The Minnesota Vikings’ path to the postseason is smooth.
They carry a four-game lead in their division. They’ve mastered the art of winning closely, five times rebounding from a deficit to mount a game-winning drive. Victories over talented teams like the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins help pad the Vikings’ résumé.
But the outlook for Minnesota upon arrival in the playoffs?
That, after a 40-3 home loss to the Dallas Cowboys, is now far murkier.
Because Minnesota may be 8-2, but those two losses were this blowout to Dallas and a 24-7 Week 2 setback against the Philadelphia Eagles. And whom must Minnesota outplay to advance out of the conference en route to a Super Bowl?
That very caliber of NFC team.
There’s reason for concern.
“This league has a way of humbling any football team at any point in time if you don't play good football,” Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell said. “We did not tonight, and we’ve got to learn from this.”
Dallas dominated Minnesota in every facet Sunday. Dak Prescott completed 88% of his passes, throwing for 276 yards and two touchdowns before he was pulled early. Tony Pollard raced to 189 scrimmage yards with a pair of catch-and-run touchdowns. Ezekiel Elliott added another 47 yards and a touchdown from scrimmage. The Cowboys scored on each of their first seven possessions, and didn’t resort to a punt until 3:55 remained in the third quarter.
On defense, the Cowboys exorcised demons from a two-game stretch in which they allowed 200-plus rushing yards to contain Minnesota to 73 net ground yards. That allowed Dallas’ pass rush to thoroughly swarm Kirk Cousins, five Cowboys players sacking Cousins a career-worst seven times — including an ominous Micah Parsons strip-sack on Minnesota’s first series.
Even the Cowboys’ special teams came up clutch as kicker Brett Maher was perfect on four extra points and four field-goal attempts, his range on full display with makes from 27, 50, 53 and 60 yards out. (Maher actually made the 60-yarder twice, when a weirdly timed replay review required he kick again, but we digress.)
This complete performance was what the Cowboys craved after a devastating overtime loss in Green Bay last week in which they blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead. Dallas climbed back into second place in the NFC East, two games behind Philadelphia but nonetheless with a 99% chance to make the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight’s predictive model. The Cowboys showed what could be possible if they advance, their defense sufficient to haunt quarterbacks' nightmares and their offense well-balanced between run and pass.
“If we use the experience we’re having in the season, we’re going to be playoff ready,” Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones told reporters. “I sure do think what I see out here right now is the team that you could go get a Super Bowl with."
Did the Cowboys resemble a championship contender Sunday?
“Unequivocally, yes,” Jones said. “A resounding yes.”
The Vikings, meanwhile, were about as effective as the score indicates. No one scored a touchdown, Cousins throwing for just 105 yards. Star receiver Justin Jefferson, who averaged 117.8 receiving yards per game through nine weeks, managed just three catches for 33 yards on five targets. On the ground, Minnesota averaged 4.3 yards per attempt — but chances to touch the ball were few and far between as Dallas held the ball for 37 minutes and 24 seconds to the Vikings’ 22:36.
O’Connell noted that Cousins was “under duress” with the Cowboys’ immense pressure but nonetheless called the performance “sloppy.”
Minnesota entered Week 11 forcing two turnovers per game, and forced none against Dallas. The Vikings’ ninth-ranked third-down defense had allowed conversions on just 36.79% attempts before the Cowboys, even with a dip in garbage time, converted 71% (12-of-17).
Ball placement ✅
Dak Prescott playing his best game of season?pic.twitter.com/VBzsM2VYKo
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) November 20, 2022
The Vikings’ unraveling validated concerns from advanced metrics like Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, which factors league-average situational baseline and opponent strength into performance value. The Eagles and Cowboys, for context, entered this week at second and fourth in the league, respectively. Minnesota’s DVOA ranking: 17th.
Could even that oversell what the Vikings have done in the NFC?
O’Connell acknowledged the criticism.
“Each and every week in this league is another opportunity to really prove who you are as a football team. I don’t think we did that tonight,” he said. “We’re an 8-2 football team. There’s going to be a lot of narratives about our team that we … really can’t control. We know that. We’ve just got to look inward to our locker room.
“I do believe that we’ll respond to this.”
But how much will the Vikings’ next two games, against the AFC East’s New England Patriots and New York Jets, actually predict their postseason caliber?
Already, Minnesota’s two most impressive wins came against the 7-3 Bills and Dolphins, both AFC East squads. We’ll shield last week’s return from a 17-point second-half hole to win in overtime, in Buffalo no less, from our chagrin. That was impressive. But it’s worth noting that Minnesota’s win against the Dolphins came against backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, while starter Tua Tagavailoa was in concussion protocol.
And the six NFC teams that Minnesota has beat? Their combined winning percentage amounts to .390. Only the Washington Commanders, from that group, has a winning record at 6-5.
This Minnesota team deserves credit where credit is due for reaching eight wins, particularly in flipping a 1-8 record in one-score games last season to 7-1 this season. In a league that prides itself on parity, and has reset multiple records this season for close games, that’s a valuable skill and one that reflects the grit of its players and the culture established by new coaches.
So a host of NFL clichés would buoy this 8-2 squad, refrains about “only playing the opponent across from us” and “you are what your record is” offering valid counters. But perhaps that last line is where the truth lies.
The Vikings are what their record is: a good team in the regular season capable of stringing together wins.
Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys seemed to hint at the answer. In January, we’ll know for sure.
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein