There was a time in August when we had to be pessimistic about the Cowboys and Vikings. Both lost their starting quarterbacks with only two weeks left before the start of the season. Minnesota had high hopes before the year, hoping to follow up on last season’s playoff run, which ended with an agonizing missed chip-shot field goal in the wild-card round, but Teddy Bridgewater’s injury cast doubt on that. Meanwhile, Dallas saw what happened without Tony Romo last year when a 2–0 start turned into a 4–12 finish. At the time, people wondered: Could this year be as bad?
Then, there was a time in October when we had to be extremely optimistic about the Cowboys and Vikings. Dallas had somehow found success with a pair of sudden superstar rookies, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, and Minnesota’s decision to trade for Sam Bradford appeared to have paid off.
But come the first Thursday night in December, we saw two teams headed in very different directions. Dallas’s 17–15 win has it at 11–1 on the season, and the Vikings’ sixth loss in seven games dropped them to 6–6. The Cowboys have the best record in the NFC, and are only technically not guaranteed a playoff berth yet. And Minnesota is only technically not eliminated from the playoffs. Sure, they’re just a game out according to the standings, but each week brings a new misfortune and a new way to lose.
Despite their divergent paths, these two teams are not so different. It’s just that since losing their quarterbacks, everywhere the Cowboys have found a blessing, the Vikings have found a curse. Consider:
• The Cowboys have found success with Prescott, a rookie QB who has combined youthful dynamism with veteran decision-making. Since he was a fourth-round pick, I doubt even they considered him to be an immediate replacement for Romo, but they were clearly thinking about the possibility of life without their incumbent quarterback, either due to retirement or re-injury.
The Vikings had no reason to plan for an injury to Bridgewater until it happened. Their backup was Shaun Hill, a 36-year old journeyman best served advising a younger Bridgewater and never, ever playing. When Bridgewater went down, they scrambled, and gave away a valuable 2017 first-round pick (plus a conditional 2018 pick) for Bradford, who was warned by extremely specific mobsters that harm would come to his family if he threw the ball farther than 10 yards downfield more than three times a game. He’s second in the league in completion percentage, and has done wonders for causing people to question “completion percentage” as a stat people casually toss around to debate quarterback success.
While Dallas’s midround pick of Prescott instantly panned out better than anybody’s expectations, Minnesota used one first-round pick on Laquon Treadwell, who has only one catch this year. (Clanga > Hotty Toddy.) Then the Vikings used their next first-rounder to get Bradford, a former no. 1 overall pick who has never lived up to anybody’s expectations. As for the Cowboys’ first-rounder …
• Ezekiel Elliott has significantly more rushing yards than anybody else. He’s so fast and strong and mean, yet he’s gleeful about how fast and strong and mean he is. The Vikings had Adrian Peterson, the most dependable back in the league, but he got injured right after Bridgewater. Now they’re dead last in every running category. We use the phrase “two-headed monster” to describe teams that regularly use two running backs, but when those backs are Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata, we’re reminded that most animals born with two heads die within hours. (Oh, you wanna read about what happens to animals with two heads? Don’t say I didn’t warn you about the gross pictures.)
And why has Elliott been so successful?
• The Cowboys have the best offensive line in football, keeping Prescott nice and clean while opening up sequoia-size holes for Elliott to roam through. This season, the Vikings have had to cycle through nine starters, including three left tackles and three right tackles. That’s a preposterous amount of injuries for a position group dependent on unity and consistency.
• The Cowboys have one of the best kickers in the history of football, Dan Bailey. I’m not exaggerating; he’s the only kicker in NFL history to hit more than 90 percent of his career field goals, and while the rest of the league struggles with extra points, Bailey has yet to miss one in his career. Meanwhile, the Vikings had to cut Blair Walsh for his unreliability, perhaps a mental holdover from his infamous miss in last year’s playoffs.
Even with all the injuries, Minnesota is still sitting at .500, and four of its losses have been by one possession. But this season has maximized the Vikings’ pain. It hasn’t just been the litany of on-field football injuries: Even Mike Zimmer’s eye decided it was out of here. There is some extremely mean football god pulling the Vikings’ strings and laughing at their misfortune.
The Cowboys could have been the Vikings. But Minnesota’s season is a testament to how many things can go wrong in this ridiculously multifaceted game we love. By strategy, Dallas created a situation in which they could succeed without their star QB. By luck, their world has not exploded like Minnesota’s.