FRISCO, Texas — Dak Prescott’s pronouncement was hardly hyperbole.
Sure, at face value, the Dallas Cowboys’ visit to the Minnesota Vikings this weekend predates the postseason slate.
But when the Cowboys quarterback said the contest between a 6-3 squad (Dallas) and an 8-1 powerhouse “is a playoff game,” he wasn’t simply hyping up the environment or the stakes. Rather, this November game of conference foes indeed features two currently postseason-eligible squads. And the teams share a telling trait: They’re winning without a likely MVP quarterback.
Entering Week 11 of the NFL season, clarity is emerging on the teams in playoff position across the league. Ten have won at least two-thirds of their games, five of which are quarterbacked by the players with the five best odds to win this season’s NFL MVP honor, per BetMGM.
The Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes (+125), Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen (+500), Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts (+500), Miami Dolphins’ Tua Tagovailoa (+500) and Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson (+1200) ) top the list. No other player’s chance is better than +2500.
While none of those five players are operating in isolation, their passing efficiency correlates closely with their path to the playoffs. Tagovailoa leads the league with a 118.4 passer rating, a measurement that factors in pass attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns and interceptions. Hurts ranks third, Mahomes fourth, Allen seventh and Jackson tied for eighth.
Cousins and Prescott, meanwhile, post the 20th and 24th best passer ratings, respectively.
Which begs the question: What role has each quarterback played in his team’s fast start? And how will that affect their face-off this weekend?
A touch of clutch
Cousins has been consistent if not elite. He has thrown one to two touchdowns per game, averaged just under an interception per contest and produced 261.8 yards per game in the air, eighth most among league quarterbacks.
His touchdown-to-interception ratio has dipped from last year’s impressive 4.7 multiple (33-to-7), to his current 1.75 (14-to-8). But Cousins has executed when it matters most as the Vikings prevailed in seven of eight games by a nail-biting one score or less. No quarterback has guided more game-winning drives this year than Cousins’ five. No passer, either, has surpassed his five comebacks. After the Vikings dropped eight of their nine losses last season by a one-possession margin, the swing is staggering.
“It’s finding those inches,” Cousins said. “I prefer not to have to rely on that play at the end of each game, but you understand in this league, they will tend to come down to the final drive. And that’s just the way these games are. Being battle-tested, I think is a good thing for us.
“It will help us going forward.”
The Vikings have mounted the seventh-most explosive passing attack with a deep stable of weapons. Receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen offer Cousins consistently reliable targets. Minnesota has also immediately integrated tight end TJ Hockenson in two games since acquiring him at the trade deadline. Jefferson’s acrobatics wowed the league last Sunday when he stole back a fourth-and-18 target from the grasp of a Bills defender. His 1,060 receiving yards trail only the Miami Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill (1,148). Jefferson’s route-running instincts, speed and elite body control would likely produce success with most passers. But Cousins deserves credit for his connection with the third-year skill player.
“Both of them have been highly, highly critical for our success this year and continue to prove to me that they’re huge parts of not only what we are now but what we’ll be moving forward,” Vikings head coach Kevin O’ Connell said this week. “They’ve come together in a way where I’ve seen their relationship grow. I’ve seen both Justin’s maturation as a professional here in Year 3 as a premier player in this league but also Kirk Cousins’ in Year 1 of an offense where he’s played a lot of football.”
With a bottom-five defense and a below-average rushing attack, the Vikings’ passing attack has so far been the most reliable element of their season. O’Connell’s philosophies on game-plan specific packages, personnel groupings, disguises and tempo help maximize his talent. Still, Cousins has spearheaded the execution of the plan.
“He’s had a lot of success in his career, but some elements of this year have been new and different and we’re asking a lot out of him,” O’Connell said. “He’s striving to be at his best when it’s required and I think you can’t say enough about the quarterback position.”
‘Not as clean or as good as I want it’
Prescott, meanwhile, has competed in only four of Dallas’ nine games. He missed Weeks 2-6 after fracturing the thumb of his throwing hand in Dallas’ season-opening loss. With a bye week in between his past two starts, his schedule and performance have each been inconsistent.
When the Packers upset the Cowboys last Sunday, that was on full display.
Prescott opened the game 0-for-4 as the Cowboys put up a couple of three-and-outs, head coach Mike McCarthy later attributed the slow start to footwork rust in Prescott’s first outdoor game of the year. The next series: Prescott completed 10 of 11 attempts (albeit some short ones), while also rushing for three first downs, in a 17-play, 83-yard drive capped by a Prescott to CeeDee Lamb touchdown.
Prescott finished the game with 265 yards and three touchdowns — but he also completed just 58.7% of attempts and threw two interceptions on anticipatory throws that the Cowboys said his receivers didn’t run crisply.
In four games, Prescott has completed 63.8% of attempts for 865 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions. He has flashed on some series, but also threw picks at the highest clip of his seven-year career.
Prescott was asked Thursday whether his performance this season has been erratic.
“Erratic? That’s a good question,” he said. “I can’t necessarily say that. Obviously as you said it’s five games in for me, some things are just getting on the same page, making sure guys understand, and they do… But obviously not 5-0 in those games so damn sure not as clean or as good as I want it.”
Prescott insisted that he believes in his weapon and his targets so he intends to continue to “let it rip.” McCarthy said Prescott’s “best days are ahead of him” but he has “zero concerns.”
The reality: The Cowboys’ 4-1 record without Prescott, versus their 2-2 record with him, does not imply backup quarterback Cooper Rush is a superior option. But it does point to the formula that has powered the Cowboys’ wins, namely a dominant run game complementing an initially stingy defense with a vicious pass rush.
When Rush played, the Cowboys didn’t ask too much from their quarterback. In the Cowboys’ four wins, Rush threw four touchdowns with no interceptions. (He threw one touchdown and three picks at Philly.) The run-first attack bled the clock and kept Cowboys defenders fresh, while the clean football reduced the opportunities for opponents to capitalize. The defense rose to the occasion and prided themselves on carrying the team in Prescott’s absence. Since his return, some defenders admit that the sense of urgency has slipped. Each of the past two games, opponents have burned the Cowboys for more than 200 rushing yards in an alarming game-plan trend. The Cowboys gave up a 14-point, fourth-quarter lead against the Green Bay Packers.
“S***, it won’t happen again,” linebacker Micah Parsons said. “If Dak goes out there and gives me that lead again, I promise we ain’t going to do that again.”
So what can fans expect between the Cowboys and Vikings?
Who has the edge?
The Cowboys have won at Minnesota each of the past two seasons. They’re favored by 1.5 points on the road despite the Vikings’ superior record.
Perhaps that stems in part from general biases about the Cowboys, but it also likely reflects the team’s relative strengths. The Cowboys’ pass defense could phase Cousins and tempt mistakes. If running back Ezekiel Elliott (knee) returns from a two-week absence as expected, the Cowboys can wear down the Vikings with Elliott and shifty back Tony Pollard.
“They have so many rushers,” O’Connell said. “I mean, they just have so many guys up front that can really wreak havoc. They get 1-on-1s a lot of different ways, and … I’ve told our team: ‘You cannot let one snap go by [without] fundamentally, technique, understanding of the assignment, what the call is, being 100 percent dialed in. Because if you let one play go, that can be the play that changes the game.”
The Cowboys, similarly, must defend against outside-zone runs and Jefferson heroics or risk their playoff chances in a loaded division taking a hit.
“They’re going to find a weak link and attack,” Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse said. “They’re going to get you in mismatches.”
Individual mismatches may arise. But these two teams, at the sport’s most influential position, are well-matched.
The NFL is about to learn a little more about this pair of postseason contenders — and how serious a threat their quarterbacks pose now and in the playoffs.
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein