Absent their Norse ruler, Zimmer the Ill-Tempered, the Minnesota Vikings took the field Thursday night visibly primed to plunder, pillage and de-Prescott the Dallas Cowboys.
They almost pulled it off.
In due part to the miracle of super-high-definition television, review officials were able to determine that a fourth quarter punt return by Adam Thielen was, instead, a fumble and a Dallas recovery, setting the scene for Dak Prescott’s winning touchdown pass to Dez Bryant.
The 17-15 victory was the Cowboys’ 11th in a row, but clearly it came with furrowed brows and sweaty palms. The Vikings defense — and their stunning new home, U.S. Bank Stadium — performed as advertised.
With viking horns and a stadium record throng of 66,860 ringing in its ears, the Cowboys offense managed only 13 first downs and 264 yards — by far its lowest production of the season.
Three quarters into the loud night, the game had seen only one touchdown, and the Cowboys’ only noteworthy plays had been a 14-yard scramble by Prescott and a 56-yard, down-the-middle diving grab by Dez Bryant.
And it wasn’t getting any quieter.
Before the game, the Vikings paid tribute on the stadium’s giant video board to their absent leader, head coach Mike Zimmer, who underwent emergency eye surgery Wednesday.
Zimmer’s message on the video: Do your job. And the Vikings’ defense stoutly did.
As many Cowboys fans may have noticed, Zimmer, Bill Parcells’ former defensive coordinator in Dallas, can be prickly and intense at times. But he has fast become one of the league’s best head coaches.
Robbed of Adrian Peterson and starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Zimmer somehow has kept the Vikings afloat at 6-6. They’ve done it with defense, the NFL’s third-best in both fewest yards allowed and turnovers.
Aside from Bryant’s 56-yard catch and a 30-yard run by Ezekiel Elliott, Prescott and the Cowboys’ offense labored all night long. Prescott was sacked three times and fumbled twice, losing one of them and having the other overturned by replay. Penalties added to the burden.
“It certainly wasn’t our prettiest performance on offense,” said coach Jason Garrett. “Our inability to convert on third downs and the penalties that we had that got us behind the chains all night.”
On a cold night on the Mississippi, the heat was turned on Prescott from the opening possession. The Cowboys, except for the end of each half, had the football 11 times during the night, and eight of them began inside their 30-yard line. Only one Dallas drive netted more than 37 yards.
And when you’re only making 13 first downs over 60 minutes, you need help.
Some of it came from Minnesota punter Jeff Locke, whose best kicks kept back-spinning in the visitors’ favor.
The other helping hand came from the combination of the Cowboys’ bend-but-don’t-implode defense and the sputtering inconsistencies of the Vikings offense, quarterbacked by Sam Bradford.
Bradford threw for 247 yards, completing 32 of 45, but it was Prescott who consistently seemed to keep the Cowboys focused and chipping away.
“It wasn’t a clean game,” Prescott confessed, “but nobody ever flinched, blinked or thought anything different was going to happen besides us winning the game and making the plays to do that.”
The rookie quarterback nearly made one of those with a cool-headed scramble down the right sideline for an apparent first down with 2:24 to go. Not only did Prescott appear to have the first down, which might have protected a 17-9 victory, but he also slid and remained in bounds, keeping the clock moving.
“I thought it was an amazing footbal play -- the awareness -- to do what he did,” Garrett observed.
A challenge by the Vikings, however, determined that Prescott had started his slide before the first-down marker. The Vikings got the ball back for one last drive.
“They came out and they punched,” Minnesota cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We punched back. In the end it just slipped away.”
The Vikings rightly howled about a personal foul that wasn’t called on their attempted game-tying two-point conversion. But on a night when 18 total penalties were called against the two teams, singling out the few that weren’t called seemed an exercise in frustration.
In any case, the Cowboys defense thwarted the two-point attempt and saved the night, as tough a night as they’ve had all season.
The road to 11-1 and the top of the NFC figured to have its Vikings and potholes.
For the rookie Prescott, however, it was another night, another lesson. Even on a night when he and the young Cowboys weren’t at their best, they found a way. Again.
Gil LeBreton: 817-390-7697, firstname.lastname@example.org, @gilebreton