It's been a rather strange 2016 season in the NFL. Teams expected to be among the top contenders (Colts and Packers) are fighting for their playoff lives, while teams not expected to do much (Raiders and Cowboys) sit atop their divisions and look to secure home-field advantage.
Such unpredictability helps make the NFL exciting and fun each year.
Two playoff contenders, the Cowboys and Vikings, will battle it out on Thursday Night Football this week. The Cowboys own the NFC East with the best record in the NFL (10-1). They're also riding a 10-game winning streak thanks to rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboys look to continue their momentum against the Vikings, who they haven't defeated in Minnesota since 1995.
This might be their year. It's hard to overstate how surprising -- and impressive -- the Cowboys' rise has been. Tony Romo is now the quarterback of the past in Dallas, and Prescott is clearly the future. Additionally, Elliott leads the league with 1,199 yards on the ground and could break the NFL rookie record for most rushing yards in a season.
Outspoken wide receiver Dez Bryant, who has just 33 receptions for 550 yards this season, has been a popular target for Prescott as of late. Bryant has 18 receptions and three touchdowns in the last three games. A big reason for the Cowboys' success, of course, is their offensive line, possibly the best in football.
The 2016 Vikings haven't been nearly as consistent. Losing starting QB Teddy Bridgewater and star running back Adrian Peterson early on, the team was all but left for dead. And yet they won their first five games. Acquiring Sam Bradford, the Eagles' talented and injury-prone passer, certainly helped, as did a stout and stingy defense.
Then they lost their next four games and split their last two to end up trailing the Lions in the NFC North hunt. The Vikings still hope to make a playoff run, and the schedule beyond the Cowboys game seems favorable. But there is significant work to be done if Minnesota is to be considered a championship-caliber team. Peterson's return in the coming weeks should help if the playoffs remain within reach.
Players, such as Stefon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph, and Adam Thielen, have stepped up to help the offense in Peterson's absence. But it has been an uphill battle.
Bradford landed on the Vikings' injury report Monday with an ankle issue that limited his practice time. The star quarterback will be needed, and needed at full strength, Thursday night. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Harrison Smith also sat out of practice on Monday. Neither has been ruled out for Thursday, and the injury-riddled Vikings hope to have both players against the Cowboys' high-powered attack.
The depleted Vikings hope they have enough on offense and defense to take down the NFL's best team. They don't. The Cowboys shouldn't have a problem winning their 11th in a row on Thursday.
Prediction: Dallas Cowboys 32 - Minnesota Vikings 21
Danny Cox has been covering the NFL for the past decade and has been watching it for two more. From injury reports to playoff races, he follows every single team and longs for the months of July to February.
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