Fascinating. That is how I would describe what we are all looking at Sunday at "high noon" at the ol Metrodome.
A fascinating study of football from many, many perspectives. Not the least of which is that when looking at these two teams, there are so many similarities at so many spots.
For instance, of all of the teams in the NFC, one team has almost an identical way of running their offense as the Dallas Cowboys. That team, of course, is the Vikings.
They use their run to set up the pass. They use the pass to set up the run. They use the presnap to confuse you and make you commit to one or the other, and then they take that false alarm and use it on you. When going right, both of these teams call plays that are all tied together in perfect harmony. As a brilliant game of chess, everything they do is to set up the next thing.
The running plays are very similar. The beef on the OL is very similar. The play of the efficient QB can also be strikingly similar. And yes, the instincts of the QB when the play breaks down can often times make one think that the two QBs are cut from the same cloth.
On defense, it continues. Both teams are so stinking difficult to deal with because they are both built to deliver the dreams of every defensive coordinator: Pressure with 4. If you can get pressure with 4 your defense can do anything it wants. If you can get pressure with just your 4 defensive linemen, then you can allow your back 7 to limit the space in the secondary for receivers. In both cases, this luxury allows for deep safeties with zones across the field. Zones mean fewer men running free for big plays, and fewer opportunities to beat a man 1 on 1.
It basically makes the opponent scrape together long drives of precision and perfection if they are going to score points. They must pay a severe toll to move down the field, where one mistake - in pass protection or a simple dropped pass, and it is often time to punt.
Being able to get pressure with your front 4 makes calling defenses a thing of great ease. And both teams have proven that they can do that. They will blitz, but they don't have to blitz. That makes all of the philisophical difference in the world.
So, who has the advantage in this game? I have played out the scenarios all week, and I must confess that I have talked my way around this thing several times.
I think the Cowboys can rest easy in that they are playing with casino money now. On one hand, they have broken through to the other-side, and have proven to themselves and the world that they can come up big on the stage that matters, and now anything else this year is gravy. On the other hand, they should know it is dangerous to assume that you will have many cracks at this. The road is paved with athletes and teams that assumed they would be back in the tournament every year only to realize that this year was the year...and they blew it (2006 Dallas Mavericks, anyone?).
The Vikings, however, won the division and had a great year. But, they didn't go through all of the Favre soap opera only to achieve what they did last year with the great Tavaris Jackson. They have invested plenty of time, energy, and money to chase down the dream of holding their first Lombardi Trophy. One and done would be utter disaster.
So, from those two standpoints, one could surmise that perhaps the lion's share of the pressure is squarely on the Vikings' shoulders. If anyone might be tight it should be the Purple, while I would hope the Cowboys walk into that fortress with the feeling that they can just relax and play. History says the bye week and the home game make the Vikes a strong favorite. Pressure says they better win. The Cowboys are just the mystery guest who people still aren't sure about.
This should be fun.
Back in preseason, when Michael Lombardi and almost everyone else wasn't sure Brett Favre could still play, he rated the players in the league based on the "blue rankings" that scouts use across the league. Here was his list from then on Minnesota:
BLUE CHIP: RB, Peterson; OT, McKinnie; OG Hutchinson; DE, Allen; DT, K. Williams; CB, Winfield.
ALMOST BLUE: WR, Berrian; DT, P. Williams.
No Sidney Rice or Favre. They are obviously quite loaded. In fact, here is the report about the 8 Vikings Pro Bowlers:
Favre and RB Adrian Peterson, the league's top scorer among non-kickers, will be in the NFC backfield. The other Vikings who made it: wide receiver Sidney Rice, defensive end Jared Allen, guard Steve Hutchinson, defensive tackle Kevin Williams, special teamer Heath Farwell and tackle Bryant McKinnie.
The Cowboys offense is on quite a roll right now, and I would place a ton of credit on Jason Garrett's performance of making sense of this mess. This offense was in a critical slump a month ago, and finally, it fell into place.
Mike Tanier at Football Outsiders summed it up here:
What do you think of when you close your eyes and picture the Cowboys offense? A breathtaking Tony Romo highlight? That's freestyling, not an identity. Felix Jones in the Razorback formation (their Wildcat)? The Cowboys don't run that very often. You probably think of some Jason Witten crossing route, which is appropriate, as Witten is their leading receiver. But when you watch a Cowboys game, they don't seem to be scheming to get Witten open. They also don't seem to be featuring Jones or Marion Barber; in fact, for all their effectiveness, the running backs sometimes disappear from the game plan. Their top wide receiver is Miles Austin, but he isn't their go-to guy in the way Fitzgerald is for the Cardinals. In fact, he isn't on the field in most of their one-receiver sets; Roy Williams gets that honor, for some reason. When the Cowboys offense is playing poorly, as it did against many opponents early in the season, it almost looks like they are selecting their plays at random.
Forgetting that he thinks Felix Jones runs the Razorback, I think his assessment is spot on. And that shows the delicate balance of play-calling. Get it right, and it looks like you are the all-powerful puppet master genius. Get it slightly wrong, and it looks like you are pulling plays out of a hat. By the way, I would recommend that you read his break down of the Cowboys running plays, because it is much of what we say here, but in different language that may actually be easier to consume.
When looking at the Vikings defense, they have all of the characteristics of some of the great historic defenses in the NFL. A menacing front 4, who can play both the run and the pass. They led the league in sacks (48) and finished 2nd in the NFL in rushing defense. Think about that. Anytime a defense can stop the run with great ease and sack your QB more than anyone else, you are tangling with a formidable opposition. Jared Allen gets plenty of love, but Aggie Pat Williams (he is 37 years old!), Kevin Williams, and the most under-rated of them all, Ray Edwards (8.5 sacks) should not be forgotten about. Also, Longhorn Nickel rusher, Brian Robison can get after it, too (4.5 sacks).
Can you run on them? Some teams stopped trying running on the Vikings in 2006. They surely aren't as dominating in that department as they were that year, but trust me, they don't get gashed much.
And, they can cause you all sorts of pass protection fits. Think the 2007 Giants. With just 4, they forced Jason Witten and Marion Barber to stay in during that Final 8 playoff game 2 years ago. The Cowboys OL was spanked on that day. Now, with noise working against them, they will have to do much better for the Boys to have a chance to win.
1) - Mind the Football, punts are good - The Cowboys have 4 Giveaways in the last 7 games. The last time they had multiple giveaways in the same game was November 22 when they hosted the Redskins at the Death Star. If they can get out of the Metrodome with fewer than 2 giveaways, I think we all believe they will have a wonderful opportunity to win. But, the problem here is this. The Cowboys have been living large on 3rd Downs the last few weeks. We guess that is because they have decoded the Eagles blitz like it was a kid's puzzle. But, the Vikings have a very difficult 3rd Down Defense. They do not allow 3rd Down conversions (3rd in the NFL), so you cannot try to continue to walk that line. There will be times in this game where both QBs are going to have to understand that regardless of their instinctual habit to "try to make a play", they will need to choose to play it safe and take a punt. It is a high adrenaline moment, and 3rd and 9 might be that time they try to fit the ball in a place where the ball doesn't fit. That decision will lose the game for one of these QBs, and we must all hope that Tony doesn't eat that cheese and merely allows Mat McBriar to do his job. Giveaways are death. You might survive 1, but I doubt your survive more than that.
2) - Test those edges, bounce it outside - If you watch Vikings football over the last 5 years, you know that the DEs have changed plenty over the years. They spent #1 picks on Erasmus James and Kenechi Udeze in consecutive seasons and received almost nothing from either one. But, the DTs have been the difference makers, Pat and Kevin Williams. Now, Pat is heading to 40, and Kevin will be 30. But the quality is still impressive. You won't be able to expose the MLB by running up the gut, because the Williams Wall makes sure you never get that far. In both run and pass, Kosier/Gurode/Davis must win this battle, although it will not be easy. There may not be a better interior pass rusher than K Williams (although Haynesworth and Ratliff would argue that) and Pat is tough to move at all. I think the Cowboys need to run many of the exact same "22" and "13" bread and butter plays they have been, but with Felix looking to bounce it outside and assume that 82/80 can get Leber and Greenway off the edge. From there, it will be up to Felix to make a DB miss and get going. Keep in mind, by the way, that Antoine Winfield is maybe the best run-support Corner in the league if he is healthy. But, when last we saw him, he wasn't right health-wise.
3) - 1st Down must be effective - This is the real cat and mouse game inside the game. Jason Garrett is going to have to walk that wire of play calling on 1st Down. Safe means run. But, run likely means 2nd and 9 against these guys. On the other hand, you cannot pass on 1st Down very often or you see how quickly incompletions can set up 3rd and forever. He must pick his spots carefully, and hope he gets some things done early on. Shotgun is a bad, bad idea, because Allen and Edwards are more dangerous when there is little threat for a run. I will, however, concede that this is where the Vikings can be gashed, with a Shotgun draw once or twice as they are so focused on getting to the passer, that they run right by the guy with the ball.
4) - Flozell and Colombo vs Allen and Edwards - Jared Allen is maybe the most disruptive pass rusher in the NFL. He is an awesome physical force who can beat you with both quickness and power. But, what makes him an amazing value despite his high price tag is because he is both their emotional defensive leader (Brooking) and their best defender (Ware). Imagine if Ware and Brooking were combined. That would be Jared Allen. What impresses me the most with him is easy: There appears to be no film of him taking a play off. Film doesn't lie, and even when the play is on the opposite sideline, you can always see #69 chasing it down from behind. He is beyond relentless. Flozell will have to play as well as he did against Trent Cole, but keep in mind that while Cole is great, Allen is on a different level. Edwards, Allen's Anthony Spencer, is also from Purdue like Spencer, and also enjoying his best season this year. With 8.5 sacks, and largely single-teamed all season, Marc Colombo will have a very busy day. The Cowboys must win the flanks to have a chance in the passing game.
The name of the game here is simple; Stop a team that averages over 30 points a game at home, is undefeated at home largely because of the offense, and who has a legend playing QB for it in a year where he is playing perhaps his best season ever.
Small task, right?
What about the fact that Adrian Peterson has accounted for 1800 yards in a season where many of were a bit disappointed with how it finished for him? His bar is extremely high, obviously, and also extremely impressive. The combination of Peterson and Favre is supplemented with a supporting cast that includes deep threats, one of the fastest slot receivers in the league, and a quality Tight End who is all over the place in the red zone.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys defense has been one of the stories of the last few weeks in the NFL. Everybody has gone to great lengths to discuss the emergence of Wade Phillips and his masterpiece - the win in New Orleans, followed by back to back destructions of the high-octane Eagles offense. This defense has gone from average in many regards to finally realizing all of the potential of a defense that has had hundreds of millions invested in it (seriously) and at least 6 1st Round picks in the last 8 years for Dallas.
Now, the defense does make the plays to seal a game. They do get the pass rush they need. They do make the plays that many were waiting for. It has all fallen into place in the last 30 days. Remember, on December 13th, this was the defense that couldn't get Phil Rivers and the Chargers off the field in the all-important 4th Quarter. They couldn't get a stop when they had to have it - and many of us thought that was the end of the season.
But, here comes the true test. A offense that can do whatever it wants. They can throw it long or short. They can run inside or outside. They can convert 3rd Downs and sustain drives or they can strike quickly. This is a team that can beat you in many ways, but they are not invincible - The Cardinals, Panthers, and Bears have shown us that in the last 6 weeks. But, none of them did it inside the dome. The Panthers and Bears pulled them outside in December to do it. But, the Cowboys will not be able to count on that to slow them down.
1) - Prove you are run stuffers - Here is my top priority for the defense. All of this talk about "nobody runs on the Cowboys" will be truly tested on Sunday. I think the Vikings are the team to test any team's ability to stop a running game. I expect them to feed the ball to Adrian plenty on Sunday to neutralize the pass rushers. Now, against a team that is good at running, can win the power game against most defenses, and committed to the mission, can the Cowboys plug the holes? This could swing the game. Making the Vikings 1-dimensional forces Favre to force the ball into spaces and changes the game completely. However, if we see that the only reason the Cowboys have gaudy run-defense numbers is based actually on the fact they haven't really played any teams that are committed to running, then the Cowboys could be in serious trouble.
2) - Limit Explosives - In any game of this magnitude, you want to be on the right side of the "big play" count. The Vikings love to go over the top to Bernard Berrian and Sidney Rice. Brett Favre is a master at selling play action, holding the safety, and the whipping the ball 50+ yards on the money. It seems like when he does this it is either a big completion or a big pass interference penalty. Either way, it is a game changer that minimally swings field position. But, the Vikes can also nail you for explosives on the ground. We all know that Peterson can spring through the OL with an amazing gallop and head to the endzone. They can hit you with explosives in so many ways, and now Wade Phillips must do again what he did against the Saints and Eagles - hold them to almost no huge plays.
3) - Must get pressure on Favre - If you can remember all the way back to Thanksgiving, you will remember the very frustrating element of this defense unable to get to a QB without bringing pressure. You see, when Anthony Spencer was still sitting on 0 sacks (Thanksgiving), the front 4 was not getting there. Remember when the team had no sacks in the first 11 Quarters of the season? All I am saying is we all think that DeMarcus Ware is going to crush Bryant McKinnie and that Anthony Spencer will abuse Phil Loadholt, but the Cowboys have no choice in the matter. Also, they cannot afford to have a quiet Jay Ratliff. This defensive front must get to Favre without bringing blitzers very much. Favre can fry a blitz with great routine. He is much less effective if you get to him with 4 and have 7 filling the gaps in the secondary. This is no time to replapse into pre-Thanksgiving conditions. They must get there.
4) - When you have a chance, you better catch the ball - OK, everyone here surely know my stance on Brett Favre. He is my favorite athlete ever. I think the world of him and respect every part of his game. But, he will give you a chance. He will try to get too cute with a pass and a player in the secondary will have a chance to pick one off and run it back. At that moment, which could show up at any portion of the day, will the Cowboys make the play? Will Terence Newman or Ken Hamlin sieze that moment? Maybe it will be Bobby Carpenter or Marcus Spears falling on a fumble. Who knows, but the chances will be there - but there may not be many. Who can make a play? This is the time of year where if you let that chance slip through your fingers, the season ends.
We didn't cover one other element, which is Ryan Longwell vs Shaun Suisham. If the game is on the line, who do you trust? I thought so.
This game is too close to call. Both teams are so close. And when this happens, I believe that they bye week and home field advantage must count for something. Now, the question is always clear: "Is it rust or rest?" Are the Vikings going to have the ability to jump right up to speed or will they be a bit off early? The Cowboys should make every effort to jump on things quickly, and put a little doubt into Minnesota and a little urgency in their QB. If so, he may give you a chance to make a play that hurts the Vikes.
But, since I know many of you want a pick, so here you go.
I trust the Vikings pass rush a bit more, their RB a bit more, and homefield advantage, too. I think QB is a close comparison, but I trust Brett Favre's experience a bit more than I trust Tony Romo's ability to win a road game in the playoffs - until he does it. I think it could go either way, but when forced to choose, I better be honest. I think the Cowboys will be very fortunate to advance beyond this.
And since a hundred of you have asked, I am pulling for Romo and his mates on Sunday over the hated Vikes (regardless of who they have hired to throw the ball for them).
Vikings 27, Cowboys 24
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