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The Skinny Post: Vikings Begin Critical Playoff Push Against Dallas

EAGAN, Minn. — Get ready to see a lot of the Vikings in prime time.

Minnesota sits at 6-3 heading into Week 10, and begins in two-month playoff push with a game on Sunday Night Football at Dallas.

The Vikings are scheduled to play on national television four times in their final seven games, meaning the whole country will regularly have a chance to see Minnesota try to earn its way into the playoffs.

The first test awaits in the Lone Star State against the 5-3 Cowboys, who currently lead the NFC East.

With five on the Vikings final seven games against NFC teams — including three who would currently be in the playoff field — there will be plenty of time to prove they belong in the postseason conversation.

"I just think to get into the playoffs you're going to have to do that, right?" Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said of winning tough games. "You can't pick only certain teams that you're going to beat.

"If you're a playoff team or going to be a playoff team, you have to win tough games in tough environments at some point. Otherwise, you're probably not getting into the playoffs," Cousins added. "We see this week as a great opportunity to do that. You treat it like it is a one-game focus, and all of our energy is poured into this game and a really good opponent."

Sunday night's game will be special for Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, who began his NFL coaching career in Dallas and coached for 13 seasons with the Cowboys.

Zimmer surely wants to get a win against the team in a place he called home for so long. But he also wants his current team to get a win in order to better their chances for the 2019 postseason.

"It's an important game for us for sure," Zimmer said. "Being able to go on the road and beat a good team is important for us."

Here are three areas to watch in Sunday night's contest, plus some noteworthy stats on both teams:

An emphasis on 3rd downs | By @EricLSmith

The Cowboys offense leads the NFL with 436.8 total yards per game, and there's one stat helps explain why.

Dallas also ranks No. 1 in the NFL on third downs, as the Cowboys have converted on 46 of 92 tries for a whopping 50 percent success rate. Furthermore, the 92 third-down plays are tied for the third-fewest in the league.

Put another way, the Cowboys move the chains, especially when they get into manageable third-down situations. Minnesota's defense has allowed opponents to convert on 35.8 percent on third downs, good for 15th in the NFL.

"Offensively, [they] have a terrific offensive line, good running back," Zimmer said. "Quarterback is playing outstanding, good receivers. We'll have a good test for us."

The Vikings defense will have its hands full, trying to get the ball back to the offense, but Cousins and Co. will also have a stern challenge Sunday night on third down.

Dallas' defense ranks second in the NFL having limited opponents to a conversion rate of 27.1 percent on third downs.

"I think that the passion, swagger and intensity you see them play with has been pretty consistent with them for several years now," Cousins said.

When the Vikings offense does get to third down Sunday, it might be wise for them to get into convenient situations, as Dallas' defense is No. 1 in the league on third-and-7 or longer.

Minnesota's offense ranks 11th in the league with a conversion rate of 42.5 percent on third downs.

Zimmer said earlier this week he believes the Vikings will need to control the ball and the clock to win at AT&T Stadium.

There's no better way to do that than for the defense to get off the field on third downs, and then have the offense move the sticks when they have the chance.

A battle in the trenches | By @LindseyMNSports

The Vikings will need solid performances on all three phases against a talented Cowboys team Sunday night, but I'm keeping my eyes on one specific position battle.

I'm expecting a great matchup between Minnesota's defensive line and the Dallas offensive line, which has allowed just 10 sacks of Cowboys QB Dak Prescott this season. Across the line, Dallas has LT Tyron Smith, LG Connor Williams, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin and RT La'el Collins.

Worth noting is that Collins (knee), Smith (ankle) and Martin (back/ankle) were limited practice participants on Wednesday and Thursday. But Vikings defensive tackle Linval Joseph has been ruled out, and defensive end Stephen Weatherly is questionable.

"You look at them, both tackles are really good players," said Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards this week. "Then you look at Zack Martin inside, they're very good. They've played together for a long time. You can see the cohesiveness in the run blocking; you can see they're on the same page as far as protection.

"This will be a big challenge for our guys this weekend. I think we'll be up for the challenge," Edwards added. "Look forward to seeing those guys go out and playing on Sunday."

Crucial plays | By @pcraigers

It's not do or die, but it could be a case of did or didn't with regard to making plays at critical junctions within the game.

The Vikings lamented giving up big plays — the 91-yard touchdown run by Damien Williams is the longest against Minnesota during the Zimmer era — and not making enough of their own.

Williams' scamper is one of 20 runs of at least 20 yards allowed by the Vikings in 89 games with Zimmer at the helm. There have been 14 runs of 30-plus yards, including one by Elliott in 2016 (30 yards). Minnesota is 3-10 when giving up a run of 30-plus in a game since 2014 (the Panthers had two such runs in one game in 2017).

As for passing, Minnesota has had 35 games with a pass of at least 40 yards allowed under Zimmer, but opponents are 16-19 in those games.

There's also the critical situations at the end of halves. Minnesota was forced to settle for a field goal late in the first half last week, and the defense was unable to keep Kansas City out of range for two field goals on its final two possessions.

Dallas has scored a touchdown or field goal — or, in the case of Monday night at New York, both — in the final two minutes of first halves in four of its five wins this season.

The Cowboys allowed points by the Saints, Packers and Jets in the final 2:23 or less of first halves in their three losses.

Substantial Stats

— Sunday's game features a pair of top running backs. Dalvin Cook leads the league with 894 yards on the ground, while Ezekiel Elliott has 741 rushing yards, placing him at No. 6 in the NFL.

— The Vikings have picked up more sacks from the defensive end position (18.0) than any other team in the NFL this season. Danielle Hunter leads Minnesota with 8.5 sacks, while Everson Griffen has 5.5 and Ifeadi Odenigbo has 3.0. Since sacks became an official stat in 1982, Minnesota defensive ends have totaled 774.5 sacks, tops in the NFL.

— Dallas has just four interceptions on the season thus far with two being nabbed by DB Xavier Woods. Vikings safety Anthony Harris has three of Minnesota's eight picks.

— The Vikings have lost two consecutive games to the Cowboys (2013 and 2016) by a combined total of just six points.


"This is a big game for us because it's against a team that we will be battling for a playoff spot here later this season."

— Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph

Coming back home

The Vikings return home in Week 11 for a game against the Broncos. Kickoff is at noon (CT). Denver, which has a bye in Week 10, currently has a 3-6 record.