Kirk Cousins ​​and Dak Prescott don’t play as MVPs, but they’ve done enough to make Vikings, Cowboys playoff contenders

FRISCO, Texas – Dak Prescott’s statement was hardly an exaggeration.

Sure, on the surface, the Dallas Cowboys’ visit to the Minnesota Vikings predates the postseason slate this weekend.

But when the Cowboys quarterback said the game between a 6-3 squad (Dallas) and an 8-1 powerhouse “is a playoff game,” he wasn’t just praising the setting or the stakes. On the contrary, this game of conference foes in November does indeed feature two selections that are currently eligible for the postseason. And the teams have a telling trait in common: they win without a likely MVP quarterback.

As we head into Week 11 of the NFL season, clarity is emerging on the teams in the playoff position across the league. Ten have won at least two-thirds of their games, five of which are quarterbacks among the players with the five best chances of winning this season’s NFL MVP honors, according to BetMGM.

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) ) ) on the top of the list. No other player’s chance is better than +2500.

While none of these five players operate in isolation, their batting efficiency is closely related to their path to the playoffs. Tagovailoa leads the league with a passer rating of 118.4, a measurement that takes into account pass attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns and interceptions. Hurts ranks third, Mahomes fourth, Allen seventh, and Jackson eighth.

Cousins ​​and Prescott, meanwhile, place 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 showdown 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 game and produced 261.8 yards per game in the air, eighth among quarterbacks in the league.

His touchdown to interception ratio has dropped from last year’s impressive 4.7 multiple (33 to 7) to his current 1.75 (14 to 8). But Cousins ​​has performed when it matters most as the Vikings triumphed in seven of eight games by a nail-biting score of one or less. No quarterback has had more wins this year than Cousins’ five. No passerby has surpassed his five comebacks either. After the Vikings dropped eight of their nine losses last season by a one-possession margin, the swing is astonishing.

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins ​​(8) isn't showing eye-popping numbers this season, but he gets the job done when it comes down to it.  (AP Photo/Daniel Kucin Jr.)
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins ​​isn’t showing eye-popping numbers this season, but he gets the job done when it counts. (AP Photo/Daniel Kucin Jr.)

“It’s finding those inches,” Cousins ​​said. “I’d rather not rely on that game at the end of every game, but you understand in this league they tend to get to the last drive. And that’s the way these games are. Being put to the test I guess that it’s a good thing for us.

“It helps us move forward.”

The Vikings made the seventh most explosive passing attack with deep armor. Receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen consistently provide Cousins ​​with reliable targets. Minnesota also immediately integrated TJ Hockenson into two games since taking over at the trade deadline. Jefferson’s acrobatics stunned the league last Sunday when he stole back a fourth and 18 target from the grip of a Bills defender. His 1,060 receiving yards trail only the Miami Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill (1,148). Jefferson’s route instinct, speed, and elite body control would likely win success with most passersby. But Cousins ​​deserves credit for his connection to the third-year skill player.

“Both have been very, very critical to our success this year and continue to prove to me that they are a huge part of not only what we are now, but what we will move forward,” Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell said. this week. “They got together in a way that I have watched their relationship grow. I’ve seen both Justin’s maturation as a professional here in Year 3 as a top player in this league, but also Kirk Cousins’ in Year 1 from an offense where he’s played a lot of football.

With a bottom-five defense and a below-average rushing offense, the Vikings’ passing offense has been the most reliable part of their season to date. O’Connell’s philosophies about gameplan-specific packs, staff groups, disguises, and pace help maximize his talent. Still, Cousins ​​has taken the lead in implementing the plan.

“He’s had a lot of success in his career, but some elements of this year were new and different and we’re asking a lot of him,” said O’Connell. “He strives to be at his best when he needs to be and I think you can’t say enough about the quarterback position.”

“Not as clean or as good as I want”

Prescott, meanwhile, has only played in four of nine games in Dallas. He missed Weeks 2-6 after breaking the thumb of his throwing hand at Dallas’ season opening. With a bye week between his last two starts, his schedule and performances have all been inconsistent.

When the Packers upset the Cowboys last Sunday, it was on full display.

Prescott opened the game 0-for-4 as the Cowboys put up a pair 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), while also rushing for three first downs, in a 17-play, 83-yard drive highlighted by a touchdown from Prescott to CeeDee Lamb.

It's been up and down for Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in the four games since returning from a thumb injury.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

It’s been an up and down trajectory for Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in the four games since returning from a thumb injury. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Prescott finished the game with 265 yards and three touchdowns – but he also completed only 58.7% of attempts and threw two interceptions on anticipatory throws that the Cowboys said his receivers were not running sharp.

In four games, Prescott has completed 63.8% of attempts for 865 yards, six touchdowns, and four interceptions. He flashed in some series, but also threw picks in the highest clip of his seven-year career.

Prescott was asked Thursday if his performance this season has been erratic.

“Wrong? That’s a good question,” he said. “I can’t necessarily say that. Obviously, as you said, there are five games for me, some things just get on the same page, to make sure that guys get it, and they do… But obviously not 5-0 in those games, so damn sure not as clean or as good as I want it to be.”

Prescott insisted he believes in his arm and his goals, so he intends to continue “letting it rip”. McCarthy said Prescott’s “best days are ahead of him”, but he has “zero worries”.

The reality: The Cowboys’ 4-1 record without Prescott, versus their 2-2 record with him, doesn’t mean backup quarterback Cooper Rush is a superior option. But it does hint at the formula that has driven the Cowboys’ wins, which is a dominant run game that complements an initially stingy defense with a vicious pass rush.

When Rush played, the Cowboys didn’t ask too much of their quarterback. In the Cowboys’ four wins, Rush threw four touchdowns with no interceptions. (He threw one touchdown and three picks to Philly.) The run-first offense bleeds the clock and kept the Cowboys defensemen fresh, while the clean football reduced opposing players’ chances to capitalize. The defense seized the opportunity and took pride in carrying the team in Prescott’s absence. Since his return, some defenders admit that the sense of urgency has disappeared. Each of the past two games, opponents have fired the Cowboys more than 200 rushing yards in an alarming trend in the game plan. The Cowboys relinquished a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter to the Green Bay Packers.

“S***, it won’t happen again,” said linebacker Micah Parsons. “If Dak goes there and gives me that clue again, I promise we won’t do that again.”

So what can fans expect between the Cowboys and Vikings?

Who has the advantage?

The Cowboys have won each in Minnesota the past two seasons. Despite the Vikings’ superior record, they are 1.5 points ahead on the road.

Perhaps that stems in part from common prejudices about the Cowboys, but it also likely reflects the team’s relative strengths. The Cowboys’ pass defense can upset cousins ​​and tempt fouls. If running back Ezekiel Elliott (knee) returns from a two-week absence as expected, the Cowboys could wear down the Vikings with Elliott and the shrewd 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 in a lot of different ways, and… I told our team, ‘You can’t let a moment go by [without] essentially technique, understanding of the assignment, what the call is, being 100 percent dialed in. Because if you let go of one game, that could be the game that changes the game.

The Cowboys must similarly defend against out-of-zone runs and Jefferson’s heroics or risk their playoff chances in a charged division taking a hit.

“They’re going to find a weak link and attack,” said Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse. “They’re going to get you into mismatches.”

Individual mismatches may arise. But these two teams, at the most impactful position in the sport, are well matched.

The NFL is about to learn a little more about this pair of postseason contenders – and how serious of a threat their quarterbacks are now and in the playoffs.

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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