The Dallas Cowboys will enter Mall of America Field today as the hottest team in the NFC play-offs. If the Minnesota Vikings have their way they will leave three hours later cooler than a Midwest winter. The Cowboys come into this divisional play-off clash having won four successive games by a combined margin of 99-31.
That includes a pounding of the Philadelphia Eagles in a wildcard play-off last weekend, a win that came while the No 2 seeded Vikings (12-4) were at home with their feet up. While the Cowboys' quarterback, Tony Romo, was keeping sharp, the Vikings' Brett Favre was resting his 40-year-old arm back on his farm in Mississippi, taking a break from a season in which he passed for 4,202 yards and 33 touchdowns with only seven interceptions.
After leading Minnesota to a 10-1 record, Favre and the Vikings struggled for a month, losing three of their next four games before ending the season with a resounding triumph over the New York Giants. Today Favre faces the No 2 scoring defence in the NFL in the Cowboys, a group who can get after a quarterback and pressure him into errors and shut down any running game. For Dallas to do that they will have to not only control Favre but also his bevy of deep-threat wide receivers and perhaps their most valuable weapon, the running back Adrian Peterson.
"Brett's done a lot for us but that doesn't take away from what Peterson means to us," said the Vikings' Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson. "I really think that goes without saying." What does not go without saying is that the Cowboys had not won a play-off game since 1996 until last Sunday. Yet they are widely looked upon as not only a serious threat to the Vikings but a team that could roll over the New Orleans-Arizona winner as well and move right on to the Super Bowl.
The Vikings know that is the public perception, yet they are sure of themselves and have faith not only in Favre and the offence but also in a defence that has been difficult to run on all season and can also pressure a quarterback. "I know the media loves the Dallas Cowboys and it's America's team, but we've got a pretty good team over here," said the Vikings defensive end, Jared Allen. They do, but Peterson began to slow down as the season lengthened and that is a concern today. He has not had a 100-yard rushing day in the last seven games and that is worrying because with Dallas' pass rush, which is led by edge rushers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, the Vikings do not want to see themselves forced to abandon the run. That would put Favre at risk of being harassed into turnovers.
The same is true, however, for Romo, who was successful last week because his running game moved the ball so well it allowed him to use play-action passes that froze the Philadelphia defence and gave Romo time to look deep. Dallas want to run the ball, but Minnesota's run defence has held opponents to an average of 3.6 yards per carry in the past month. In the end, it will not simply be the hot team advancing to the NFC championship game but rather the one that can cool off the opposition's offence.
firstname.lastname@example.org Minnesota v Dallas, 10pm, Fox Sports