EAGAN, Minn. — Let the fun begin.
The Vikings are fresh off a bye week and ready for a prime-time showdown against the Cowboys. Kickoff is at 7:20 p.m. (CT) in front of a national TV audience on Sunday Night Football.
And while Minnesota has endured some ups and downs to get to a 3-3 record at this point, there is plenty that lies ahead in the coming months.
To start, Minnesota can make a statement by knocking off Dallas, which sits at 5-1 and is coming off a bye of its own. The Cowboys, who currently lead the NFC East, are sure to draw plenty of eyeballs to this game.
Minnesota can also start a daunting four-game stretch off on the right track, as Baltimore, the Los Angeles Chargers and Green Bay loom.
And even though we're only in Week 8, playoff implications are becoming more important by the week.
According to stats provided by NFL Media Research, teams that opened seasons between 1990-2020 at 4-3 made the playoffs 48.5 percent of the time. Teams with a 3-4 record in that span made the playoffs 17.9 percent of the time. (Those stats were 16-game schedules and 12-team playoff formats; the season has been expanded to 17 games this year, and there are now 14 playoff spots).
Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson summed up the vibe heading into Week 8.
"This is a big game for us. One, it's Sunday night," Jefferson said. "The world will be watching and we want to show the world that the Vikings are not the ones to be counted out.
"And plus, they're 5-1, so they're a great team, and we want to be on that plus side of our record," Jefferson added.
Put another way, this is what makes the NFL so exciting. The Vikings have a chance to prove something — both to themselves and the rest of the league — with a win over the Cowboys.
If fans didn't have enough of a reason to get fired up for this one, Vikings Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson gave everyone some juice.
"It's going to be a fight. That's why they should watch it," Patterson said. "It's two good teams playing, right? And it's going to be a fight. That's why they should watch the game.
"It's two good teams that are going to give it everything they've got to try to win that game," Patterson added. "It's going to be entertaining, two good teams fighting, and that's why they should watch the game."
Here is what Eric Smith, Lindsey Young and Craig Peters of Vikings.com will be watching in Week 8:
Win on 1st down | By @Eric\_L\_Smith
Death, taxes and a Mike Zimmer's defense being great on third downs. Entering Week 8, the Vikings once again lead the league in third-down defense at 29.17 percent.
But the down to watch Sunday night is the first one, meaning first-and-10, and especially when the Vikings defense is up against the Cowboys offense.
Because not only does Dallas have the league's No. 1 offense in points and yards per game, the Cowboys are also head and shoulders above every else in terms of success on first downs.
Dallas has run 170 plays on first-and-10 that have totaled 1,215 yards, a whopping average of 7.15 yards per play. No other team in the league is above 7.0 yards per play on first-and-10.
Zimmer stressed the importance of his defense finding ways to succeed early on a drive against Dallas.
"Yeah, it's very crucial. They're very explosive and the offensive line does a great job in the run blocking," Zimmer said. "They've got a number of different plays they run where they'll take some shots on first down. They'll get in the shotgun. They'll try to get the ball to CeeDee Lamb a little bit. He's really good with the ball in his hands.
"[Amari] Cooper is in there. They've hit some boots to [tight end Dalton] Schultz," Zimmer added. "It's a combination of all those things that makes them difficult. Typically, when you get some big plays on first down, that really increases your average."
Patterson said: "We want to try to get them in second-and-7 [or longer]. That's what we're always trying to do. It's important that we get some of those in this game. When you play a team like this, they're going to make some plays. That's what's gonna happen, they're gonna make some plays. The key is to not let those plays be explosive plays that … become touchdowns. When they do have success, you want to make them be long drives."
The Cowboys have been balanced in their success on first-and-10. Dallas has 95 run plays for 558 yards, plus 71 pass plays for 641 yards. For context, Houston has 552 total yards on 142 first-and-10 plays, while Pittsburgh has 585 total yards on 146 such plays.
The Vikings, meanwhile, rank 17th overall with 5.84 yards per play in this specific stat. Minnesota has gained 1,005 yards on 172 plays on first-and-10.
The Vikings have been balanced, too, with 87 run plays for 412 yards, and 85 pass plays for 593 yards.
Yet with a juggernaut of an offense on the opposing sideline, Vikings Offensive Coordinator Klint Kubiak knows his unit will need to be strong on first-and-10.
"We're below average, so we can be better," Kubiak said of the Vikings success on first-and-10. "Dallas is the best first-down team in the NFL. So finding more yards per carry and yards per catch on first down is a challenge we can be better at."
If the Vikings can find success on first-and-10 — both on offense and defense — that could go a long way in helping Minnesota get above .500 for the first time this season.
View photos of Vikings players from practice on Oct. 28 at the TCO Performance Center.
Corralling Cowboys run game is key | By @LindseyMNSports
As Eric mentioned above, stopping the Cowboys from big first-down gains will be important Sunday. But the Cowboys run offense in general is something to be wary of, first down and beyond. Dallas is averaging 163.4 rushing yards per game, good enough for second-best in the NFL behind Cleveland's 170.4.
The Vikings defense currently ranks 26th in the league against the run, having allowed opponents to average 128.0 rushing yards per game.
Through six games, Cowboys running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard have combined for 887 yards and six scores on the ground. Vikings Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson emphasized the importance of being stout against the run Sunday night.
"They have two really good backs, and their offensive line does a really good job blocking in the run game, so if we let them be a two-headed monster, it's gonna be a long day for us," Patterson said. "We have to do a great job of stopping the run and limiting big runs and put them in passing downs.
"I know that sounds kind of weird when you've got who they have playing quarterback (Dak Prescott), but you have to do that," Patterson added. "Because if we don't, and they can run it whenever they want to and throw it whenever they want to, then that's gonna be a long night for us."
Which QBs will duel | By @pcraigers
Speaking of Prescott, all eyes have been on his status on on the injury report. In Week 6, Prescott daggered the Patriots in overtime with a fade-away, 35-yard touchdown pass to Lamb but injured his calf on the play.
He was limited all week and officially listed as questionable on Friday's final injury report.
Entering Week 8, Prescott ranked fourth in the NFL with a passer rating of 115.0. That's due largely to his completion rate of 73.1 percent and 16 touchdowns.
Prescott also has 39 games with a passer rating of 100-plus in 75 career starts. He ranks third all-time behind Aaron Rodgers (43) and Tony Romo (41) in a player's first 75 starts.
If Prescott is a no-go, the Cowboys are likely to turn to Cooper Rush, who has played three snaps this season and hasn't attempted a pass since 2017 as an undrafted rookie. Rush, the former college teammate of Vikings tight end Tyler Conklin, went 1-for-3 for two yards and a passer rating of 42.4 that season.
While that would be a limited amount of information, Zimmer said the Vikings do have game tape and evaluations of Rush when he was a prospect. Zimmer said Minnesota tries to prepare for all scenarios every week, even when a starting QB hasn't been on the injury report.
"We prepare for all their players, and if somebody gets hurt, it obviously changes," Zimmer said. "Even during the course of the game it changes if this guy gets hurt or that guy gets hurt … 'What are you going to do now?' It happens."
Vikings QB Kirk Cousins is trying to continue his torrid pace that he began blazing after Minnesota's Week 7 bye in 2020.
In the 16 games since, Cousins has completed 402 of 580 passes (69.3 percent) for 4,559 yards with 37 touchdowns against only five interceptions for a passer rating of 110.3.
Cousins also has played well against Dallas the past two seasons, completing 45 of 62 passes (72.6 percent) for 534 yards and five touchdowns, good for a passer rating of 125.3 against the Cowboys.
Dallas has a new defensive coordinator in Dan Quinn, who rose the ranks as Seattle's defensive coordinator on the way to becoming head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
"He was in Seattle for a long time, so it's the Seattle Cover-3, four down, a lot of times they have the fifth guy on the line of scrimmage [on the weakside]," Cousins said. "In Atlanta it was a lot of the similar stuff, fast linebackers, a lot of three-deep Seattle-zone we call it. It might be a little bit more match and carry now than what they were before, but same thing. It starts with the front, and the two end guys can really rush."
Notable Number: 9
The Vikings offensive line has allowed just nine sacks so far this season, which is tied for the fewest allowed through six games in team history.
Minnesota has allowed Kirk Cousins to be sacked on just 3.6 percent of his dropbacks, which is the lowest percentage in team history through six games of a season.
The Cowboys have recorded 11.0 total sacks this season, which is tied for the third-fewest across the league.