Defense costs Vikings chance to gain ground in NFC with loss to Cowboys

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings' three-game win streak is over after a 31-28 loss to the Dallas Cowboys at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.

The Vikings had a chance to achieve a .500 record for the first time all season and continue to gain ground in the NFC playoff picture. Instead, Minnesota is now 4-6 and two games behind the Arizona Cardinals in the wild-card race.

Quarterback Kirk Cousins put together a masterpiece to get the Vikings' offense going after a rough start. Since Week 8, Minnesota had no problem running the ball in three straight victories over the Packers, Lions and Bears. When that didn't work early on Sunday, Cousins fed Adam Thielen, and the Pro Bowl receiver gave Minnesota what it needed to get back in the game in the second half.

But special teams play and a horrendous defensive outing cost the Vikings a much-needed win in a stretch where there is no room for error.

Defense reverts back: It's incredibly difficult to win games when a defense gives up 31 points, even if your offense is producing like the Vikings' was on Sunday. The Cowboys entered the day as one of five teams without a 30-yard rush this season. Tony Pollard ended that streak with a 42-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter which was made possible by Vikings cornerback Chris Jones not even attempting to tackle the Cowboys running back when he bounced off the right side and down the Dallas sideline.

Minnesota pressured Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton on just four of his 34 dropbacks and sacked him just once for a 7-yard loss. The progress for Minnesota's young defensive backs in recent weeks was wiped away by the 10 catches allowed to Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. And Ezekiel Elliot crossed 100 yards rushing for the first time this season.

Once again, when the Vikings needed their defense to come through late in the game, it couldn't. Tight end Dalton Schultz was left uncovered in the end zone on Dallas' game-winning drive with 1:43 to play.

Thielen's second-half spark: The Vikings' offense was asleep for most of the first half. Dalvin Cook was getting bruised and bullied. Minnesota's offensive line, which was missing right guard Ezra Cleveland (ankle), allowed Cousins to be pressured on seven of his 15 dropbacks in the first two quarters. The Vikings was poised for a big day against a Dallas defense which entered Sunday allowing an opposing passer rating of 103.1 and allowed the second-most rushing yards per game. But nothing worked until the second half.

The Vikings came out swinging in the third quarter with Thielen leading the way. On Minnesota's opening drive, Thielen caught a 51-yard reception off a play-action pass. Six plays later, Thielen showed why he's Cousins' favorite target in the red zone, catching a one-handed TD that rivaled the same type of play he made just six days prior in a win over the Bears.

To illustrate the difficulty of that catch, NFL Next Gen Stats gave Cousins' first touchdown to Thielen a completion probability of just 24.6%. That is the Vikings' third-lowest completion probability on a completed pass this season.

The Vikings used the momentum gained on that drive to rip back control of the game, running 20 plays in the third quarter, using the run game to step up big plays over the top to Thielen and Justin Jefferson. The receiver duo caught TD passes in the fourth quarter.

But not even a surge that spectacular could overcome the play of this defense. Cousins and the offense got the ball back with 1:37 left in the fourth quarter and one timeout left. All four of his passes went incomplete, including a critical drop by Jefferson on second down. After striking magic with Thielen, Cousins' last two attempts to him in the final five minutes fell incomplete. Cousins also started the game 17-of-17 against a standard four-man pass rush but in the final five minutes, he was 1-of-4 on such passes.

Special teams are still a problem: The Vikings changed long snappers in Week 11 and made other adjustments to their coverage units to try and remedy some of the issues they've had in recent weeks on special teams. The first half wasn't pretty. Punt returner K.J. Osborn coughed up a punt return after Dallas went three-and-out to start the game. The Vikings tried a fake punt that would have been epic had Kris Boyd not gotten called for an illegal shift prior to catching a pass from punter Britton Colquitt.

On the re-do Boyd got slapped with an illegal block in the back. In the fourth quarter, special teams let the Cowboys earn good field position at a time when the defense could not get a stop, allowing Dallas to take a 31-28 lead and hang on to win. All three phases contribute to wins and losses. But lately, the Vikings' special teams unit has been a liability.