of the toughest running backs to tackle. Elliott has been credited with 89 broken tackles, according to Sportradar, which ranks sixth in the NFL.
That elusiveness has helped Elliott total 5,977 rushing yards, which leads the NFL since 2016 by more than 1,000 yards (Todd Gurley II is next at 4,882). Elliott's total includes 3,202 yards before contact and 2,775 after contact.
Elliott led the NFL in each of his first three seasons in rushing yards per game with 108.7 as a rookie, 98.3 in 2017 and 95.6 in 2018. Playing this season without some of his past running mates on the Dallas offensive line, Elliott is averaging 63.6 yards per game in 2020.
According to Sportradar, Elliott has totaled 161 rushes that have gained 10 or more yards during his NFL career. That number is 34 more than Gurley's 127, which rank second since 2016. The 161 also includes 35 runs of 20 or more yards, which also leads the NFL in that span.
Elliott has been limited to 13 runs of 10-plus yards and just one of 20-plus this season, but the Vikings still believe he poses a tremendous threat.
"He's explosive. He's powerful. He's got great vision. And he runs with a low pad level," Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson said Thursday. "He has the ability to run through the first tackle, and that's what makes him so dangerous. He loves to stretch the ball and then put his foot in the ground and then cut back downhill full-speed. I think that's what makes him a special running back."
Notable Number: Three
The Vikings are riding a three-game win streak, which is the eighth time in Zimmer's tenure they have put together such a stretch.
Here's a look at the previous seven times it occurred:
2015: 5-game streak and 3-game streak (made playoffs)
2016: 5-game streak (missed playoffs)
2017: 8-game streak and 3-game streak (made playoffs)
2018: 3-game streak (missed playoffs)
2019: 4-game streak (made playoffs)
Zimmer is 61-43-1 in six-plus seasons with the Vikings. He began his NFL coaching career with the Cowboys as an assistant defensive backs coach in 1994.
He was promoted to defensive backs coach in 1995, and helped Dallas to a win in Super Bowl XXX over Pittsburgh that season.