Sunday Night Football Preview: Dallas and Minnesota Battle in a Potential Playoff Preview
The linemakers see this as an even matchup, with the Cowboys favored by 3.0, and the public is backing the home team when betting the spread. Per oddsFire, 54% of the bets and 61% of the money is coming in on the Cowboys to cover. However, the moneyline is a different story, with 79% of the bets and 76% of the money landing on Vikings +146. We're also seeing some division on the over/under, with 56% of the bets taking the over on 48.0 points scored, while 53% of the money is going toward the under, implying that the bigger bets are generally taking the under.
With the public perception falling on both sides of this matchup, let's see if our projections see a clear favorite in a game that will not doubt have playoff seeding implications down the line.
Passing Game Preview
The Vikings enter Week 10 with the third-best passing offense in the league, per our numbers, producing 0.26 Adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back. For all of the flack that Kirk Cousins receives from time to time, this passing game compares favorably to offenses led by elite quarterbacks like the Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, and New Orleans Saints. The Vikings rely on efficiency more than volume, however, ranking as the third most run-heavy offense in the league with a 0.93 pass-to-rush ratio, trailing only the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers. Cousins notably struggled in games against top-10 pass defenses like the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, but he has otherwise produced good games in favorable matchups.
Minnesota will be without wide receiver Adam Thielen on Sunday night, a big hit to their passing attack. Thielen leads the Vikings with an 89% Reception Success Rate and is one of three players on the Vikings with 40 or more targets on the season. Thielen's absence will again put a heavy load on Stefon Diggs, who already leads the Vikings with 1.05 Reception NEP per target on a team-high 53 targets. Without Thielen, more work will go to running back Dalvin Cook, who is tied with Thielen as the second most targeted Viking.
Tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Irv Smith Jr. have split the work with 26 and 23 targets, respectively, and have been utilized more often than any of the secondary receivers on the Vikings. Bisi Johnson has filled in for Thielen to some extent, but his 0.63 Reception NEP per target is a far cry from Thielen's mark of 1.01. Laquon Treadwell has produced on limited usage, but his seven targets are too small of a sample to take anything meaningful away from.
Overall, this offense takes a massive hit in efficiency when it targets anyone outside of Thielen or Diggs, meaning the Vikings will either need to get Diggs more involved than they did last week (five targets, one reception, four yards) or will need to make this a run-heavy game plan.
The Cowboys have been exploitable on defense, especially through the air, coming into this week with the 21st-ranked pass D, allowing 0.16 Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per drop back. It's hard to get their disastrous performance against Sam Darnold in Week 6 out of our minds, but since then, this unit has rebounded nicely. In Week 7, they held Carson Wentz to -0.34 Passing NEP per drop back, and after their bye in Week 9, the Cowboys shut down Daniel Jones.
The return of linebacker Leighton Vander Esch should be a boost to the defense as a whole, so maybe we are undervaluing this Dallas D. In a matchup against a Vikings offense missing one of their primary weapons, the Cowboys should be able to limit the damage through the air.
Dallas also boasts an efficient passing attack, entering Week 10 with the sixth-best passing offense in the league with 0.24 Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back. However, after a red-hot start against some bad passing defenses, Dak Prescott has come back to earth a bit. Regardless, this has been a much improved passing game, one that has been able to use play action to take advantage of its strength in the running game.
The Cowboys have clearly been at their best when targeting their big-play receivers, as Amari Cooper leads the team by a mile with 1.10 Reception NEP per target on 57 looks. Cooper popped up on the injury report this week but looks likely to play with a knee injury. Michael Gallup has been the Cowboys' clear second best option, registering 0.85 Reception NEP per target on 46 targets. After Gallup, Dallas has allowed Jason Witten and Randall Cobb to soak up targets, and they have been largely unexciting chain-movers. This offense is at its best when it can hit on deep plays to Cooper and Gallup.
Defensively, the Vikings are as tough as ever, ranking fifth in the league with 0.01 Adjusted Passing NEP per drop back. Minnesota has faced a tough slate of opposing offenses, and outside of Matthew Stafford hooking up with Marvin Jones for four touchdowns in Week 7, they've largely held their own. Their secondary hasn't been as dominant as in the past, and they have allowed some big games to players like Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, and the aforementioned Jones, so there may be opportunities for some chunk plays from Cooper and Gallup. But overall, this is a defense that can get after the quarterback and make things tough for opposing passing games.
Rushing Game Preview
Minnesota is first and foremost a rushing offense, and they enter Week 10 with the 15th-ranked run game, at 0.01 Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry. That efficiency is likely hurt some by the sheer volume, as they rank third in the league with 290 rushing attempts.
Last week in Kansas City, the run game was bottled up, as Dalvin Cook rushed 21 times for 71 yards and produced -0.14 Rushing NEP per carry. However, outside of last week and a few matchups against tough run defenses (Chicago and Philadelphia), Cook has been explosive and produced big games on the ground. He has received 20 or more carries in six of nine weeks and is the focus of the offense each and every time out. Alexander Mattison has received his fair share of work behind Cook but has not been nearly as efficient of an option.
Dallas may provide an opportunity for the Vikings to establish the run as the 'Boys come into the week with the 17th-ranked run defense, at 0.00 Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per carry. Most of the damage against this Cowboys run D has come at the hands of Aaron Jones and Saquon Barkley, and this unit has held up well as of late. Plus, the return of Vander Esch will further boost their sturdiness on defense. However, this is far from a lockdown unit, and if there are holes to exploit on the ground, Minnesota will certainly do everything that they can to find them.
The Cowboys enter this matchup with a much more efficient running game than Minnesota, ranking as the second best rushing offense in the league with 0.15 Adjusted Rushing NEP per carry. With an offensive line returning to full health, this is a rushing attack that may have it's best days ahead of it, as well.
Ezekiel Elliott ranks eighth among running backs with 40 or more carries with a Rushing NEP per carry of 0.09, and backup Tony Pollard ranks 14th among backs with 40 or more carries with 0.04 Rushing NEP per carry. While the Cowboys are much less run-heavy than the Vikings, they still rank as the seventh most run-focused team in the league with a 1.18 pass-to-run ratio.
Minnesota is the ninth best run defense in the league, allowing -0.05 Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per carry in 2019. Outside of allowing a 91-yard touchdown to Damien Williams, this defense has been stingy to opposing running backs and poses a real challenge to the Cowboys' excellent offensive line. Defensive lineman Linval Joseph will miss this week, which gives some hope for the Dallas run game. But regardless, this is a tough unit that has allowed only two touchdowns on the ground to running backs through nine weeks. Their ability to stop Elliott may be the key to this matchup.
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