Clutch Encounters: DAL-MIN
by Scott Kacsmar
To kick off Week 13, Dallas and Minnesota pulled off the rare feat of playing in consecutive Thursday games. Getting the normal amount of rest between games did not really pay off in the quality of the game, as it was a sloppy contest with seven fumbles and a need for multiple replay reversals. The result was also the same as Thanksgiving: a blown lead in a low-scoring game (17-15) for the Vikings, and another win for the Cowboys, their 11th in a row. Minnesota is now 6-6 after a 5-0 start.
Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer missed the game after having emergency eye surgery on Wednesday. In his absence, the team still looked very much like the 2016 Vikings: strong defense and an unsatisfying offense. If anything was out of sorts, it was an especially bad night for punter Jeff Locke, who netted just 31.9 yards apiece on seven punts. Meanwhile, Dallas' offense, the best in DVOA through Week 12, set season lows for points (17) and yards (264), and was just 1-of-9 on third down.
If you wanted a good summary of what kind of game this was, consider that Minnesota's go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter traveled 4 yards, while the Cowboys' game-winning drive was an 8-yard effort. The fumble luck was strong in this one.
We'll return on Tuesday with the rest of Week 13's close finishes in Clutch Encounters, but here is a special Friday recap of this game's decision making and statistical quirks.
Game of the Week
Dallas Cowboys 17 at Minnesota Vikings 15
This game got off to an amusing start when Sam Bradford, a week after repeatedly throwing short of the sticks on third down in Detroit, came out firing down the field on third-and-16 with a 23-yard conversion to Adam Thielen. Of course, by his fourth drive, Bradford was checking down 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-6. Bradford finished the game with 32 completions for 247 yards. There have only been seven games since 1950 in which a quarterback completed more than 30 passes for fewer than 250 yards. Bradford has had two of those games since Thanksgiving, and this was the second time the Dallas defense forced such a game this season.
|NFL Passing: More than 30 Completions, Fewer than 250 Passing Yards (Since 1950)|
|Chris Weinke||12/30/2001||CAR||ARI||L 30-7||36||63||57.1%||223||1||1||63.1||3.54|
|Jon Kitna||10/6/2002||CIN||at IND||L 28-21||31||43||72.1%||244||1||3||64.5||5.67|
|Matt Cassel||10/13/2013||MIN||CAR||L 35-10||32||44||72.7%||241||1||2||74.1||5.48|
|Ryan Tannehill||9/14/2014||MIA||at BUF||L 29-10||31||49||63.3%||241||1||1||73.6||4.92|
|Carson Wentz||10/30/2016||PHI||at DAL||L 29-23 OT||32||43||74.4%||202||1||0||91.4||4.70|
|Sam Bradford||11/24/2016||MIN||at DET||L 16-13||31||37||83.8%||224||0||1||80.6||6.05|
|Sam Bradford||12/1/2016||MIN||DAL||L 17-15||32||45||71.1%||247||1||0||91.6||5.49|
Even with Dallas involved, there was not much offense to speak of in the early goings here. The game's first touchdown came in the second quarter courtesy of two great plays from the Cowboys. First, Dak Prescott showed his scrambling effectiveness with a 14-yard run on third-and-13. Four plays later, Dez Bryant embarrassed safety Harrison Smith with a little wiggle to get wide open for a 56-yard gain down to the 1-yard line. Prescott would have had the touchdown pass if the throw had been just a few inches shorter.
Dallas only led 7-3 at halftime, but some missed opportunities kept the score close. A 43-yard run by Ezekiel Elliott was negated for holding by Doug Free, and a penalty for illegal hands to the face on Orlando Scandrick wiped out an interception thrown by Bradford in the second quarter.
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In the third quarter, penalties on tight end Gavin Escobar for clipping and holding set back two more Dallas drives. Prescott was sacked and fumbled after a great effort by Brian Robison to force the Cowboys into their second turnover, which is something they've only done one other time this season (at Green Bay).
As the game moved into the fourth quarter with Minnesota down 7-6, the Vikings offense only turned the Prescott fumble into a 4-yard drive. Kicker Kai Forbath nearly provided fans with a Blair Walsh flashback after hitting the left upright, but he got the fortunate bounce to give the Vikings a 9-7 lead with 14:11 left.
In Dallas' first effort to come back, a holding penalty on Elliott wiped out a big third-down conversion from Prescott to Jason Witten. That penalty wiped out what would have been Witten's only catch of the game -- the tight end failed to record a reception after doing so in 130 consecutive games. Minnesota appeared to be taking control of the game with another sack of Prescott, this time by Danielle Hunter, who continued a very rough night for Free at right tackle.
The ensuing punt was a huge turning point. Thielen appeared to fumble the ball, and Jason Garrett made a wise challenge that was successful in giving the Cowboys the ball at the 8-yard line. Thielen almost regained possession of his own fumble (just as Elliott did in the first quarter when his grip on the ball slipped), but then lost possession again on the ground before Kyle Wilber recovered for Dallas with 10:28 left. One smoke pass from Prescott to Bryant and one quick move against Xavier Rhodes had the Cowboys in the end zone and back on top 13-9. Prescott's fourth fourth-quarter comeback win ties the regular-season record for a rookie with Ben Roethlisberger (2004), Vince Young (2006), Andy Dalton (2011), and Andrew Luck (2012).
At this point, it was easy to argue that the Cowboys should have gone for a two-point conversion to make it 15-9. Their offense is clearly more skilled to pick up a conversion than Minnesota's offense is. Garrett immediately signaled to kick the extra point to go up 14-9 with 10:22 left.
|Decision||Outcome||If Minnesota Scores…||Outcome|
|Kick XP||Good: Lead 14-9 (~95%)||TD: would go for 2PC||MIN leads 15-14 or 17-14 late (~50% each)|
|2 FGs the rest of the way||MIN leads 15-14 late|
|Failed: Lead 13-9 (~5%)||TD: would kick XP||MIN leads 16-13 late (~95%)|
|2 FGs the rest of the way||MIN leads 15-13 late|
|Go for 2PC||Good: Lead 15-9 (~50%)||TD: would kick XP||MIN leads 16-15 late|
|2 FGs the rest of the way||Game tied 15-15 late; OT likely|
|Failed: Lead 13-9 (~50%)||TD: would kick XP||MIN leads 16-13 late|
|2 FGs the rest of the way||MIN leads 15-13 late|
|Note: Yes, Vikings could return blocked XP or 2PC for defensive 2-point score, but let's be real…|
The four-point lead and five-point lead offer little difference in value here. However, if Dallas had scored next, even just a field goal would have made the score 18-9, or a two-score deficit in the very late stages of the game. Those are very valuable. Sure enough, after another bad Locke punt and a 30-yard run by Elliott, the Cowboys added a field goal. Of course, this still kept the game at one score at 17-9. Bradford had 4:10 to answer, but another sack killed the drive, and Minnesota actually punted with 2:58 left after getting into a fourth-and-12 at its own 36. With all three timeouts left, the punt was the right call.
On second down, Prescott had another great scramble, turning nothing into something, and nearly a first down with a slide in bounds to keep the clock running. Minnesota's challenge spotted the ball a yard short of the first down based on where Prescott started his slide. However, you could argue it was beneficial for Dallas to get a third-and-1 here. This offense was second in power runs coming into the week, and should have been able to grind out a yard in a spot like this. The four-minute offense is odd in that you almost prefer to be inefficient (i.e., taking as many plays as possible to get a new series of downs). With a third-and-1 that could have all but sealed the deal, Prescott had to fall on a fumbled snap to avert disaster. Minnesota immediately called its final timeout, which was a curious decision for a team that allows so many sacks. It may have been more valuable to save that timeout for after the two-minute warning instead of saving 20 seconds.
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Cordarrelle Patterson nearly threw the game away with a muffed punt, but Minnesota recovered at its own 35. Bradford made one of his best passes on the move to Thielen for 18 yards, and since the receiver got out of bounds with 2:01 left, the Vikings actually snuck in a second play before the two-minute warning. Time was not much of an issue with the Vikings 41 yards away now. Bradford continued to pick on the Dallas defense underneath with six more short completions, including a 3-yard touchdown pass to Jerick McKinnon. Minnesota completed 70.2 percent of its passes on the night against a Dallas defense that was allowing a 70.3 percent completion rate coming into Week 13.
But one more stop on the two-point conversion should have been enough for the win. The Cowboys caught a little bit of a break with a false start on the Vikings, though some do believe that this penalty actually helps a passing team by giving them more room to operate. You knew the Vikings would throw from the shorter distance anyway, but it was a certainty with the ball at the 7-yard line now. Left tackle T.J. Clemmings actually got away with another Minnesota false start, but the Vikings can only wish the officials would have blown the play dead. Instead, it continued, and Bradford's throw under pressure was a laughable attempt through the back of the end zone that should be shopped around as an example of an uncatchable pass.
At the end of the play, Bradford did take contact to the head, and we have seen much less draw a flag in the past. Minnesota has a legitimate gripe here with the no-call.
— Chat Sports (@ChatSports) December 2, 2016
Witten did not register an actual reception, but he caught Minnesota's onside kick attempt to end the game. Does this loss end Minnesota's season? The 6-6 Vikings should be favored in Jacksonville (Week 14) and against Chicago (Week 17), but the Colts (Week 15) and at Green Bay (Week 16) are tough tasks for an offense that has struggled to score points all season.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 53
Game-winning drives: 59
Games with 4QC/GWD opportunity: 111/178 (62.4 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 27 (and one tie)
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro Football Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.