Thursday, January 14, 2010

NFL Playoff Preview - Dallas (12-5) at Minnesota (12-4)

By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - Brett Favre has waited two years for a chance to get back to the NFC Championship Game. The only thing standing in the way of him and the Minnesota Vikings is the team that's given the legendary quarterback plenty of disappointing moments in the past.

Favre will be attempting to slay a pair of demons when he leads the Vikings into this Sunday's NFC Divisional Playoff with a Dallas Cowboys squad that enters the Metrodome riding a surge of confidence from a four-game win streak extended by the franchise's first postseason victory in 13 years.

Favre's last playoff pass was intercepted by New York Giants' cornerback Corey Webster in overtime of the 2007 NFC Championship, with the turnover leading to a game-winning field goal that sent the Green Bay Packers to a crushing 23-20 defeat. The attempt was also Favre's final one as a Packer, before a drama- filled chain of events eventually landed the three-time NFL MVP with Green Bay's most bitter rival just prior to the start of this season.

Having accomplished one of his primary goals as a Viking by orchestrating two tension-filled in-season wins over the organization that cut him loose a few months after that stinging playoff loss, Favre now gets a much-desired opportunity for postseason redemption as he tries to bring Minnesota to its first appearance in the conference title game since 2000.

The star signal-caller can also earn some long-awaited payback to a Cowboys club that defeated Favre's Packers three straight times in the playoffs from 1993-95, the last of which marked the most recent time Dallas reached the NFC Championship. The now 40-year-old is just 2-9 lifetime against the Cowboys over his storied 19-year career.

Dallas had won only a single postseason contest since that besting of Green Bay during the 1995 season -- a 40-15 trouncing of the Vikings in an NFC Wild Card matchup on December 28, 1996 -- before finally ending its lengthy drought with last weekend's 34-14 opening-round ousting of Philadelphia. In much the same fashion as their three straight wins to conclude the regular season, the third-seeded Cowboys combined a well-balanced offense with a dominant defensive display to overmatch its fellow NFC East foe.

The Cowboys have outscored their opponents by a 99-31 margin during their four-game tear, which began with a highly-impressive 24-17 verdict over then- unbeaten New Orleans, the NFC's No. 1 seed in this season's tournament, on December 19.

Minnesota, which was granted a first-round bye after earning the second seed with a 12-4 record, will be seeking its first playoff win since 2004. The Vikings returned to the postseason following a three-year absence in 2008, but the NFC North champions were dealt a 26-14 setback by Philadelphia in the Wild Card round in head coach Brad Childress' playoff debut as a sideline boss.

Childress' troops stumbled for a brief stretch after a sizzling 10-1 start to this season, losing three times in a four-game span in December before righting the ship with an authoritative 44-7 waxing of the New York Giants in Week 17 behind Favre's four touchdown passes and 316 yards through the air.

The win put the finishing touches on a perfect regular-season record at the Metrodome, where the Vikings have prevailed by 17 points or more in each of their last five games en route to registering an 8-0 mark.

Favre owns a lifetime 12-10 record as a starter in postseason play, with a 4-4 ledger in the Divisional round.


The Cowboys and Vikings have an extensive postseason history with one another, with Dallas holding a 4-2 edge in that series. The teams met for the NFC Championship in both 1973 and 1977, with Minnesota winning the former (27-10) and Dallas taking the latter (23-6), both in Big D. The only other playoff game played between the teams in Dallas was a 1996 Wild Card win for the home team (40-15). The Cowboys have played playoff games in Minnesota in 1971 (a 20-12 win), 1975 (a 17-14 win), and 1999 (a 27-10 loss).

The regular season series between the teams is knotted, 10-10, with Dallas evening the series by virtue of a 24-14 home win when the teams last met, in Week 7 of the 2007 season. Minnesota won the previous meeting, a 35-17 affair at the Metrodome in the 2004 regular season opener. The Cowboys are 7-4 in regular season games played in Minnesota all-time, but their most recent win there a 23-17 overtime triumph at the Metrodome in 1995.

The teams also played in the final week of the 2009 preseason, a 35-31 Dallas victory.

Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips is 1-2 in his career against Minnesota, including the '07 win and one loss each during his tenures with Denver (1993-94) and Buffalo (1998-2000). Childress is 0-1 against both Phillips and the Cowboys as a head coach.


Dallas placed second in the NFL in total offense (399.4 ypg) during the regular season and eclipsed the 400-yard plateau for the ninth time in 2009 with last week's 426-yard outburst against Philadelphia. Nearly half of that amount came on the ground, with a powerful front line anchored by a pair of Pro Bowl honorees in center Andre Gurode and guard Leonard Davis paving the way for a career day from running back Felix Jones (685 rushing yards, 3 TD, 19 receptions). The second-year speedster accounted for 148 of the Cowboys' 198 rushing yards in the win, 73 of which came on a back-breaking touchdown burst in the third quarter. Jones and capable sub Tashard Choice (349 rushing yards, 3 TD, 15 receptions) carried the bulk of the load in that game with Marion Barber (932 rushing yards, 7 TD, 26 receptions), the team's leading rusher in the regular season, hampered by a swollen left knee that will likely reduce him to spot duty again on Sunday. The Cowboys can throw the ball effectively as well, as quarterback Tony Romo (4483 passing yards, 26 TD, 9 INT) set a team single-year record for passing yards and wide receiver Miles Austin (81 receptions, 1320 yards, 11 TD) delivering a breakthrough campaign as Dallas' top downfield threat. Tight end Jason Witten (94 receptions, 1030 yards, 2 TD) also put together a banner campaign as Romo's preferred target, and the six-time Pro Bowler is an asset to the running game as well due to his exceptional blocking skills. Witten may have to be used more in pass protection this week to combat Minnesota's formidable defensive line, and if the Vikings decide to roll coverage Austin's way, enigmatic wideout Roy Williams (38 receptions, 7 TD) and slotman Patrick Crayton (37 receptions, 5 TD) will both have to be factors in order to keep the offense running smoothly. Williams had a good game last week, totaling 59 yards on five catches.

The Cowboys' have averaged a healthy 157.5 rushing yards during their four- game win streak, but it'll be a tall order to duplicate that total against a Minnesota defense that yielded a scant 87.1 yards per game on the ground this season, the second-lowest figure in the NFL. The outstanding combo of tackles Pat Williams (44 tackles, 2 sacks) and Kevin Williams (30 tackles, 6 sacks) are difficult to budge along the interior, while cornerback Antoine Winfield (55 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) is regarded as one of the premier run-stoppers at his position. The unit was dealt a serious blow, however, with the season- ending broken leg valuable middle linebacker E.J. Henderson (83 tackles, 2 sacks) suffered in early December. Rookie Jasper Brinkley (31 tackles, 1 sack) has been an adequate fill-in, but isn't quite the same caliber of player. Winfield, the Vikings' best cover man, has also experienced a drop-off due to a cracked foot that hasn't fully healed, a concerning situation with the dangerous Austin on the opposing side. Fortunately, Minnesota excels at pressuring the quarterback, with All-Pro Jared Allen (51 tackles, 14.5 sacks), fellow end Ray Edwards (51 tackles, 8.5 sacks) and Kevin Williams heading up a group that produced a league-best 48 sacks in 2009.


It's hard to argue that any player who switched teams in the offseason has had a greater impact on their team than Favre (4202 passing yards, 33 TD, 7 INT), and the gray-haired field general's career-best 68.4 completion percentage lends evidence to the notion that he may be getting even better with age. Favre's experience has enabled Minnesota to get the most of a talented corps of receivers, as both third-year pro Sidney Rice (83 receptions, 1312 yards, 8 TD) and 2009 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Percy Harvin (60 receptions, 8 total TD) blossomed in a retooled offense that became the first in NFL history with six players to record 40 or more receptions and helped the Vikes rank second in the league in scoring (29.4 ppg). Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (56 receptions) also turned in a strong year, with his team-best 11 touchdown catches a big reason why Minnesota finished second in the NFC in red-zone scoring percentage, while running backs Adrian Peterson (1383 rushing yards, 18 TD) and Chester Taylor (338 rushing yards, 44 receptions, 2 total TD) have served as solid check-down options for Favre. The gifted Peterson also stands among the game's elite rushers, although the first-team All-Pro hasn't cracked the 100-yard mark since Week 10 and averaged a modest 3.5 yards per carry over the season's final seven weeks.

Dallas will try to counter Minnesota's high-scoring attack with a stout defense that surrendered only 15.6 points during the regular season (2nd overall) and has been superb over the course of the team's winning run. The Cowboys have permitted a meager 50.3 rushing yards over their four recent wins while posting four sacks in each of those games. Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer (67 tackles, 6 sacks, 1 INT) has racked up five sacks in that time frame, while counterpart DeMarcus Ware (57 tackles, 11 sacks) took down the Eagles' Donovan McNabb twice last week and is a proven difference-maker along the edge. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff (40 tackles, 6 sacks) is a quality pass rusher in his own right, and the All-Pro selection teams with the sturdy inside linebacker tandem of Keith Brooking (106 tackles, 3 sacks) and Bradie James (113 tackles, 2 sacks) to key Dallas' rugged run defense, which has yet to allow an individual 100-yard rusher this season. Cornerbacks Terence Newman (57 tackles, 3 INT, 18 PD) and Mike Jenkins (49 tackles, 5 INT, 19 PD) headline a secondary that did a good job of keeping the Eagles' big-play weapons in check last week, although they'll be challenged on Sunday due to all the options Favre has at his disposal.


Minnesota possesses clear advantages in both the kicking and return games that could play a role in the final outcome of Sunday's clash. The electric Harvin averaged an excellent 27.5 yards on kick returns and ran back two for touchdowns during his terrific rookie year, while reliable kicker Ryan Longwell hit on 26-of-28 field goal tries and made 10 attempts from beyond 40 yards. Reserve receiver Darius Reynard (10.3 avg.) made a good contribution on punt returns as well.

Dallas will attempt to keep Harvin at bay by utilizing the strong leg of kickoff specialist David Buehler, who boomed 23 balls for touchbacks over the 16-game schedule, and its solid coverage units under esteemed special teams coach Joe DeCamillis. Punter Mat McBriar (45.1 avg.) is also adept at pinning in the opposition, as the native Australian placed 39 kicks within the enemy 20-yard line this season.

The Cowboys do have a very good return man of their own in Crayton, who took two punts back for scores in the regular season while ranking third in the league with a 12.1 average. Jones (22.6 avg.) handled most of the kick return duties for Dallas this year but will likely defer to backup wideout Kevin Ogletree (20.8 avg.) on Sunday due to his importance in the offensive game plan.

Dallas received an encouraging effort from kicker Shaun Suisham in the Wild Card win, as the late-year pickup made field goals of 48 and 25 yards against the Eagles. He was shaky at times during the regular season, though, which forced the Washington Redskins to release him in December.


Each team has one essential task to accomplish to ensure it will be able to move on to the next week. For the Vikings, it's stopping the run, as Dallas has proven to be quite a load for opposing defenses when it's able to achieve good balance. The Cowboys have to keep getting the tremendous pressure they've received from the defense in order to have a chance of advancing, since Favre will be able to dissect the secondary if given ample time to survey the field. The one constant in all four of Minnesota's losses this year has been an inability to adequately protect, with Favre being sacked three times or more in each of those games. Dallas has been extremely successful at bringing the heat with its bookend pass rushers down the stretch, and with Romo and Jones both playing at very high levels as of late, the Cowboys have the goods to take down a Minnesota club that hasn't completely recovered from some key defensive injuries if everything falls into place.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 21, Vikings 17