Upset of Vikings gives Cowboys jolt: ‘We’re going to go 7-0’
Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith tried to say his team would take this one game, one week at a time.
Then the celebration of a 31-28 upset overwhelmed. An ebullient Smith strayed from the measured party line.
Like he did with the fumble recovery he’d scooped from tangled defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence to return 21 yards, Smith took matters to the next level.
“We’re going to go 7-0,” Smith quipped.
A Cowboys team that topped the Vikings to improve to 3-7 flew back to North Texas with a jolt of energy. A “confidence booster,” rookie receiver CeeDee Lamb called it.
“I can’t even remember how long it’s been since our last win,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said.
Entering Sunday, the count was at 42 days amid a four-game losing streak. But a Cowboys team that moved the ball by air and by ground, and forced fumbles from quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Dalvin Cook, no longer needs to crunch numbers to remember their last taste of victory.
And the numbers they might want to focus on — those of the NFC East standings — paint an astoundingly bright picture as December inches near.
The Cowboys are a half-game out of the division lead. Beating Washington on Thursday would lift them atop the NFC East. It’s a step the Cowboys must take to capitalize on their balanced Minnesota win, head coach Mike McCarthy said.
“This is clearly the most rounded performance and victory that we’ve had this year,” McCarthy said after his first road win as Cowboys coach. “It took us a little longer to get here today, but I clearly think the journey will make us stronger. We need to do something with this win. We need to build off this win.
“It needs to mean something.”
The Cowboys prepare for Thanksgiving with reasons to be thankful.
After a stretch starting four quarterbacks in five games, Dallas has regained Andy Dalton from concussion and COVID-19 protocols. The Cowboys' best available passer completed 22 of 33 attempts for 203 yards, three touchdowns and one interception while posting a 104.0 passer rating. Dalton completed passes to eight teammates, connecting with three in the end zone after Dallas had posted just two touchdowns its last four contests. Dalton hit Lamb for a highlight-reel, one-handed catch to ensure a halftime lead and cashed in on a wide-open tight end Dalton Schultz on the game’s final score.
“Kellen was dialing them all up,” Schultz said of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. “He was pulling out all the stops on those last few plays. As soon as he called it, I was like ‘All right, this should be good.’”
Also good: the Cowboys’ run game in Minnesota. A year after the Vikings stymied Ezekiel Elliott for 46 yards on 20 carries, Elliott broke through for his first 100-yard rushing game of 2020 with 103 yards on 21 attempts. A coaching staff reticent to shuffle its battered offensive line at last shifted All-Pro right guard Zack Martin to right tackle, a move that cleared run lanes and gave Dalton more time to throw in the pocket.
Martin’s “the strength of our offense,” Elliott said. “We kept right on behind him and he kept moving them out of the way.” McCarthy, meanwhile, praised Elliott for his “warrior” performance.
And a defense that insisted it wouldn’t let the Vikings' zone-run scheme gash them like Cleveland had for 307 yards held steady when it mattered most. Cowboys safety Donovan Wilson participated in two strips of Vikings opponents, recovering one himself while the second bounced among Lawrence and Smith. Dallas’ offense, now capable enough to complement big plays, scored off the short fields they were gifted each time. And though Dallas’ defense did become rookie Justin Jefferson’s latest victim on a 39-yard touchdown with 9:44 to play, the unit held firm and forced a punt on the next series. The stop allowed the Cowboys to mount a lead with a successive 11-play, 61-yard drive that took just 2:33 and featured a conversion on fourth-and-6.
Again, time remained on the clock. The Vikings had 1:37 to play, down three. Cousins found Cook for 4 yards on his first try. Then Dallas escalated its pressure. Cousins missed Jefferson, then wide receiver Adam Thielen, then Thielen again. A Cowboys team that days earlier had insisted it was better than perceived gave evidence that perhaps it is.
“Boy, I’m just so happy for our players,” McCarthy said. “It’s been a year through a lot of ups and downs. It’s so gratifying to see these men get the victory today because they damn well earned it.”
Next the Cowboys will look to avenge their October loss to Washington. A contest with 6-4 Baltimore follows before a slate of below-.500 teams in Cincinnati, San Francisco, Philadelphia and the Giants. The division, especially if Dallas can win on Thanksgiving, is in reach.
“We never thought we were out of it,” Elliott said. “We are right there where we need to be. We are right there to go win the division.
“We gotta build on the success.”