Fresh off four straight wins overall and their first playoff victory in 13 years, the Dallas Cowboys are rolling.
The Minnesota Vikings haven’t taken the field in two weeks - and that may play right into the hands of their grizzled, 40-year-old quarterback.
Brett Favre(notes) and the Vikings will aim to use their first-round bye to their advantage Sunday when they host quarterback Tony Romo(notes) and the surging Cowboys in an NFC divisional playoff matchup.
After changing his mind about retirement for the second straight offseason, Favre showed he’s still among the game’s top quarterbacks while leading Minnesota to a 10-1 start. The Vikings then stumbled, losing three of their next four and bringing to mind Favre’s 2008, when he helped the New York Jets open 8-3 before wearing down late in the season and missing the playoffs after finishing 9-7.
This time, though, Favre concluded the regular season with a powerful statement, going 25 of 31 for 316 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions as the Vikings routed the New York Giants 44-7 to finish with a 12-4 record, the NFC’s second seed and a first-round bye.
That could benefit not just the 19-year veteran quarterback - who spent the week off with his family in Mississippi - but the entire Minnesota team after the long grind of a 16-game season.
“I can see a spunkiness,” coach Brad Childress said after his team reconvened this week, “which is what you want this time of year. Guys that are bright-eyed, mentally and physically.”
Favre will now try to end his struggles against Dallas coach Wade Phillips, who was able to devise schemes to defeat the quarterback both in a 2007 matchup and in a playoff contest following the 2002 season, when he was Atlanta’s defensive coordinator.
Phillips, though, knows beating Favre again won’t be easy.
“He’s had so many big games and won so many big games, put the team on his back so many times,” Phillips said of Favre, who threw for 33 TDs and seven interceptions in his first season with the Vikings. “He just has great experience, and everybody has seen what a great player he is. And he’s come back and played probably just as well as he ever played this year. So he’s in top form.”
So is the Cowboys’ offense. Dallas has outscored the opposition 99-31 during its four-game winning streak, with 12 touchdowns in that span scored by three running backs and five receivers.
“A lot of guys can participate and a lot of guys can play their role and a lot of guys can come through for you,” Phillips said. “That makes a difference.”
Romo is also making a difference. The fourth-year starter is showing signs of maturity, completing 66.7 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and a 100.0 rating during the winning streak. Romo credits the wealth of offensive options at his disposal for the recent success.
“It’s problematic when all of the sudden you see Patrick Crayton(notes) catching balls on third down, then you see Tashard Choice(notes) getting a first down, then you see Roy (Williams),” Romo said. “It’s tough, and that’s part of what you try to do as an offense.
“If people want to double Jason (Witten) or Miles (Austin), we just kind of read the defense. We don’t say ‘I’m throwing it to Miles on this play.’ It’s allowed us to execute week in and week out.”
Dallas’ deep corps of running backs helps take pressure off Romo. A knee injury limited starter Marion Barber(notes) to three carries in last week’s 34-14 opening-round victory over Philadelphia, but Choice and Felix Jones(notes) picked up the slack by combining for 190 yards on 30 carries, including a 73-yard score by Jones.
The victory snapped a six-game playoff losing streak for the Cowboys, who hadn’t won in the postseason since a 40-15 home victory over the Vikings on Dec. 28, 1996.
Barber, who has run for a team-leading 932 yards, returned to practice Thursday and is probable to play in his home state for the first time as a pro. A healthy backfield of Barber - who played college ball in the Metrodome for Minnesota - Jones and Choice may be imposing, but they won’t intimidate a veteran defensive front that held nine opponents below 100 yards on the ground in the regular season.
The Vikings may need to get their own running game going in order to fend off streaking Dallas. Star back Adrian Peterson gained 1,383 yards and ran for 18 touchdowns this season, but posted only three 100-yard games - none after Nov. 15. He also lost six fumbles, tops in the league among non-quarterbacks.
Earning the second seed and home field for this round may benefit Minnesota greatly. The Vikings are 8-0 at the Metrodome this season, with the last five of those wins coming by 17 points or more. They’ve also won three straight home meetings with Dallas - including a 27-10 playoff victory Jan. 9, 2000 - since a 23-17 defeat Sept. 17, 1995.
If the Cowboys can’t overcome Favre, the Minnesota defensive front and that history, their current winning streak and status as a chic Super Bowl pick will be for naught.
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