High from big win, Vikings are flattened by Cowboys in 40-3 loss

Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

On Sunday, with 10:04 left in the Vikings' worst-ever loss in the city of Minneapolis, coach Kevin O'Connell turned his attention to Thursday.

He pulled quarterback Kirk Cousins, wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back Dalvin Cook from the game against the Dallas Cowboys, electing to preserve the starters four days before a Thanksgiving night game against the New England Patriots. A garbage-time touchdown might have kept the Vikings' loss to the Cowboys out of the record books, but there was nothing salvageable from a blowout loss that was worth any more of the starters' time.

And so the 40-3 margin would remain on the U.S. Bank Stadium video boards without any concealer, ushering the team out with little time to stew on the loss or grapple with the deeper questions it might have raised.

"We had a good week of preparation, and it didn't translate to us playing our style of football in any way, shape or form," O'Connell said. "I thought we were sloppy. I thought there were too many penalties. ... At this point in the season, November comes and sometimes you can get hit in the mouth. This league has a way of humbling any team, at any point in time, if you do not play good football."

Their comeback victory from 17 points down last week in Buffalo — the largest second-half rally in Highmark Stadium's 49-year history — came with a significant physical and emotional cost for Vikings players who called the game one of the hardest they'd ever played.

Sunday's defeat ranked by many measures as one of the worst in team history. It was the second-most-lopsided home loss in team history (behind only a 56-14 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1963) and the sixth-largest defeat the Vikings have absorbed anywhere.

The Cowboys outgained the Vikings 458-183, went 12 for 17 on third down and punted twice. They posted six of their seven sacks with only four pass rushers and held the Vikings to one third-down conversion on 11 attempts.

"We got our ass kicked," right tackle Brian O'Neill said. "They beat us up and down the field all day."

The Vikings entered the game as the first 8-1 team since 1976 to be an underdog at home while starting its regular quarterback. But shortly before kickoff, as the Eagles fell behind the Colts in the fourth quarter, it appeared the Vikings could snatch the NFC's No. 1 seed with a win.

Instead, Philadelphia rallied to beat Indianapolis and get to 9-1. The Vikings (8-2) lost their chance to keep pace with the Eagles and sustained the kind of loss that will reignite national talking points about their legitimacy a week after they seemed to have silenced many of them.

Tasked with making a quick recovery from the win over the Bills to face an NFC contender in a nationally televised game, the Vikings were bloodied by a 7-3 Cowboys team that ran for 108 yards in the first half behind the combination of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, and pressured Cousins on 63% of his dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

"We were trying to do some things to help on the edges as much as possible, especially when C.D. went down," O'Connell said, referring to left tackle Christian Darrisaw, who suffered his second concussion in as many weeks. "Then there would be interior penetration. Then trying to help interior-wise and make sure the slide's going the right way, and then there was some issues on the perimeter as well."

BOXSCORE: Dallas 40, Vikings 3

The Vikings took the ball after winning the opening coin toss, trying to score on their first drive for the fourth straight game. On their third offensive play, though, Micah Parsons slipped past Darrisaw as Cousins rolled to his right, giving Parsons the opportunity to chase the quarterback down and strip the ball. The Cowboys recovered on the Vikings' 27, setting up a Brett Maher field goal to take a 3-0 lead.

"I just think there you need to have two hands on the football," said Cousins, who finished 12 of 23 for 105 yards and saw his 39-game streak with a touchdown pass end. "When you watch it and coach it and look at how to improve, if you're holding on with two hands as you're running, it's less likely to [be a] fumble there."

Minnesota got a chance to take the lead on the second drive, with Dalvin Cook carrying three times for 26 yards against a Cowboys team that had given up more than 200 yards in its past two games. Cook's 7-yard run gave the Vikings a second-and-2 from the Cowboys' 6, but after Cousins couldn't connect with T.J. Hockenson on a fade route, the tight end let a third-down throw go through his hands on a quick out route.

It was the last legitimate chance the Vikings would have to pull ahead.

On the Cowboys' next drive, Pollard ripped off runs of 18 and 20 yards, slipping past a tackle attempt from Andrew Booth Jr. on the first one before spinning off guard Connor McGovern on the second one. Elliott jumped over a pile for a 1-yard score that made it 10-3.

The Vikings' ensuing drive ended as Dorrance Armstrong beat Darrisaw for a sack off a bull rush, forcing a Vikings punt. O'Connell said Darrisaw was hit in the head on the play and he will not play Thursday night against the Patriots.

By halftime, Dallas was up 23-3; Prescott threw a late swing pass to Pollard, who beat Patrick Peterson to the corner for a 30-yard touchdown, and the Cowboys pressured Cousins on six of his seven dropbacks to get the ball back once more before halftime and set up a 60-yard Brett Maher field goal.

The Vikings had a chance to stop the Cowboys' first drive of the second half, forcing a third-and-14 after stops from Harrison Smith and Peterson. But offensive coordinator Kellen Moore dialed up the play that put the game away.

With Prescott working from a clean pocket against a four-man rush, Pollard beat Jordan Hicks downfield on a wheel route. Prescott hit him in stride for a 68-yard touchdown, as Hicks dove at the running back's heels in vain.

"I feel responsible for that drive," Hicks said. "I've got to be better on that third down, and not give them that type of momentum."

The score made it 30-3; a second Elliott TD and a 50-yard Maher field goal pushed the score to 40-3 before O'Connell pulled his starters.

He will next face Bill Belichick, the coach who drafted him in the third round in 2008. His team has little time to dwell, but plenty to fix, before then.

"You've got to find a way to bring your best football," wide receiver Adam Thielen said. "It doesn't matter if you're sore, tired, injured, nicked up, you've got find a way to mentally play your best football. Otherwise, what happened tonight, happens."