The Dallas Cowboys finished the 2009-2010 regular season at 11-5 and with an identical Conference record, 9-3, to that of the Minnesota Vikings. That's about where the similarities between the two playoff teams end, however.
Minnesota and Dallas had four common opponents this season--the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, and Carolina Panthers. Against those opponents, Dallas fared better against only Carolina, a game played before Carolina realized that Jake Delhomme was no longer an NFL starting quarterback, the team remembered that it had Jonathan Stewart on the roster, and Steve Smith decided to play. Against the Giants, the Cowboys lost twice--once early in the season when the Giants were playing well and once, less forgivable, late in the season when the Giants were as feeble as any team in the league. Dallas also lost a mid-season game at Green Bay by a score of 17-7.
Dallas' strength this season has been its defense. Against the Eagles, Saints, Packers, and Chargers, four of the league's better offensive teams, the Cowboys surrendered a respectable 70 points over five games, for an average of 14 points allowed per game. The most points that Dallas allowed all season was 33 in week two to the Giants; the second-most points they allowed this season, interestingly, was also to the Giants, who scored 31 points in the early-December match-up.
Where Dallas has struggled this season has been on offense. Though scoring over 30 points four times this season and over 20 an additional six times, the Cowboys failed to surpass the 20-point mark six times this season. That's a remarkably high number for a team purportedly built around its offense.
Dallas' Achilles' on offense has been its running game. Only once this season did a Cowboy running back rush for over 100 yards. While some of this is the result of the Cowboys' use of multiple backs, it is a far cry from the standard the Cowboys had set in previous seasons using the same multi-back system, seasons in which Marion Barber routinely ran rough-shod through opposing defenses. Too often this season, the Cowboys have settled for lesser rushing yardage. That's worked against some of the league's dregs. But when opponents have shut down Miles Austin, that's spelled defeat for the 'Boys.
To defeat the Vikings, the Cowboys need a strong offensive showing and solid defense. That means exploiting the Vikings' secondary with Austin, but also shutting down a Vikings' offense that seems less predicated on Chilly-ball at this stage--a positive turn for Vikings' fans, at least in the Dome. And if Dallas' performances against the Giants are any indication, the Vikings ought to be able to put up far better numbers against the Cowboys than Austin is able to muster against a willing Vikings' secondary.
The question is not, then, whether the Minnesota Vikings can or even ought to beat the Dallas Cowboys today; the answer to those two questions most assuredly is in the affirmative. Rather, the question is whether the Vikings will exploit the Cowboys' weaknesses sufficiently to advance to the Conference championship game next week in the Bayou. That determination rests squarely with head coach Brad Childress.
The Vikings have two distinctly different game plans from which to select, either of which should suffice to defeat the Cowboys. One game plan is to do what they have done for the past six quarters--rely on a controlled passing game and run support to work the ball down the field. This ploy is prone to producing a close-scoring game against Dallas' 3-4 defense and, as the most conservative option other than reverting to a Tarvaris Jackson-led offense, likely will be the Vikings' choice on Sunday.
A stronger option, but one that Childress has never yet employed, is to use a two-back set in the backfield with one tight end and two receivers, with the two backs being Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson, Jim Kleinsasser covering Bryant McKinnie, Percy Harvin in the slot and Sidney Rice the other receiver.
Option two would allow the Vikings several distinct advantages over option one. Against Dallas' fast but lighter outside linebackers, screens to Peterson should be effective. Against Dallas' three-man front, running plays with the speedy and more elusive Taylor should have effect. And, against the frequently blitzing linebackers, Harvin should prove a terror.
Having Peterson and Taylor in the same backfield not only would disguise the Vikings' play, making it less certain whether the play is running or passing play, but also would allow the Vikings to adjust the play to the Cowboys' defensive scheme. Should the Cowboys show blitz, Favre could audible to a screen and take advantage of Peterson in space. Should the Cowboys stay back, Favre could audible to a running play to either Taylor or Peterson.
Despite being underdogs in both games this year against their division rival, the New York Giants twice defeated the Cowboys and twice did so on the strength of decent passing numbers and nearly 100 yards rushing. What we know from those games is that the Giants were able to do to Dallas almost precisely what the Vikings were able to do against the Giants, but that Dallas was not able to do against the Giants what the Vikings were able to do against the Giants. That bodes well for a Vikings' offense that has been fairly consistent when the head coach has permitted it to try.
On defense, Minnesota will do what it has done most of the season--attempt to put pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush, maintain zones, and keep the pass plays in front of them. With the gimpy Antoine Winfield moving to the nickel, that should be a more effective game plan today than it was against the Chicago Bears. And while the Vikings' secondary very likely will give up one or two longer plays and the linebackers likely will concede some receptions to Cowboys' tight end Jason Witten, the Vikings ought to be able to hold Dallas' offense enough in check to make what should be a reasonably successful offensive output more than sufficient for a Vikings' victory.
Prediction: Vikings 31, Dallas 17.