(Updated: UPDATES 2ND GRAPH WITH ZIMMER NOT COACHING)
The Dallas Cowboys have not lost since the season opener but cannot afford to take their foot off the pedal as they prepare to visit the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night. Riding a 10-game winning streak and leading the New York Giants by two games in the NFC East, Dallas has a chance to clinch a playoff spot with a win over Minnesota and some help.
The Cowboys are trying to navigate through their most rugged stretch of the season, with Thursday's matchup marking their third game in 12 days. “They throw these schedules at you and it’s part of the game,” Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr told reporters. "You get through this one, get through the storm ... you can look back and tell stories about it. It’s something that makes us bond and become closer.” Minnesota also will be playing for the third time in 12 days and will be without head coach Mike Zimmer, who underwent surgery on Wednesday night for a torn retina. The Vikings have dropped five of their last six, including a 16-13 loss at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day to fall one game behind the Lions in the NFC Central.
TV: 8:25 p.m. ET, NBC, NFL Network. LINE: Cowboys -3.5. O/U: 43.5
ABOUT THE COWBOYS (10-1): Dallas owner Jerry Jones is adopting the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy and sees no reason to deviate from the formula of riding the legs of rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, the league's leading rusher with 1,199 yards. "The more we give Ezekiel the ball, then I think the better," Jones said of Elliott, who also has rushed for 11 touchdowns. "We're winning with that. We're wearing them down on defense." Elliott has thrust himself into the MVP conversation, and one of his competitors may be fellow rookie Dak Prescott, who has 18 TD passes against only two interceptions and has posted a passer rating of at least 100 in nine of the last 10 games. Dallas ranks 31st in pass defense (280.4 yards) and has made only four interceptions.
ABOUT THE VIKINGS (6-5): Minnesota cornerback Xavier Rhodes has as many interceptions as the Cowboys and is part of a defense that ranks second in the league with 17.5 points allowed and paces the NFC with a plus-12 turnover differential. With a stagnant running game and an offense that has been limited to 16 points of fewer four times in the last six games, quarterback Sam Bradford is pushing for the coaches to open the playbook and take shots downfield. Bradford (ankle) has been limited in practice this week but hopes to have the services of leading wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who had 40 receptions over a four-game stretch prior to sitting out last week's loss against the Lions with a knee injury. "I think we've got to find a way to create more explosive plays," Bradford acknowledged.
1. Elliott has rushed for six touchdowns and 400 yards over the last four games.
2. Bradford split a pair of decisions against the Cowboys last season with Philadelphia, throwing for 295 yards and a TD in the last meeting.
3. Dallas will clinch a playoff spot with a victory and either a loss by Washington or a loss or tie by Tampa Bay.
PREDICTION: Cowboys 23, Vikings 20