Part 2 (see Part 1 for a preview of Saturday's games)
While the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints may provide the best theatre in the NFL this weekend, the two most balanced teams go head-to-head in Sunday's early game. The Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings have a lot of similarities, with strength on both sides of the ball. And, although each has talent at skill positions, both teams are built the old fashioned way on a foundation of strong interior lines.
In Sunday's game, the big name offensive players will likely grab the spotlight, but the game will be won or lost in the trenches. Of all the great action this weekend, this contest provides the most compelling match-up for NFL traditionalists due to the overall balance of talent and style of play. Here is my take on what to expect:
Dallas (12-5) at Minnesota (12-4) - Sunday, 1 PM ET
Both the Cowboys and Vikings have something to prove in this year's postseason. The former is desperately trying to reverse fortune and re-establish itself as a championship caliber franchise after going 13 years between playoff wins. The Cowboys took one major step forward by breaking that string with a resounding win over the Philadelphia Eagles last Saturday evening, but feel they have the ingredients and momentum to make a Super Bowl run.
For the Vikings, they continue the organization's quest to bring its first Lombardi Trophy to Minneapolis after several flirtations, whiffing on the team's four trips to the Super Bowl. With the addition of ageless Brett Favre to an already talented cast, fans and players alike believe this could be the year that the Vikings finally break through. Sunday may possibly be the biggest hurdle as they host the white-hot Cowboys who are similarly motivated to realize their potential and by the failings of seasons past.
Favre brings veteran leadership and a swagger to the team that was clearly missing for man years. He also brings a proven playmaking ability that has transformed a run oriented offense into the NFL's second highest scoring team. And, with the emergence of its young receivers, the Vikings have many ways to hurt opponents.
Of course, the team still boasts having one of the best running games in football with Pro Bowler Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor operating behind its hefty offensive line. Peterson is a powerful runner with the ability to break a long run anytime he touches the ball, though this occurred much less frequently this season. Taylor provides a good change of pace with his ability to dart through creases and catch the ball circling out of the backfield.
Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin provide Favre with two athletic, playmaking targets not found in this city since the days of Randy Moss and Cris Carter. Rice accumulated 1,312 yards as the team's top receiver, using his speed and length to haul in passes. Harvin provides a pure explosiveness that earned him this year's NFL "Rookie of the Year." Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe is battling injury, but has been a favorite red zone target for Favre all season.
Wade Phillips and the Cowboys will try to counter the Vikings potent offense by attempting to keep pressure on Favre with four pass rushers. Outside linebackers Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer will be instrumental to this tactic as they blitz from the edges. If the 'Boys can get in Favre's face with just four rushers, this will allow them to drop seven into coverage as well as allow inside linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking to key on stopping Peterson.
It is likely that Dallas will contain Peterson with their 4th ranked run defense, so expect Brad Childress to eventually turn Favre loose. The Vikings tendency is to attempt to establish the run early; therefore, a key to the game will be for the Cowboys to capitalize and take an early lead. Dallas will also be looking to divert Favre's eyes away from his receivers and towards avoiding pass rushers by breaking down the pocket and getting hits on him.
Like their opponent, the Vikings possess a very stout run defense having yielded only 87 yards per game throughout the season. It appears that Marion Barber will be back in the starting line-up after sitting out most of last week's game with an injured knee. He provides a pounding style and is complemented perfectly with the very speedy Felix Jones. Regardless of Barber's health, expect to see Jones on the field for at least 50% of the snaps due to his home run potential.
The Cowboys are much more likely to come out throwing to avoid wasting early possessions against the Vikings tough run defense. Tony Romo is playing with tremendous confidence and has been one of the league's hottest passers over the second half of the year. Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett will once again try to exploit the post catch capabilities of Miles Austin and Patrick Crayton with bubble screens and slants.
A large part of the offensive game plan will involve Pro Bowler Jason Witten. The Vikings defense has had difficulty covering tight ends all season, so look for Witten to work the seams early and often. Once the passing game is clicking, Dallas will mix in plenty of draws and delays to slow down the Jared Allen-led front four. Garrett and Romo have been particularly effective in adjusting plays according to the weaknesses of the defensive personnel on the field at any given time.
This will be a hard fought game. I expect the Cowboys to take the early lead and use a similar formula that has made them the hottest team in the NFC. Eventually, Miles, Jones and Witten will break off some long gainers. Conversely, Favre may be finding themselves playing catch-up all day, with the relentless Dallas pass rush getting the best of him at the end of the day. With Favre always a press conference away from contemplating retirement, Vikings fans may go home wondering if the Cowboys took away their best shot at that elusive trophy.