MINNEAPOLIS – You can't win 'em all, can you?
Like, who in today's NFL wins 15 consecutive games, right? Unless, I guess, you're named the New England Patriots? The Cowboys have now won 11 straight, with six the next-longest current winning streak in the NFL this season, belonging to the New York Football Giants.
Like, who these days even comes close to going 15-1, right? Since the next-best records in the NFL today to the Cowboys' 11-1 are the 9-2s of New England and Oakland and the 8-3 of them Giants?
Certainly none of the Cowboys teams qualifying for those eight Super Bowl appearances ever have, nor any of the other clubs over the franchise's previous 56 seasons.
At some point, common sense tells you the Cowboys are going to lose a game or two.
By all rights, the Cowboys should have lost here Thursday night in Noise Dome, also known as U.S. Bank Stadium, before 66,860 riled up folks, although Cowboys fans had a heavy presence. That Minnesota Vikings defense is for real, the best Dallas has faced over the first dozen games of the season – the first that has given the Cowboys offense, the Cowboys offensive line and the Cowboys offensive stars fits.
Geesh, the Cowboys only scored 17 points. They only gained a season-low 264 yards. They turned the ball over a season-high twice, and could have even more since they fumbled four times. The team converting an NFL second-best 48.5 percent of its third downs converted only 11 percent (1-of-9) against Minnesota. Thus, they only totaled a season-low 13 first downs.
Yet they won. Beat them Vikings for the first time in the last six trips up here, 17-15, improbably sweeping all three of these games played in just 12 days.
Enough to make you scratch your head, right? Crinkle your nose and screech, "Say what?"
And this time, this win wasn't all about the two offensive whiz kids, rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. Wasn't even about that Cowboys offensive line, the one considered the best in the NFL that was tested for 60 minutes Thursday night.
No, this was about them others, the guys whose names are rarely mentioned. This was about the defense, holding the Vikings to just 15 points, the seventh opponent this season held to no more than 17 points. This was about the pressure put on Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford, who did complete 32-of-45 passes but for just 247 yards, averaging a paltry 5.5 yards per attempt. The Cowboys sacked him twice, hit him another nine times, hurrying him into no more than a 25-yarder for his longest pass of the night.
This was about the Cowboys special teams, usually never noticed unless something goes wrong. Well, a whole lot went right Thursday night, and if not for those guys and the defenders, chances are the Cowboys would not have completed this three-game stretch played over 12 days by sweeping all three wins over Baltimore, Washington and now Minnesota.
[embeddedad0]Let's take Kyle Wilber. Even remember the last time his name has been mentioned? Probably back in camp when there were thoughts of him playing strong-side linebacker and also putting his hand on the ground as a pass-rushing defensive end. In this game Wilber, along with first-year wide receiver Vince Mayle, who until two weeks ago had spent the first nine games on the practice squad, came up with possibly the night's biggest play.
Punting to Minnesota trailing 9-7 with 10:39 left, Mayle first hits Adam Thielen, and when Wilber came in over the top to finish him off, he stripped and recovered the ball at the Vikings 8-yard line. One play later, the Cowboys had the lead, 14-9.
"That's what Coach (Rich Bisaccia) emphasizes – take away the ball. That makes a difference, so just trying to do my job," Wilber said.
Then there is punter Chris Jones. That's right, a punter. While Vikings punter Jeff Locke had his ball backing up better than a 7-iron to the green, averaging just 32 yards a kick, Jones netted 47 yards on his six punts, not only changing field possession, but neutralizing the Vikings potent return game. Just huge.
On defense, how 'bout Cedric Thornton. Wondering why the free-agent signee from Philadelphia hadn't been starting is the reason his name had been mentioned of late. But in this one, on the potential game-tying two-point conversion attempt with just 25 seconds left, he broke through and got in Bradford's face, forcing an high, errant throw into the end zone to all but decide the game.
"Just playing together, fun playing together," Thornton said. "We're 11-1. We love it."
There was Anthony Hitchens, not just Sean Lee, leading the team with 10 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss, one QB hit and a pass defensed. He would have recorded an interception, too, if not for a hands-to-the-face call on Orlando Scandrick nullifying his pick. And don't forget David Irving and DeMarcus Lawrence, both getting in Bradford's hip pocket time and again.
Even Benson Mayowa, the free agent signed from Oakland, got into the act. He had been inactive the past two games – coach's decision – but came up with his third sack of the season. Rookie Maliek Collins also added his third sack this year, too.
On and on, guys like Anthony Brown, not only filling in for the injured Morris Claiborne, but actually starting Thursday night at left cornerback. Damien Wilson, Jack Crawford.
A whole slew of them.
"It's so important, and we emphasize everybody doing their job and being prepared for their opportunity," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "And each of those guys, they just do an amazing job in their preparation each week, and they're champing at the bit to get a chance to go do it. And Kyle Wilber's play was obviously the huge play in the game, gave us a chance to go ahead. Each of those guys, Benson and 'Ced' did such a good job of being around the quarterback at critical times. You make a sack, and Cedric, from my vantage point, really impacted the two-point play by putting a really good rush on their quarterback and making him throw the ball, maybe, earlier than he wanted to.
"So again, those guys scratch, they claw, they fight, and they took advantage of their opportunities tonight and made a big difference in the ball game."
Just goes to show how diversified a team must be to win 11 consecutive games. Can't be in the same manner or leaning on the same guys week in and week out. Sometimes you have to come from behind, and the Cowboys certainly have, four times in the fourth quarter. Sometimes it might take overtime. Sometimes you rely on the offense. A few times, in the Cowboys case, the defense. Even special teams, meaning not always your 22 offensive and defensive starters.
Yessiree, takes a village to go 11-1, especially with those last three again coming in the past 12 days.
"There is no question you are going to get challenged differently over the course of a 16-game season, and the teams that are able to withstand the different challenges over the different games ultimately are going to be the ones that are most successful," Garrett said on a Friday conference call. "And if you do have an ability to win different ways, when you are not always relying on one guy, one portion of your team, one phase of your team, that's certainly going to make you a more difficult team to beat.
"And last night was a good example of that."
Got that right, because if all the Cowboys had against the Vikings Thursday night was their offense, just Dak and Zeke, their offensive line and a bevy of receivers, chances are 17 wouldn't have been nearly enough.
But sometimes 17 has to be enough if you have any ambition of running the table after the first game of the season.
How crazy is that?
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.