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NFL Preview - Minnesota (1-6) at Dallas (4-4)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - You may think that Leslie Frazier is a big fan of duck, duck, goose but he's really just a desperate NFL coach grasping at straws.
Early indications are that the ineffective Christian Ponder is the goose this week and will remain under center for the 1-6 Minnesota Vikings as the try to stop an ugly three-game skid against a Dallas Cowboys team coming off its own crushing loss in Detroit.
The Vikings have been outscored 102-48 during their current losing streak and have used three different quarterbacks -- veteran backup Matt Cassel against Carolina, newly acquired Josh Freeman versus the New York Giants, and Ponder last Sunday night in a 44-31 drubbing at the hands of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
Ponder, who is 0-4 as a starter this season, was his usual ineffective self against the Pack, completing 14-of-21 passes for just 145 yards. Adrian Peterson ran for 60 yards and a score on 13 carries, while also adding three receptions for 23 yards for Minnesota.
The bigger problem was the defense, however. Rodgers and the Packers converted on 13-of-18 third-down attempts and were two-for-two on fourth down as Green Bay never punted and scored on all seven drives that didn't end either the half or the game.
And understand the Packers did all of that without the services of receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones -- two of their top three receivers who were lost to injury against the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 13 -- along with dynamic tight end Jermichael Finley, who suffered a scary neck injury during a win over Cleveland.
"We couldn't find a way to get off the field on third down, and it really came back to haunt us," Frazier understated.
The Cowboys are also coming off a disappointing setback, albeit one in which they were far more competitive.
The Lions' Matthew Stafford lunged for a touchdown in the finals seconds to give Detroit a 31-30 victory over Dallas in a thriller at Ford Field last Sunday.
Detroit trailed by six points with 1:02 left and started the winning drive at its own 20. A 17-yard catch from Calvin Johnson was followed by Stafford's toss down the left sideline for Kris Durham for 40 yards. Stafford then went back to Johnson for 22 yards down to the Dallas 1 and raced to set up a spike.
However, Stafford leaped after the snap and just got the ball over the goal line. After a review determined he had crossed the plane, David Akers kicked the extra point and the Lions had a 31-30 lead with 12 seconds to play.
Dallas had one shot after the kickoff, but didn't get anywhere with a catch and laterals as time ran out.
Stafford finished the game with 488 yards passing and Johnson set a career- high with 329 yards on 14 catches with a score for the Lions, coming just seven yards short of the NFL record for most receiving yards in one game, set by Flipper Anderson.
Tony Romo was 14-for-30 for 206 yards and three touchdown passes, with Dez Bryant catching three balls for 72 yards and two scores for the Cowboys, who had won two straight coming in and still lead the dismal NFC East by one game over Philadelphia despite being at .500.
"We didn't do what we needed to do to win the ball game, period," said Dallas head coach Jason Garrett. "They did, we didn't and we have to live with that. It starts with me, then the coaching staff, and then the players. We had opportunities to end the game, and we didn't."
Minnesota leads the all-time series with a slim 11-10 advantage and has won five of six from the Cowboys.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Ponder is shot mentally but even if the light inexplicably goes off for him this week, Minnesota is still behind the 8-ball with its defense which ranks 30th in the NFL in both points per game (32.1) and yards (401.6).
The group also hasn't generated a turnover since safety Harrison Smith, perhaps the only difference-maker on the unit, was placed on short-term injured reserve with turf foe three weeks ago.
With Smith the Vikings have one of the worst secondaries in football and they will likely be down two more starters in Dallas with safety Jamarca Sanford (groin) and cornerback Chris Cook (hip) unlikely to go.
On the season Minnesota has allowed opponents to convert a league-high 51.0 percent on third downs, an almost incomprehensible failure at every level.
"You've got to look at how we're doing it, what we're doing schematically, and also the people that you're asking to do certain things," Frazier said. "Can they get it done? Do we need to be doing something different based on the people that we're asking to execute the defense?"
The answer to that seems obvious but this Vikings regime has always been more lip service and no matter what is said during the week, things stay the same on gameday.
Romo along with Dez Bryant and Jason Witten figure to eat this secondary's lunch, meaning Minnesota's only chance is to win a shootout and that's simply untenable with Ponder running things.
The skittish, third-year Florida State product also talked a good game before last week's debacle against the Packers, saying he no longer had anything to lose after being benched the first time and wasn't going to play the shrinking violet anymore.
Instead, when the bullets began to fly, he regressed to the one-read and go quarterback, who simply can't advance through his progressions. Ponder failed to let plays develop and locate wide open receivers downfield, instead tucking the ball and flushing right again and again.
Ponder is clearly the team's third-best option at QB right now but for whatever reason the headstrong Frazier fails to recognize that and therefore the Vikings won't be able to take advantage of Dallas' NFL-worst defense, which allows 422.5 yards a game.
The Cowboys' D surrendered 623 total yards to Detroit but the team's real dysfunction revolves around Bryant, who was seemingly so jealous of the attention Johnson was getting from Stafford, he blew up on two different occasions in Detroit.
Bryant hauled in two brilliant touchdown receptions himself but only had three catches overall and was targeted just six times compared to the 16 looks Johnson got from Stafford.
Dez's first tirade was the more difficult one to defend, but the second will be most remembered because Witten got in Bryant's face and called him on his actions. Dallas was actually on top, 13-7, when Bryant aimed his anger at receivers coach Derek Dooley and Romo with the typical "get me the ball" rant that is a staple of every out-of-touch receiver who can't seem to comprehend football is the ultimate team game.
Believe it or not, the Lions don't want to target Johnson 16 times in a game, but Nate Burleson's injury has elevated the underwhelming Kris Durham and the now-injured Ryan Broyles to less-than-desirous complements.
On the other hand, with Witten, ascending rookie Terrance Williams, and even emerging slot receiver Cole Beasley available, Romo can actually look away from Bryant every now and again, a luxury which actually helps and is something his star receiver is not capable of understanding.
The sequel to Bryant's first rant came after Monte Kiffin's defense imploded in the final minute, but this time the only personalities on the Cowboys' sidelines strong enough to deal with it intervened. The 6-foot-6, 261-pound tough-as-nails Witten got in Bryant's face before injured defensive end DeMarcus Ware stepped in and played the role of Mills Lane in order to settle the unhinged Bryant down.
"My passion is always positive," Bryant said after the game in an effort to downplay his actions. "It's always positive. It's going to remain the same way. I'm not saying anything wrong. I'm not saying anything bad. It's all positive. That's just what it is."
To any objective observer, Bryant's tantrums were anything but positive and hardly smacked of constructive criticism, but he wasn't about to apologize for any of it.
"That's (the media's) problem," Bryant answered when asked how his behavior looked to people outside the Cowboys' inner circle. "Everybody knows up in this locker room who I am. It's been that way since Day 1. The day that I got drafted, like I told y'all, don't get it twisted: I love this game. I love my teammates. That's what it is."
Dallas needs to stop enabling Bryant before it's too late.
This game figures to be a tonic for a Cowboys team coming off the devastating loss marred further by the sideline antics of Bryant.
Of course, compared to the Vikings and their Keystone Cops-like dysfunction, Dallas is "Team Chemistry."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 41, Vikings 13
10/31 16:08:27 ET