Thursday night was, without question, the most frustrating Cowboys game in months. It was a night when their offense was able to do very little. This unstoppable group -- one that seemed to have the answers to nearly every question asked of it -- managed to put together just one drive of more than 33 yards all night. That also was the only drive that exceeded two first downs and the only one where they looked like the team they have been all year.
It was certainly the night when they looked most vulnerable and lacked the self-belief that nobody could hold them down. Obviously, these two things are related to each other as the confidence is fed by knowing there is no question who the best team on the field is. We expected this level of doubt to arise in other hostile locations, like Green Bay or Pittsburgh, but it wasn't until their first trip to this new stadium in Minneapolis that the Cowboys wondered if they were what people say they are.
It was yet another night when the defense appeared unable to turn the game with a big takeaway and ending the drama on their own. When the defense needed to make a stand, the punchless Minnesota offense generated the game's three longest drives in the second half -- including the length-of-the-field drive with the game on the line for their only touchdown. That's right, with a historically bad offense, the Vikings had three drives longer than any Dallas drive in the second half and moved the chains for first downs 13 times. The Cowboys had just six in the entire second half.
And yet, with everything in the paragraphs above being completely true, the Cowboys left with a win.
This probably is a pretty good indicator of a couple of key things:
The first would be the idea that this team was due for an offensive market correction. They have been unreal. They have been flirting with some of the most ridiculous NFL marks with both a rookie quarterback and rookie running back and, while I would not suggest that was some 10-week fluke, when you consider the NFL has had some very special offenses over the years and almost none of them have put a year together like this, it is fair to say they were due for a stinker.
The second thing would be that Minnesota played a very strong team game and likely leaves with a different outcome if it wasn't for an ill-timed special teams gaffe that put the Cowboys right back in an advantageous situation and turned the game on its ear. Beyond that, the Vikings likely did everything they hoped to do last night. Put a few drives together, keep the game low-scoring and ask their defense to go toe to toe with this unstoppable force from Dallas and live to tell about it. There simply is no reason to think the Vikings' defense could not repeat that performance based on last night. They easily are the finest resistance the Cowboys have faced all season from a defensive perspective.
The third thing: I think it is very much a good thing to somehow win a game and get slugged in the face in a way that will keep everyone on this young team from getting too confident about what they have done, and what it all means relative to what remains in front of them. Yes, they will clinch a playoff spot and a preferred playoff path very soon for a January run that could be historic. But you really want a mentality that understands how this sport works and also recognizes there have been some historically special offenses that never won the trophy that cements their spot in the ranks of football immortality. In other words, I disagreed with Tony Romo when he claimed this is a "magical season." Nothing in the NFL happens that could be labeled magical until after New Year's Day. Everything else on the way is just getting access to those games and preparing for what lies ahead.
This may have been that game to see there are some teams that are not scared of you. At all. Some teams will bring that eighth man in the box and have their corners sitting right on the hips of your outside receivers. Then what? And if this game plan is duplicated by a team like Seattle, which shares many similar qualities to the Minnesota defense but features an MVP-caliber quarterback who can move an offense, how will the Cowboys deal with that?
Because the key to stopping the Cowboys will be to force this offense to do something it doesn't prefer to do. It prefers to run you into the ground like a fine powder and then ask if you can make precise throws into tight spots and move the chains to score the points. Sell out to stop the run may cost you a few big plays over the top, but if you don't make the Cowboys uncomfortable and face some third-and-long situations, then you don't have a chance. The reason this hasn't been done very often is that there aren't many teams that can actually do it.
You could see Ezekiel Elliott trying to stick with his instincts, but he was used to far more inviting options when the ball gets to him. His vision was not offering him desirable paths and he appeared to be tentative for the first time in weeks.
The Giants did it in Week 1 and will certainly attempt to do it again Dec. 11. The Ravens, Steelers and Packers tried to do it but realized they might not have the quality to force the Cowboys into discomfort. But those Vikings did this very well.
This forced Dak Prescott to go to a place where he seldom has to go. He is wired to either see great places to go with the ball or not to throw it. Usually, he has options, but last night you could see his reluctance to pull the trigger because the Vikings did not offer guys who were running free down the field. They are that good. They have first-round picks everywhere. So if you have a quarterback who is predisposed to avoid anything remotely close to an interception (as he should) and just throw to the places where he has nice matchups, then those must present themselves. He also seemed tentative.
So did the coaches. The Vikings had everyone on their heels. The Cowboys were not attacking, but rather tiptoeing on offense to a point where they were justifying punts as a favorable outcome to game-ruining mistakes. They were right on that, by the way, but that led to a number of very impotent efforts from this offense that certainly did not have much of a plan once it got punched in the face.
Of course, this led to another issue: The offense had no ability to protect the defense. The defense was required to do its own dirty work, which it seemed to do when Anthony Hitchens stepped in front of a pass for a beautiful interception. But as was the case on a number of occasions Thursday, the breakthrough moment for this team was then erased by a penalty. As frustrating nights in the NFL go, this one ranked pretty high with good plays destroyed by flags that often did not seem completely righteous.
That doesn't matter. The flags set the team back repeatedly. And this again offers teaching moments.
The coaches looked like they played right into the Vikings' hands. The defense looked like the Cowboys' defense -- a try-hard group that struggles when they are exposed too much. If it wasn't for the Cowboys' first successful challenge in 2016, they likely lose that game. This may become known as "the Kyle Wilber game," given his biggest play as a Cowboy -- giving the offense the ball at the Minnesota 8-yard line. Because the offense didn't look likely to get down there on its own in the second half.
These are the stakes in the NFL. This is why they call it a marathon. You play your tails off for months and months, only to be reminded that your destination is still off in the distance. But if you wish to win the championship, it is nights like this, when your opponent pushes you to the brink, when you see that you actually have accomplished nothing so far. Yes, 11-1 is fantastic, but what would it mean with a first-round exit?
This is part of that preparation. If the team is smart, it understands that no wins are apologized for in the NFL. Especially when you win on the road against a desperate team scrambling for its own playoff life and trying everything it can think of to beat a team it knows it looks up to in the rankings.
But after they rest and recover after this exhausting stretch of playing in -- and winning -- three games in 12 days, the Cowboys must look at this effort for what it was. And that was an opponent that was slowing down your freight train and showing the elite defenses of the league how to play you: To make your rookies uncomfortable and force them to make decisions where neither choice is appealing, and to create hesitation and tentativeness in the minds of these inexperienced players as the pressure builds.
In other words, I think this win is perfect to prepare this squad for January. Heck, it may prepare them for road games at New York and Philadelphia, where both teams have defenses that already have made you uncomfortable in your own stadium this season.
The Cowboys did not look like the "belle of the ball" Thursday night. They looked beatable and vulnerable. And yet, they won.
That is great news, but also disconcerting in that they must pay proper attention to detail and realize (as I am sure they do) they have not accomplished anything yet. And when that time comes when they are able to do truly "magical" things, they will get just three hours to sort through the challenges and figure out the solutions. There is no best-of-seven series, where the best team always wins. In the NFL, it often can come down to one penalty or one two-point conversion, where the difference in the playoffs is survival or the end of the year. And that end may be looked at for decades as the year when they "had their shot and let it get away."
These are the stakes. That is the pressure.
If winning a championship was easy, more teams would do it. It is very difficult. And very, very rare.
On Thursday, the young Cowboys had a little adversity thrown at them by a team that will not sniff the Super Bowl.
And I contend that it is good for them.
Winning easy and having everyone tell you how great you are will not prepare you for what lies ahead.
The trouble will be if they ignore this wake-up call because they still won. I assume they are smart enough to see Thursday night for what it was.
We will know more at MetLife Stadium in nine days.