Cowboys show toughness when things weren't easy

MINNEAPOLIS – Jason Garrett likes to talk about toughness and finishing. His Dallas Cowboys showed their toughness by winning their third game in 12 days on Thursday night, 17-15 over the Minnesota Vikings. They showed they could finish by stopping a two-point conversion with 25 seconds left to secure their 11th straight win.

In their previous 10 games the Cowboys made things look rather easy offensively. This one was anything but.

The Vikings limited Dallas to season lows in yards, points, first downs and third-down conversions, but the Cowboys left U.S. Bank Stadium triumphant as a much-needed 10-day break awaits.

With the win, the Cowboys are in position to clinch a playoff spot on Sunday if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lose or tie, or if the Washington Redskins lose. But they won’t have the NFC East under control because the New York Giants, whom the Cowboys play on Dec. 11 at MetLife Stadium, are still in it, having won six straight.

The break comes at a good time for Dallas.

A team that entered Thursday without a turnover in 178 snaps turned the ball over twice, with Lucky Whitehead and Dak Prescott fumbling. A team that kept penalties to a minimum for most of the season committed them at the wrong time, one negating a 42-yard run by Ezekiel Elliott and the other wiping out what would have been Jason Witten’s only catch of the game.

A team that had always figured things out never quite could Thursday.

But the game changed when the Cowboys did another thing they don’t normally do: take the ball away.

It wasn’t the defense that forced the turnover -- it was the special teams. And the team needed a replay challenge from Garrett for it to come. It was clear Kyle Wilber poked the ball free from Adam Thielen on Chris Jones’ punt, and it was clear Wilber recovered the ball.

It took the Cowboys one play to take the lead for good, with Prescott and Dez Bryant connecting on an 8-yard touchdown. It was Bryant’s fifth touchdown in the past five games and the 65th of his career, tying Michael Irvin for second-most in team history.

The next time the Cowboys got the ball, Elliott ripped off a 30-yard run to set up Dan Bailey’s 39-yard field goal with 4:15 to play. But with a chance to end the game, Prescott fumbled a snap on third-and-1. Elliott recovered the ball, but the Cowboys were forced to punt and hope their defense would make a play.

Minnesota was able to get within the two-point try of tying the game, but while the defense bent in giving up Jerick McKinnon's touchdown catch, it did not break on the two-point attempt. Cedric Thornton pressured Sam Bradford, his former Philadelphia Eagles teammate, into a high throw.

It wasn’t easy, but it’s not supposed to be easy.

All that matters is the Cowboys have all but clinched a playoff appearance with their 11th win in a row.