How good is Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott?  Cowboys and Vikings built a playoff case without MVP QB

How good is Kirk Cousins, Dak Prescott? Cowboys and Vikings built a playoff case without MVP QB

FRISCO, Texas — Dak Prescott’s statement was hardly hyperbole.

Of course, on the face of it, the Dallas Cowboys’ visit to the Minnesota Vikings this weekend predates the playoff roster.

But when the Cowboys quarterback said the fight between a 6-3 team (Dallas) and an 8-1 powerhouse “is a playoff game,” he wasn’t just promoting the environment or the stakes. Instead, this November conference foes game does indeed feature two teams currently eligible for the playoffs. And the teams share a telling trait: They win without a likely MVP quarterback.

Entering Week 11 of the NFL season, clarity is emerging on 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 top five chances of winning this season’s NFL MVP, per BetMGM.

Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs (+125), Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills (+500), Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles (+500), Tua Tagovailoa of the Miami Dolphins (+500) and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens (+1200) ) at the top of the list. No other player’s luck is better than +2500.

While none of these five players operate in isolation, their passing efficiency is closely tied to their path to the playoffs. Tagovailoa leads the league with a passer rating of 118.4, a metric 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, have the 20th and 24th highest passer ratings, respectively.

Which begs the question: What role did each quarterback play in getting their team off to a quick start? And what impact will that have on their face-to-face this weekend?

One touch clutch

Cousins ​​has been consistent if not elite. He threw one to two touchdowns per game, averaged just under one interception per game, and drove in for 261.8 yards per game through the air, eighth most among quarterbacks in the league.

His touchdown-to-interception ratio has gone from last year’s impressive multiple of 4.7 (33-to-7) to its current 1.75 (14-to-8). But Cousins ​​performed when it mattered most as the Vikings prevailed in seven of eight games by a crushing score of one score or less. No quarterback has guided more winning runs this year than Cousins’ five. Neither passer has exceeded his five returns. After the Vikings dropped eight of their nine losses last season by a one-possession margin, the swing is staggering.

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

“It’s finding those thumbs,” Cousins ​​said. “I’d rather not have to rely on this play at the end of every game, but you understand that in this league they tend to come down to the last drive. And that’s just the way these games are. Being battle tested, I think that’s a good thing for us.

“It will help us move forward.”

The Vikings mounted the seventh most explosive passing attack with a deep stable of weapons. Receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen provide the Cousins ​​with consistently reliable targets. Minnesota also immediately added tight end TJ Hockenson in two games since being acquired at the trade deadline. Jefferson’s acrobatics wowed the league last Sunday when he flew a fourth and 18 target from the grip of a Bills defenseman. His 1,060 receiving yards only top the Miami Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill (1,148). Jefferson’s course instincts, speed and elite body control would likely produce success with most passers. But Cousins ​​deserves credit for his connection with the third-year player.

“Both have been very, very critical to our success this year and continue to prove to me that they are part of not only who we are now, but also what we are going to do,” the head coach said. of the Vikings, Kevin O’. Connell said this week. “They came together in a way where I saw 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 of an offense where he played a lot of football.

With a bottom-five defense and below-average rushing offense, the Vikings’ passing offense has been the most reliable part of their season so far. O’Connell’s philosophies on game plan specific packages, personnel groupings, disguises and tempo help maximize his talent. Yet Cousins ​​led the execution of the plan.

“He’s had a lot of success in his career, but some things this year have been new and different and we ask a lot of him,” O’Connell said. “He strives to be his best when needed and I think you can’t say enough about the quarterback position.”

“Not as clean or as good as I would like”

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

When the Packers upset the Cowboys last Sunday, it was out in the open.

Prescott opened the game 0-for-4 as the Cowboys hit a few three outs, with head coach Mike McCarthy later attributing the slow start to rusting footwork in Prescott’s first away game of the year. The next series: Prescott completed 10 of 11 attempts (albeit some short), while rushing for three first downs, in a 17-play, 83-yard drive capped by a touchdown from Prescott to CeeDee Lamb.

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

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has been up and down 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 just 58.7% of attempts and threw two interceptions on early throws that the Cowboys said his receivers did not run in a manner net.

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

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

“Rerratic? That’s a good question,” he said. “I can’t necessarily say that. Obviously, like you said, it’s five games for me, some things just happen on the same page, making sure the 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 has insisted that he believes in his arm 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 “no worries”.

The reality: The Cowboys’ 4-1 record without Prescott, compared to their 2-2 record with him, doesn’t mean replacement quarterback Cooper Rush is a superior option. But it points to the formula that propelled the Cowboys’ wins, namely a dominant running game complementing an initially stingy defense with a vicious passing rush.

When Rush played, the Cowboys didn’t ask too much of their quarterback. In the Cowboys’ four wins, Rush has thrown four touchdowns with no interceptions. (He threw a touchdown and three picks at Philly.) The first-round offense bled the clock and kept Cowboys defensemen cool, while clean football reduced 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 the sense of urgency has slipped. Each of the last 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 lead in the fourth quarter against the Green Bay Packers.

“Damn, that’s not gonna happen again,” linebacker Micah Parsons said. “If Dak comes out and gives me that lead again, I promise we won’t do it again.”

So what can fans expect between the Cowboys and the Vikings?

Who has the advantage?

The Cowboys have won at Minnesota each of the past two seasons. They are favored by 1.5 points on the road despite the Vikings’ superior record.

This may partly stem from general prejudices about the Cowboys, but it also likely reflects the relative strengths of the team. The Cowboys pass defense could scare Cousins ​​and attempt mistakes. If running back Ezekiel Elliott (knee) returns after a two-week absence as planned, the Cowboys can wear down the Vikings with Elliott and sneaky running 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 in different ways, and…I said to our team, ‘You can’t pass up a cliche’. [without] basically, the technique, the understanding of the mission, what the call is, being 100% connected. Because if you pass up a game, it can be the game-changing game.”

The Cowboys, similarly, must defend against out-of-bounds runs and Jefferson heroics or risk their playoff chances in a loaded division by taking a hit.

“They’re going to find a weak link and attack,” Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse said. “They’re going to put you in lags.”

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

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

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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