For the loser of Sunday’s showdown in Minneapolis, a season spiraling out of control might be the more realistic scenario.
Either the Cowboys or Vikings will fall into a 1-4 hole when they square off in a rematch of last season’s divisional playoff game, a Minnesota rout looking more and more like it may have been the last great performance of Brett Favre’s(notes) career.
Balance on both sides of the ball made the Cowboys and the Vikings preseason favorites in the NFC. Instead, two franchises with high-profile faces have gotten off to 1-3 starts.
The biggest name of all is Favre, who threw for 234 yards and four touchdowns in the Vikings’ 34-3 demolition of Dallas at the Metrodome in the playoffs. But after a mistake-filled NFC championship game and another will-he-or-won’t-he return offseason, the three-time MVP has thrown seven interceptions and lost three fumbles in four games.
“I think everyone who watches us play sees flashes of a team that can be 3-1, 4-0,” Favre said. “Not that we’re not capable. We’re very capable.”
Added to those struggles is a potentially major distraction. The NFL has launched an investigation into allegations that Favre sent racy messages and lewd photos to a Jets game hostess when playing for New York in 2008.
He reportedly apologized to teammates for the commotion hours before facing the Jets on Monday night, then threw three second-half touchdown passes - one to newly acquired Randy Moss(notes). But the Vikings’ hopes of coming back from a 12-point deficit were thwarted when Favre tossed an interception that was returned for a touchdown late in the 29-20 loss.
Moss still liked what he saw as he began his second stint with Minnesota.
“Collectively, if we put our hearts and souls into what we’re trying to do, I think that the sky is the limit for this team,” Moss said.
The addition of Moss gives the Vikings a deep threat and should open up more space for Percy Harvin(notes), but the man throwing them the ball may not be 100 percent physically. Favre has tendinitis in his right elbow and said he’d consider sitting out a game or two if it gets worse even though he’s riding a league-record streak of 289 consecutive starts.
Nothing’s expected to keep him out against Dallas in a game that may define where each alleged contenders is headed. In the Cowboys’ case, each loss seems to raise more questions about temperamental owner Jerry Jones’ leash on coach Wade Phillips.
Jones’ son, Stephen, the team’s chief operating officer, gave Phillips a vote of confidence after Dallas’ latest mistake-filled performance. Even after a bye week, the Cowboys committed 12 penalties and three turnovers while falling 34-27 at home to Tennessee last Sunday.
“We have to fight back,” Phillips said. “There’s only one alternative and that’s to fight back. We have to put it together. Obviously we’ve done some good things, controlled the ball, threw the ball, ran the ball, but we didn’t win.”
Statistically speaking, Phillips’ team has been excellent, featuring the NFC’s best offense (421.5 yards per game) and fourth-ranked defense (304.8 ypg). But the Cowboys have been done in by 9.5 penalties per game and a minus-4 turnover margin - 29th in the league.
“We still know what we’re capable of,” defensive end Marcus Spears(notes) said. “We have to execute, we got to play better, we got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot, and this thing will turn around fast.”
Dallas held Adrian Peterson to 63 yards on 26 carries in last season’s playoff meeting, but it may need to pay more attention to Moss on Sunday. The four-time All-Pro has averaged more than 100 yards receiving and scored 11 touchdowns in seven career games against the Cowboys - all wins.
While that could open things up for Miles Austin(notes) and Dez Bryant(notes) - who should play despite injuries to his ribs and ankle - the Cowboys may be better off taking some pressure off Tony Romo(notes), whom the Vikings sacked six times in their playoff win.
Romo threw for a career-high 406 yards against Tennessee on 46 attempts, but he was sacked six times and threw three interceptions. Dallas is 8-13 with Romo as a starter when he attempts more than 35 passes, while it’s 31-7 otherwise.
The Cowboys finally got a jolt to their shaky running game last Sunday. Felix Jones(notes) came off the bench to run for 109 yards on 15 carries, and he’s expected to remain the feature back over Marion Barber(notes).
Dallas has lost six of seven against Minnesota since 1996, including the postseason.