Now this is what we've been waiting for. The Dallas Cowboys played tough, physical football on defense and used a balanced, efficient attack on offense to pull out an unexpected 31-28 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. This not only marked Dallas' first road win of the 2020 season, but more importantly showed that the team has perhaps finally turned a corner under new head coach Mike McCarthy.
The Dallas defense faced a tall order in trying to stop Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, and the NFL's leading rusher did pound his way to 115 yards with Kirk Cousins also completing 73.3 percent of his passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns. But the Cowboys used several big hits and recorded two fumble recoveries that both led to points – safety Donovan Wilson forcing the ball loose both times – to keep their side in it.
Which in the end was enough, as on offense running back Ezekiel Elliott nearly matched his counterpart blow-for-blow. Elliott finished with 103 rushing yards, his first time topping the century mark this year, but he actually had a better yards per carry average than Cook, 4.9 to 4.3.
While Quarterback Andy Dalton, who was back behind center after missing two games, threw for 203 yards and three touchdowns, the Cowboys did finish with 376 total yards of offense to Minnesota's 430 and lost the time of possession, 28:11 to 31:49.
But they won where it counted most – on the scoreboard.
After nearly earning a takeaway when Cedrick Wilson forced a fumble on the Vikings' first punt return of the day, the Cowboys instead had to wait a few more minutes for their first turnover. DeMarcus Lawrence provided the muscle on a sack of Cousins with Donovan Wilson stripping the ball away from the quarterback to set Dallas up at Minnesota's 30-yard line.
Three plays later, the Cowboys were in the end zone, Elliott getting the honors with a 6-yard catch for the touchdown. Kicker Greg Zuerlein's extra point was blocked, but the Cowboys were on the board, 6-0.
However, the ensuing Vikings possession was methodical, as the home side marched 75 yards in 12 plays while eating up 7:15 of the clock. They converted three third downs along the way, the last a third-and-goal at the 1-yard line that saw Cook barrel in for the score and a 7-6 lead.
The Cowboys' physical play continued into the second frame, as the team overcame a Dalton interception in Minnesota territory with some tough defense and a Vikings penalty that negated a potential fourth down conversion on a fake punt.
There would be no miscues on Dallas' next series, though. In fact, it turned into a CeeDee Lamb highlight reel. The rookie receiver got things going with an 18-yard punt return, and then converted a fourth-and-1 with a 6-yard run around the left end. But he saved the best for last, making a spectacular twisting, falling catch in the end zone for the touchdown.
And Dallas wasn't done yet. Another thunderous hit by Wilson forced a fumble that Jaylon Smith returned 21 yards to the Minnesota 48-yard line with 49 seconds left. The Cowboys worked down to the Vikings' 1 off a 32-yard completion to Amari Cooper, which set Zuerlein up for a chip-shot field goal and a 16-7 Dallas lead at the break.
Alas, the good vibes from the end of the first half didn't carry over into the third quarter as Minnesota ran 30 plays to the Cowboys' six, holding possession for 11:54 of the 15-minute frame.
The Vikings used their first possession of the quarter to march right down the field in nine plays. Wideout Adam Thielen did the damage, breaking free for a big 51-yard gain, and then putting a cap on the drive with a one-handed touchdown catch in the back, right corner of the end zone.
That was followed by Minnesota taking over at its own 19-yard line on its next series and using 12 plays to go the distance. Kirk Cousins' 3-yard touchdown pass to Thielen on the first play of the fourth quarter turned a nine-point advantage for the Cowboys into a five-point deficit, 21-16.
But just when the Cowboys looked like they were finished, the team found some life using the ground game. Elliott ran the ball three straight times for a combined 24 yards before Tony Pollard stepped in and broke loose for a 42-yard dash to the end zone, the team's longest run of the season. With an option that saw Elliott pitch the ball to Lamb, who raced to the pylon for the two-point conversion, Dallas was back in front at 24-21.
It didn't last long in the back-and-forth affair, as Minnesota came right back with a 39-yard touchdown pass from Cousins to Justin Jefferson. But with time ticking down, the Cowboys did what they had to do. Taking over at his own 39-yard line with 4:00 left, Dalton orchestrated an 11-play, 61-yard drive to pay dirt, the game-winner coming on a perfectly designed play that broke tight end Dalton Schultz wide open for the 2-yard score.
With their third victory of the year, the Cowboys stayed in the hunt for the NFC East title, and now have a chance to improve their standing even more with a showdown against rival Washington in the traditional Thanksgiving game on Thursday.