If the 2021 NFL season ended today, before the teams meet on "Sunday Night Football," both the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings would make the playoffs. For the Cowboys, of course, that's not a surprise. Most are familiar with their return to prominence, a high-flying offense led by Dak Prescott's MVP-level play and a defense electrified by a Deion Sanders-wannabe, Trevon Diggs.
What you might not be familiar with is the Vikings' climb back to respectability after a hard-luck start. Their first two games were painful losses, a fumble in overtime coughed up to the Bengals followed by a missed field goal at the end of regulation against the Cardinals. They've lost their three games by a total of 11 points, all of them to teams currently in playoff position themselves.
Does that leave enough momentum for them to pounce against the Cowboys at home, especially with Prescott at less than 100 percent? Or is that giving too much credit to a Minnesota team whose three wins have come against teams with a combined record of 5-16?
The Cowboys hold a 17-15 all-time lead over the Vikings, with that narrow edge coming from Dallas' 3-1 record over the past 10 years. America's Team has even won two straight in Minnesota, including last year's 31-28 win in November.
Sunday Night Football: Dallas (5-1) at Minnesota (3-3)
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 31 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Vikings -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Will Dak Prescott play?
That's been the question surrounding the Cowboys for nearly two weeks since Prescott injured his calf on the final play of an overtime win against the Patriots. The quarterback emerged from the game in a walking boot, said it "came down funny" and has been the source of injury speculation ever since.
Even with the bye week, it's clear Prescott is not fully healed. Limited in practice all week, he's officially listed as questionable as both team and player believe the calf strain is connected to his devastating ankle injury last year.
Claiming he "pushed it" in practice, Prescott said if the decision was up to him, he'd play. But with a 3.5-game lead already in a depleted NFC East, there's a legitimate concern for the Cowboys that the risk outweighs the reward.
"It's not fully my decision because there is a bigger picture," he said to reporters this week. "It's more than just one game. … I don't know if it's just my decision."
Sound familiar? We were hearing these bites from Baker Mayfield before last Thursday night's game against the Denver Broncos. Mayfield, suffering from a torn labrum, wound up sitting out the game despite desperately wanting to play.
If Prescott can't go, the task falls to Cooper Rush, an undrafted fifth-year pro out of Central Michigan with three career NFL passes to his name. That changes the dynamic of the Cowboys' top-ranked offense and brings back past nightmares of life without Prescott: the team went 4-7 after he got hurt in 2020. Even with the weapons they have, from rookie wide receiver CeeDee Lamb to emerging running back threat Tony Pollard, you can't run this well-oiled machine of an offense if an unproven quarterback can't keep pace.
For what it's worth, running back Ezekiel Elliott gave a public vote of confidence to his backup quarterback Thursday. But the offense without Prescott is a giant unknown, allowing the Vikings to focus heavily on shutting down Dallas' two-pronged rushing attack. Even with a 26th-ranked rushing defense, Prescott being questionable has the Vikings favored in a game in which they should be heavy underdogs.
2. Can the Vikings' offense keep clicking?
Kirk Cousins, wide receiver Adam Thielen, and running back Dalvin Cook all had season-best games against the Panthers in Week 6. Cousins threw for a season-high 373 yards with three touchdowns and didn't have an interception or take a sack. Thielen, who had a sluggish start this year, caught 11 balls for 126 yards and a touchdown despite being bothered with a foot injury.
But it's Cook who changes the dynamic of this offense. His 140 rushing yards on a whopping 29 carries gave the Vikings a season-high 37:38 time of possession in their 34-28 overtime in Carolina. After hobbling with a bad ankle early in the year, the Week 7 bye allowed Cook to heal up. He wasn't even on the injury report heading into this weekend's matchup. Backup Alexander Mattison also appears to be in better shape as well after dealing with a bum shoulder.
That's important because this Minnesota offense is dynamic when everyone's healthy. Quietly, the Vikings sit fifth in the league in total yards, top 10 in both rushing and passing offense while committing just five turnovers in six games. Cousins has kept this team on track early on, preventing panic after some early losses and this veteran squad is reaping the rewards. Diggs, battling an ankle injury, will be hard-pressed to add to his league-leading seven interceptions.
3. Who's shaky kicking problems are fixed?
Here's the biggest asterisk in a game that should be an offensive explosion. Kicker Greg Joseph, out of the league in 2020, has had a shaky return after winning the starting job with the Vikings. Besides the missed field goal at the end of the Cardinals game, he botched an extra point that could have sent it to overtime.
Against Detroit two weeks ago, Joseph needed redemption after missing a 49-yard field goal with 3:22 left in the game. In the past two weeks alone, he's had three misses and remains a wild card with limited experience.
Veteran Greg Zuerlein should be running circles around Joseph, but he, too, has had his share of troubles in a tough year for kickers. His two missed field goals were the difference in the season opener against the Buccaneers; he missed a third against the Patriots that would have given the Cowboys a fourth-quarter lead.
It's a weak point for two teams that shine on offense. Joseph, especially, can't be trusted yet with the game on the line.
It's a hard game to handicap with so much riding on whether Prescott plays and, if so, how effective he'll be under center. The recipe is there for a Minnesota upset that puts the Vikings back on the map in the NFC, eking ahead of other teams vying for that final wild-card slot.
But the Cowboys have a different feel around them this year. Even if Rush fills in at QB, there are enough offensive pieces here for them to outslug their hosts on Sunday night.
Prediction: Cowboys 31, Vikings 28
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.