MINNEAPOLIS — Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is being hailed by many as the best running back to enter the league since Adrian Peterson.
In a league where running backs have been devalued, Elliott has made Dallas' decision to draft the Ohio State back fourth overall this year a wise move. Elliott leads the NFL with 1,199 yards and is second in rushing touchdowns with 11.
Peterson debuted with 1,341 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2007 after being the seventh pick in the draft out of Oklahoma.
Peterson is on the sideline with a knee injury, but his Minnesota Vikings will be the next to try and slow Elliott. Minnesota knows what it's up against at home on Thursday when the Vikings (6-5) host Dallas (10-1).
“Well, he's one of the better backs I've seen in quite a while,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said. “He's really an all-purpose guy that catches the ball very well out of the backfield. He's quick into the hole; looks like he's got great vision … He's special.”
Zimmer, the former Cowboys defensive coordinator, had plenty of accolades to shower on Dallas' offense this week. He was complementary of rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who is fourth in the league with a 108.6 quarterback rating.
One reason the Cowboys have had success with two rookies playing vital roles is the offensive line.
“They're really, really good,” Zimmer said. “They're the best line I've seen in a long time in the NFL, physical, athletic, big.”
Many of those same descriptions have been offered about the Vikings' defense this season. Thursday's meeting is a matchup of strengths.
Dallas is third in the league in scoring, averaging 28.7 points per game, and is fifth in total offense with 407.6 yards per game. Minnesota's defense has allowed the second-fewest points per game at 17.5 and is third in total defense, giving up 307 yards per game.
“They have great players on defense,” Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, a former Vikings' offensive coordinator, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “They get a lot of people around the football. Teams that play hard and hustle and get lots of guys around the ball, good things happen for them. We've got to be as good about our ability to get people around the football, protect the ball carriers and ultimately play aggressive football without getting loose with it.”
Only two teams have created more takeaways than Minnesota's 20 this season. The Vikings have 12 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries and are second in the league with a plus-12 turnover-differential.
Prescott and Dallas have protected the ball, turning the ball over just seven times this season, the second-fewest in the league.
“That has given us a great opportunity to stay on the plus side of the ledger in turnover ratio,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett told the Star-Telegram. “Typically that gives you a good chance to win. We need to take the ball away more. We haven't done a good job. We haven't done a good job of that the last three or four ball games.”
Only four teams have fewer takeaways than Dallas' 10.
Blessed with a keep-away offense, though, the Cowboys have won 10 games in a row and are on the verge of clinching a playoff spot. Dallas could become the first team in the NFL to clinch this weekend. The Cowboys need a win and either a Tampa Bay loss or tie, or a Washington loss.
“It would be great, but I think the goals for this team are bigger than that,” guard Zack Martin told the team's website. “We've got five weeks left, and we know that this season really starts after Thanksgiving here, so we're ready to make a push here and finish strong.”
Both teams play Thursday with a full week's worth of rest after they played on Thanksgiving. Dallas held on at home for a 31-26 win against the Redskins. Minnesota lost for the fifth time in six games at Detroit in a 16-13 finale.
“Obviously, I think everyone's a little bit frustrated right now,” Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford said. “For whatever reason, we just weren't able to come back off the bye and play the way we have those first five games, and I think anytime you go through a stretch like we've had, people do get frustrated and it's tough.”
Bradford showed up on Minnesota's injury report this week with an ankle injury. He was limited in practice on Monday and Tuesday but is expected to play. The line protecting Bradford is another story.
Center Joe Berger missed two days of practice after leaving last week's game with a concussion. Berger was ruled out Tuesday, meaning Nick Easton is expected to start at center. Right tackle Jeremiah Sirles (hip) also left last week's game. He was limited in Monday's practice and a full participant on Friday. Zimmer said he expects Sirles to be “all right.”
The Vikings can't afford any more blows to the offensive line. Minnesota has already lost starting tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith, along with Jake Long, who was signed to replace Kalil. Versatile backup Mike Harris has spent the season on injured reserve with an unspecified illness.
Willie Beavers, who replaced Sirles in last week's game at right tackle, became the sixth player to take snaps at tackle for the Vikings this season.
Minnesota did get leading receiver Stefon Diggs back at practice this week on a limited basis after he missed last week's game with a knee injury. As of Tuesday, he was considered questionable.
Cornerback Terence Newman (neck) and punt returner Marcus Sherels (ribs) missed last week. Newman returned to full practice, but Sherels had not practiced by Tuesday.
Dallas will likely be without cornerback Morris Claiborne (groin), linebacker Justin Durant (hamstring) and safety J.J. Wilcox (thigh). Safety Barry Church (forearm) has practiced on a limited basis and could return Thursday after missing four games.
DALLAS (10-1) at MINNESOTA (6-5)
Thursday, 8:25 p.m. ET, NBC/NFLN
OPENING LINE — Cowboys by 2
RECORD VS. SPREAD — Cowboys 9-1-1, Vikings 6-5
SERIES RECORD — Cowboys lead 15-14
LAST MEETING — Cowboys beat Vikings 27-23, Nov. 3, 2013
LAST WEEK — Cowboys beat Redskins 31-26; Vikings lost to Lions 16-13
STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — Cowboys can clinch spot in playoffs with win, plus loss by either Buccaneers or Redskins on Sunday. … With win, Cowboys would match longest streak in franchise history (11 straight over 1968-69 regular seasons). With two more victories, they'd equal best start in club history (12-1 in 2007). … Cowboys QB Dak Prescott is second behind Ben Roethlisberger (13 in row in 2004 for Steelers) for most consecutive wins by rookie. … With 100-plus passer rating, Prescott can top Russell Wilson's rookie record (Seahawks in 2012) of nine straight games reaching that mark. … RB Ezekiel Elliott needs one TD to tie Tony Dorsett (1977) and Herschel Walker (1986) for most rushing scores by rookie in team history. … Cowboys are only defense in league to not allow 100-yard rusher. RB Jerick McKinnon has season high for Vikings with 85 yards vs. Giants, and Vikings are last in NFL with 71.1 yards per game and 2.8 yards per attempt. Of course, star RB Adrian Peterson is injured. … Vikings have third-best interception percentage (0.8) in league behind Patriots and Cowboys. … Vikings have totaled only three points in fourth quarter over last three games. … Vikings have lost five of last six games. … Teams meet in Minnesota for first time since 2010, a 24-21 victory by Vikings at Metrodome. … Vikings have won seven of last nine in series, with two of those wins in playoffs after 1999 and 2009 seasons. … Vikings have played Cowboys and Rams seven times each, tied for most-frequent opponent among 47 all-time playoff games. … Vikings are tied with Packers and 49ers for second most-played postseason foe for Cowboys, behind Rams (eight). … Fantasy Tip: Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph, who matched career high with nine catches last week at Lions, is tied for second among TEs in NFL with five TDs.