MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings stumbled into their bye with a 1-5 record, their previously fierce home-field advantage vanished as they faced a low-water mark of four games under the .500 mark for the first time in coach Mike Zimmer's seven seasons.
There was no locker room rant, though, from a leader who's known by his bluntness. Zimmer simply expressed trust in the players that they could initiate a turnaround, a belief backed up by the front office when only one trade — sending recently acquired defensive end Yannick Ngakoue to Baltimore — was made before the deadline.
“He just kind of turned to the team. It was time to step up. Tired of losing like that, in that fashion,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “We knew what kind of players we had. We knew how close we were getting at times. We just weren’t finishing.”
Less than a month later, the Vikings (4-5) have a legitimate path to the playoffs if they can maintain this post-bye momentum. That's what Zimmer envisioned with the right alterations to the game plans and the right approach to the process.
“His message was kind of brief. It was ‘stick together,'” running back Dalvin Cook said. “I think that took us farther than he thinks.”
The Vikings host Dallas (2-7) on Sunday afternoon, their first of three straight home games against losing teams. U.S. Bank Stadium will empty for the remainder of the season, due to continued COVID-19 prevention protocols, but as the Vikings showed in beating NFC North foes Green Bay, Detroit and Chicago over the past three weeks they're capable of generating their own edge.
“The biggest thing is playing with emotion and energy,” Zimmer said. “That seems to be a continuing factor. We’re playing with a lot of young guys, so sometimes it’s like they get out for recess and they’re all excited.”
Here are some key angles to the game:
The Cowboys, who have lost four straight games, will be aiming for a similar bounce after their bye. Though quarterback Dak Prescott is done for the season with a broken ankle, his top backup Andy Dalton is on track to return on Sunday after first-time starters were used in the previous two games. What's more, the woebegone NFC East remains eminently winnable. First-place Philadelphia has only one more win and two fewer losses than Dallas.
“We understand what we’ve gone through in the early weeks. It was not pretty,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “But I’m hopeful and confident we’ve learned from it because we’re going to need it.”
He emphasized the standings in meeting with the team this week.
“It’s obvious the state of our division,” he said.
After allowing a franchise-record 307 rushing yards against Cleveland on Oct. 4, the Cowboys must contend with the NFL's leading rusher in Cook. The Browns are led by first-year coach Kevin Stefanski, who was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator in 2019 and employs the same outside-zone run schemes as the Vikings. Dallas had its best game defending the run in its most recent outing two weeks ago against Pittsburgh, allowing just 46 yards.
“I feel like we’re a different team. We’re playing totally different, energy is totally different, and this will not be a repeat of the Browns game,” defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. “I feel like our feet are underneath us. We’re starting to play with more of a football IQ.”
Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott, the two-time NFL rushing champion, still doesn’t have a 100-yard game this year. He's had seven 100-yard performances in each of his previous three full seasons, so he'd have to run the table to match that.
“My frustration is that we’re 2-7, not that I haven’t had a 100-yard game,” said Elliott, who is 11th in the league with 572 yards, well behind Cook's 954 yards. “We’re just trying to come together as a team and find a way to win a football game.”
CeeDee Lamb, the 17th overall pick, has given the Cowboys a dangerous trio of wide receivers with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Five slots after Lamb, the Vikings made Jefferson the fifth wide receiver taken off the deep board. He's on pace to break the franchise rookie season records for receptions and receiving yards set by Randy Moss in 1998.
“To be drafted fifth off the board and pretty much be the top rookie receiver right now, it means a lot,” Jefferson said. “That’s exactly what I said I was planning to do before the season started and when I was drafted, so I’m just trying to back up my words and just keep going out there and playing my best ball.”
Dallas rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs — the younger brother of former Minnesota and current Buffalo receiver Stefon Diggs — will be sidelined for at least three games after going on injured reserve with a broken foot. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie is expected to return, though, after missing seven games with a hamstring injury. Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown were the only other cornerbacks to get snaps against the Steelers.
More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL