General thinking seemed to be that the only way the Dallas Cowboys could lose this game against the Minnesota Vikings was if they sabotaged themselves.
General thinking was almost right.
In front of a prime-time Thursday night audience and 66,860 fans, the largest crowd ever for Minnesota's new U.S. Bank Stadium, the Cowboys squeaked out 17-15 win after continuously disrupting their own efforts with turnovers and, more importantly, penalties.
The Cowboys were flagged 10 times for a total of 78 yards, but it was how and when those penalties came that made it even worse. They had a 43-yard gain by Ezekiel Elliott called back, an interception by Anthony Hitchens nullified and an 11-yard pass to Jason Witten in the fourth quarter that would have provided a key first down ruined, among others.
But hey, maybe this was yet another test passed for a team that now has championship hopes. The Cowboys overcame a poor effort to still get the victory, and in doing so extended their winning streak to an impressive 11 games.
Credit really goes to the Dallas defense, which again played bend but don't break to near perfection. The unit allowed just one touchdown and surrendered only 15 points, the seventh time this season the Cowboys have held an opponent to under 20 points.
On offense, though, the team struggled against one of the league's top defenses, as Dallas was held to just 264 total yards, converted only 1-of-9 third down opportunities and lost the time of possession battle, 26:43 to 33:17.
Running back Ezekiel Elliott would have likely reached the century mark again if not for the penalties, but settled instead for 86 yards rushing on 20 carries, a still a respectable 4.3 yards per carry average. His rookie teammate, Dak Prescott, completed 66.7 percent of his passes (12-of-18), but for only 139 yards, his primary target on this night being Dez Bryant, who totaled 84 receiving yards on four catches with one touchdown.
[embeddedad0]Given that, it's no surprise that the game was a struggle from the beginning for the Cowboys, as they were forced to punt on their first two drives with their third series ending on a Lucky Whitehead fumble. Meanwhile, Minnesota kicked a 48-yard field midway through the frame to take an early lead.
But in the second quarter, Prescott and the Dallas offense seemed to find their form. Taking over at their own 16-yard line, the Cowboys were able to march 84 yards to the end zone in eight plays to put seven points on the board.
Prescott first did the damage with his legs, picking up a 14-yard gain on a third-and-13, diving for the first down to move the chains. Four plays later, on a second-and-9 at their own 43, he then used his arm, hitting Bryant deep down the middle for a 56-yard gain to the Vikings 1-yard line.
Elliott got the honors, however, plunging in for the score. It was his 12th rushing touchdown of the season, tying the Cowboys' rookie record held by both Tony (1977) Dorsett and Herschel Walker (1986).
But after enjoying a 7-3 lead at the halfway point, the Cowboys came out for the third quarter and again struggled. They punted on their first possession of the second half and then saw another fumble, this time by Prescott.
Having already tacked on another three points earlier in the quarter, this time on a 36-yard field goal, Minnesota took over at the Dallas 19-yard line after Prescott as stripped. As the clock ticked over to the fourth quarter, the Cowboys defense did its part, but the Vikings still were able to add another field, Kai Forbath's 33-yarder ricocheting off the right upright and through to give the home team the lead, 9-7.
But just when everything seemed to being going wrong for the Cowboys, they finally caught a break with the Vikings this time their own worst enemy. Following the penalty that nullified Witten's first down, Minnesota's Adam Thielen tried to return the ensuing punt at his own 14-yard line, only to fumble it.
Recovered by Kyle Wilber, it was the Cowboys who were now gifted with great field position, the ball at the Vikings' 8-yard line. And they needed only one play, Prescott throwing a quick out to Bryant, who raced to the pylon for the score to give Dallas the lead again, 14-9.
Just like the Cowboys were able to overcome their earlier gaffes, though, Minnesota nearly recovered from its costly mistake. Thankfully, a 39-yard field goal by Dan Bailey was the difference, pushing the score to 17-9.
Because the Vikings got one more chance, starting their last drive at their own 35-yard line with just 2:09 remaining. That was plenty of time for Minnesota as the team rolled right down the field and eventually reached the end zone on a 3-yard pass from Sam Bradford to Jerick McKinnon.
But needing to go for two, the Vikings were first called for a false start penalty that pushed them back 5 yards, and then on their next try Bradford's pass attempt sailed high. After the onside kick failed, Dallas had its victory.
With the win, the Cowboys moved to 11-1 on the season, maintaining the best record in the NFL. And on Sunday, if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lose or tie, or the Washington Redskins lose, Dallas could clinch a playoff spot this weekend.
Regardless, the Cowboys will now enjoy a 10-day break before heading to New York to face the rival Giants in a Sunday night showdown on Dec. 11.
Check out some of our favorite photos from Thursday Night Football's Color Rush matchup between the Cowboys and the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.