(Sports Network) - What was supposed to be a blockbuster showdown between NFC favorites has turned out to be a battle of futility as the Dallas Cowboys pay a visit to the Minnesota Vikings Sunday in a matchup between one-win teams from Mall of America Field at the Metrodome.
The largest margin of defeat for the Cowboys this season has been seven points and they will be playing three of their next five games on the road. They are 1-3 and off to the worst four-game start since losing the first four tests of the 2001 campaign.
Last in the NFC East, Dallas is coming off Sunday's 34-27 home loss to the Tennessee Titans in which penalties killed momentum and scoring opportunities. In all the team was penalized 12 times for 133 yards, while quarterback Tony Romo threw three interceptions and was sacked six times. For how poorly the offensive line played, Romo was still able to pass for 406 yards and three scores.
The Cowboys, whose only win of the season came on the road at Houston in Week 3, netted a season-best 511 total yards.
"We have to fight back," Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips said. "There's only one alternative and that's to fight back. We have to put it together. Obviously we've done some good things, controlled the ball, threw the ball, ran the ball, but we didn't win."
Running back Felix Jones saw more action as promised and finished with a season-high 109 yards on 15 carries in the Tennessee loss. Jones also caught four passes for 17 yards and his 19 touches eclipsed his previous career high of 17, set during a 34-3 playoff loss to the Vikings last year. It was the first time the Cowboys had a 400-yard passer and a 100-yard rusher in the same game.
The defense, along with untimely blunders, spoiled Jones' show by failing to stop the run, which helped put the Cowboys in another must-win situation much like the 0-2 start they back in September. After the Cowboys, who already had their bye week, make a stop in Minnesota, they'll host the New York Giants and Jacksonville before hitting the road again with stops in Green Bay and New York.
Minnesota had high expectations entering the 2010 season as well, but fell off faster than expected. At 1-3 for the first time since 2008, the Vikings haven't enjoyed themselves and neither has Brett Favre, who is in the eye of a media storm with the recent allegations of inappropriate behavior with former New York Jets employees while he was quarterback there two years ago.
The NFL is investigating the issue and Favre could end up facing a fine and/or suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy. This type of distraction is exactly what the Vikings do not need at this point as the club tries to piece together what has been a busted season.
Favre hasn't been the savior so many believed he would be and had an awful first half in Monday's 29-20 loss to the Jets. He shook off an elbow issue to throw for three touchdowns over the final 30 minutes, but it wasn't enough for Minnesota to avoid a disappointing 1-3 start. Favre has thrown seven interceptions this season and has lost three fumbles, while his streak of 289 consecutive starts is under threat with his latest elbow issue, as he said he wouldn't play if it's too sore.
So far the Vikings offense, especially the passing part, has yet to click and running back Adrian Peterson is working overtime to get his team in position to win.
Wide receiver Randy Moss, acquired in a trade with New England last week, did help Favre record the 500th touchdown pass of his career and ended with four catches for 81 yards and a score against the Jets in his debut of his second stint with the Vikings.
Minnesota should expect an aerial assault on Sunday with Dallas' third-ranked pass attack set to invade the Metrodome. Vikings starting cornerback Cedric Griffin will see no part of that after he went down with a season-ending knee injury against the Jets. Griffin injured his right knee in the fourth quarter of Monday night's loss after working excessively over the past eight months to regroup from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee he suffered last January in the NFC Championship Game at New Orleans.
The Vikings could be staring down a possible 1-6 start with Dallas and 2009 playoff participants Green Bay and New England on the upcoming docket.
The regular season series between the Cowboys and Vikings is knotted, 10-10, with Dallas evening the series by virtue of a 24-14 home win in the last such meeting, in Week 7 of the 2007 season. Minnesota won the previous meeting, a 35-17 affair at the Metrodome in the 2004 regular season opener. The Cowboys are 7-4 in regular season games played in Minnesota all-time, but their most recent win there a 23-17 overtime triumph at the Metrodome in 1995.
The Cowboys and Vikings have an extensive postseason history with one another, with Minnesota narrowing Dallas' playoff edge to 4-3 with its aforementioned 34-3 rout in a NFC Divisional Playoff in January. The teams also met for the NFC Championship in both 1973 and 1977, with Minnesota winning the former (27-10) and Dallas taking the latter (23-6), both in Big D. The only other playoff game played between the teams in Dallas was a 1996 Wild Card win for the home team (40-15). The Cowboys have played other postseason games in Minnesota in 1971 (a 20-12 win), 1975 (a 17-14 win), and 1999 (a 27-10 loss).
Phillips is 1-3 in his career against Minnesota, including the '07 win and one loss each during his tenures with Denver (1993-94), Buffalo (1998-2000) and Dallas. Minnesota's Childress is 1-1 against both Phillips and the Cowboys.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas' offensive line deservedly received some heat this week for its poor showing against the Titans. Starting right guard Leonard Davis was temporarily benched in favor of Montrae Holland at the end of the first half after Romo suffered sack No. 5 of six. Davis returned in the second half after Holland went down with a nose and eye problem, however, and will start this week against the Vikings. The big guard has started 52 straight games and is preparing for a challenge against Minnesota's stacked front four. Tackle Marc Colombo garnered some headlines as well when he was whistled for an unsportsmanlike celebration penalty after the Cowboys tied Sunday's game at 27-27 with less than five minutes remaining. The penalty was enforced on the kickoff and the Titans took advantage with a big return to set up the game- winning score. Romo (1,346 passing yards, 7 TD, 5 INT) completed 31-of-46 attempts for 406 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions and still lost. He helped the Cowboys record a season-high 511 total yards, 25 first downs and dominate time of possession, with the club holding the ball for nearly 37 minutes. Top receiver Miles Austin (31 receptions, 474 yards, 2 TD) has continued to shine this season and should have another productive day against Minnesota's banged-up secondary. Austin, wideout Roy Williams (18 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Jason Witten (20 receptions, 1 TD) all found the end zone last week.
Minnesota's defense has been its lone bright spot this season and has allowed only five offensive touchdowns through the first four games. It is third in the NFL in points allowed (16.8 ypg), fifth in yards against (289.2 ypg) and sixth in defending the pass (185.0 ypg). The pass defense took a blow when Griffin (8 tackles) went down with another torn knee ligament, though. He tore the ACL in his left knee last January in the NFC Championship Game and had worked his way back into lineup for Week 3. Backup corners Asher Allen (14 tackles) and Lito Sheppard (7 tackles) didn't play so well against the Jets and will have to knuckle down this week with Romo coming off a 400-yard game. Veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield (24 tackles, 1 INT) will be up for the challenge and has been the backbone of Minnesota's defensive backfield. Rookie cornerback Chris Cook (5 tackles) did not play Monday with a knee injury. With the Cowboys getting into a rhythm of handing Jones the ball, linebackers Chad Greenway (39 tackles) and E.J. Henderson (28 tackles) hope the front line can plug some holes to free up space. The Vikings are 14th in run defense and need ends Jared Allen (16 tackles, 1 sack) and Ray Edwards (11 tackles, 2 sacks) on their game. Allen only has one quarterback takedown after consecutive years of 14 1/2 sacks.
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Favre (861 passing yards, 5 TD, 7 INT) did not practice early this week because of his balky right elbow and an ankle ailment, but that won't stop him from trying to beat up on the Cowboys for a second straight time. Favre, who became the first NFL player to throw for 70,000 yards in a career on Monday, has struggled often this season and didn't pick up his game until the second half of the loss in New York. It was his first game with Moss, and the two started to connect later in the night. Minnesota is only 21st in passing offense, but that should change in a few weeks with Moss' presence opening avenues for wide receiver Percy Harvin and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe. Moss needs just two catches to move into ninth place in NFL history for the most career receptions. His 939 catches trails Art Monk's 940 for next on the list. Harvin, meanwhile, finished the game with 97 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions for his first two-score performance as a receiver of his young career. Unlike most coaches in the NFL, Childress has the luxury of having one of the best running backs in the game and knows Dallas struggled against the run last week. The Vikings are ninth in rushing this season with Peterson (480 rushing yards, 3 TD), who is aiming for 5,000 rushing yards in his career, carrying the load. He needs just 36 yards to reach that milestone.
If the Cowboys thought facing Tennessee running back Chris Johnson was tough, they'll be facing perhaps an even better athlete in Peterson. Johnson ran for 131 yards and two scores on Sunday against a depleted Cowboys defense that saw linebacker Bradie James sustain a right knee sprain. He was able to return to play, but was obviously feeling the pain. James (27 tackles), who leads the team in tackles, did not practice early this week. He has never missed a game because of injury in his career, however, and has led the team in stops for five straight years. If James is unable to play Sunday, backups Sean Lee, Leon Williams and Jason Williams could see action against the Vikings. Outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (19 tackles, 6 sacks) recorded a pair of sacks against the Titans and will be looking to tee off on the immobile Favre. Minnesota's offense is all about timing, so disrupting that should help force turnovers, something Dallas has been struggling to do this season. Ware leads the team in sacks and owns 62 1/2 since the 2006 season, tops in the NFL over that span. Dallas' secondary was burned a few times by the long ball last week, with cornerback Mike Jenkins (9 tackles, 1 INT) flagged for two interference penalties, and will be in for a real treat against Moss. Dallas has only two interceptions on the year, both coming in its win against Houston.
Even with a few banged-up players, Minnesota's defense is a good call this week against a desperate Cowboys offense. The offense is no different, with Favre, Moss, Peterson, Harvin and Shiancoe all worthy of looks. It's tough to calculate who'll get the ball, but sitting any of those players is a risky choice. Expect Moss to have a solid game in his return to Minneapolis.
Romo's ability to throw for more than 300 yards in a game makes him a starter every week, even if he's not hitting Austin or Witten on a consistent basis. Jones is another candidate to start, since his role in the offense has been increasing through each week. Fellow running back Marion Barber is becoming irrelevant in deeper leagues.
Dallas hasn't forgotten about last season's Divisional Playoff loss in Minnesota and will be out for revenge on Sunday. Phillips knows that if his team falls to 1-4 and further back in the NFC East, there's a chance fidgety owner Jerry Jones won't hesitate to pull the plug on the head coach. Romo will save the day for at least another week by leading another aerial assault on a Vikings squad embroiled with just as many problems off the field as it has on it.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 27, Vikings 17