FRISCO, TX — Dak Prescott’s statement wasn’t an exaggeration.
Sure, on the face of it, the Dallas Cowboys’ visit to the Minnesota Vikings this weekend tops the postseason slate.
But when the Cowboys quarterback said the competition between a 6-3 (Dallas) team and an 8-1 superpower “is a playoff,” he wasn’t simply exaggerating the environment or the stakes. Instead, the November game of conference opponents already has two teams that are currently eligible for the postseason. Teams share a telling trait: they win without a potential starting midfielder.
Going into Week 11 of the NFL season, clarity is emerging on which teams are in playoff spot across the league. Ten of them have won at least two-thirds of their games, five of which are quarterbacks played by players with top-five odds of winning the NFL MVP award for the season, per BetMGM.
Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs (+125), Josh Allen (+500), Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts (+500), Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins (+500), and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens (+1,200) head the list. There is no other player’s chance better than +2500.
While none of these five players operate in isolation, their passing efficiency is closely linked to their path to the playoffs. Tagovailoa leads the league with a passer rating of 118.4, a metric that takes into account pass attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, and interceptions. Hurts was third, Mahomes fourth, Allen seventh and Jackson eighth.
Meanwhile, Cousins and Prescott posted best ratings of 20 and 24, respectively.
Which begs the question: What role did each player play in his team’s quick start? How will that affect their encounter this weekend?
A touch of clutch
Cousins was consistent if not elite. He threw one to two touchdowns per game, averaged fewer interceptions per contest and produced 261.8 yards per game in the air, eighth most among quarterbacks in the league.
His touchdown-to-interception ratio has dropped from an impressive 4.7 doubles last year (33-to-7), to 1.75 currently (14-to-8). But Cousins executed when it mattered most as the Vikings won seven of their eight games by a score of one or less. No quarterback has directed more game winning drives this year than Five Cousins. No passer-by has exceeded his five returns. After the Vikings took eight of their nine losses last season by a margin of one possession, the swing has been amazing.
“She finds those inches,” Cousins said. “I’d rather not rely on that play at the end of every game, but you understand in this league, they tend to get to the final stage. And that’s the way these games go. Being battle tested, I think it’s a good thing for us.
“It will help us move forward.”
The Vikings launched the seventh most explosive cross-border attack using a stable of deep weapons. Receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thelin consistently provide Cousins with reliable targets. Minnesota also immediately incorporated TJ Hockenson two games since acquiring him at the trade deadline. Jefferson’s acrobatics wowed the league last Sunday when he Stole the fourth goal and 18 From the grip of a Bills defender. His 1,060 yards receiving is trailed only by the Miami Dolphins’ Tyrek Hill (1,148). Jeffersonians’ instincts to take the road, speed, and control their bodies are likely to lead them to success with most passersby. But Cousins deserves credit for his relationship with the third-year skill player.
“Both of them have been very, very critical to our success this year and continue to prove to me that they are huge parts of not only who we are now but what we are going to have going forward,” Vikings head coach Kevin O. Connell said this week. “They came together in a way that I saw their relationship grow. I’ve seen Justin’s maturity as a pro here in year 3 as a major player in this league but also Kirk Cousins in year 1 of the offense where he played a lot of football.”
With its bottom-five defense and below-average rushing attack, the Vikings’ passing offense has been the most reliable component so far of their season. O’Connell’s philosophies about the specific packages of a game plan, staff groupings, disguises and pacing help maximize his talent. However, the implementation of the plan was led by Cousins.
“He’s had a lot of success in his career, but some elements of this year have been new and different and we’re asking a lot of him,” O’Connell said. “He strives to be at his best when it’s called for, and I think you can never say enough about the quarterback position.”
“It’s not as clean or as good as I would like it to be.”
Meanwhile, Prescott had only appeared in four of Dallas’ nine games. He missed Weeks 2-6 after breaking his thumb in Dallas’ season-opening loss. With a bye week between his two previous starts, his schedule and performance have been inconsistent.
When the Packers upset the Cowboys this past Sunday, it was on full display.
Prescott opened the game 0-for-4 as the Cowboys put up three doubles, and head coach Mike McCarthy later attributed the slow start to foot rust in Prescott’s first away game of the year. The next series: Prescott completed 10 of 11 attempts (albeit some short), while also rushing for three first down attempts, on a 17-play, 83-yard drive that Prescott headed to a CeeDee Lamb touchdown run.
Prescott finished the game with 265 yards and three touchdowns — but he also completed only 58.7% of attempts and threw two interceptions on preemptive throws that the Cowboys said his receivers didn’t perform as crisply.
In four games, Prescott completed 63.8% of attempts for 865 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s appeared in a few series, but he’s also delivered the highest clip of his seven-year career.
Prescott was asked Thursday if his performance this season has been patchy.
“weird? That’s a good question. “I can’t necessarily say that. Obviously as I said it’s five games for me, some things are on the same page, making sure the players understand, doing that…but obviously not 5-0 in those games, So it’s definitely not as clean or as good as I’d like it to be.”
Prescott insisted he believes in his arm and its goals so he intends to continue to “let it rip”. McCarthy said that Prescott’s “best days lie ahead” but that he “has no misgivings”.
Fact: The Cowboys’ 4-1 record without Prescott, versus their 2-2 record with him, does not imply that backup running back Cooper Rush is a superior option. But he points to the formula that drove the Cowboys’ victories, a dominant running game that complements a stingy defense on first down with a wicked rush of passing.
When the Rush played, the Cowboys didn’t demand much from their quarterback. In the Cowboys’ four wins, Rush has thrown four touchdowns and no interceptions. (He threw one touchdown and three picks at Philly). The first offense demolished the clock and kept Cowboys defenders fresh, while clean football reduced chances for opponents to take advantage. The defense rose to the occasion and took pride in carrying the team in Prescott’s absence. Since his return, some advocates have admitted that the sense of urgency has subsided. In each of the previous two games, opponents had burned the Cowboys for over 200 rushing yards in an alarming game-planning direction. The Cowboys surrendered a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers.
“S***, it won’t happen again,” said linebacker Micah Parsons. “If Duck goes out there and gives me that drive again, I promise we won’t do it again.”
So what can fans expect between the Cowboys and Vikings?
Who has the advantage?
The Cowboys have won Minnesota the past two seasons. They are favored by 1.5 points on the road despite the Vikings’ superior record.
It probably stems in part from general prejudices about the Cowboys, but it also likely reflects the team’s relative strengths. The Cowboys pass defense can confuse cousins and tempt errors. If running back (knee) Ezekiel Elliott returns from a two-week absence as expected, the Cowboys can outfit the Vikings with Elliott and tackle back Tony Pollard.
“They have a lot of pushers,” O’Connell said. “I mean, they have way too many guys up front and they can really wreak havoc. They get it 1 on 1 in different ways, and… You can’t let one shot go by,” she told our team. [without] Basically, the technique, the understanding of the task, what the call is, is 100 percent dialed in. Because if you leave one game out, this could be the game-changing play.”
Likewise, the Cowboys must defend against out-of-zone runs and Jefferson leagues or risk their playoff chances in a loaded division that gets a hit.
“They’re going to find a weak link and attack,” Cowboys’ safety Jayron Keers said. “They’ll make you mismatch.”
Individual mismatches may appear. But these two teams, at the most influential position in the sport, are just as close.
The NFL is about to learn more about this pair of postseason contenders–and just how serious a threat their quarterbacks pose now and in the playoffs.
Follow Jory Epstein of Yahoo Sports on Twitter @employee
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