MINNEAPOLIS -- So much for that hot team theory. The Vikings may have stumbled through the month of December, but they buried the formerly red-hot Cowboys in a 34-3 win that felt like it was over by halftime.
A week after their major breakthrough against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Cowboys looked overmatched in the Metrodome. Even coach Wade Phillips, a man who can find a silver lining in the darkest of moments, wasn't able to offer a defense for the Cowboys' tepid showing in a divisional playoff game. It was the second-worst playoff loss in franchise history, surpassed only by a 38-6 loss to the Detroit Lions in 1991.
"It's like an elevator falling all the way from the top; it's tough when it's over," said a grim-faced Phillips. "I was surprised, but they have a good football team."
In the aftermath of a beatdown punctuated by Brad Childress amusing himself with an unnecessary call for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter, it seems odd to say that the Cowboys were ever in the game. But Dallas actually had a shot to grab the momentum in the first quarter. As he'd done during the Cowboys' four-game winning streak, quarterback Tony Romo led the offense into Vikings territory on the first possession of the game. The Cowboys' plan all week was to treat that opening possession as if it were the most important drive in the game.
The strategy worked until Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards raced past right tackle Marc Colombo and stripped the ball from Romo. The Vikings recovered at their 35-yard line and averted an early Cowboys score. After forcing a three-and-out, the Cowboys moved to the Vikings' 30-yard line and elected to attempt a 48-yard field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-1. Shaun Suisham, who replaced the wayward Nick Folk last month, smothered the ball wide left and it would be fair to say the Cowboys never posed another serious challenge.
"Obviously, we need to get points out of those drives," said Romo. "It's not on any one person but we all need to play better. When you go into a place like this, points matter."
What Romo is saying is the Cowboys missed a huge opportunity to limit the home crowd's influence early in the game. I think the Metrodome is louder than the Superdome, a place where the Cowboys had one of their biggest wins of the season. Even the PA announcer sounded as if he was taunting the Dallas offense as the Vikings' front four took over the game.
In my talking points for Sunday's matchup, someone forgot to tell me that Edwards was one of the best pass-rushers in the league. And to think, I wasted so much time on the Williams Wall and Jared Allen, who didn't have much of an impact until Cowboys left tackle Flozell Adams left the game with a right calf strain with 7:18 left in the first half. On the first two plays after Adams' departure, Allen tackled Felix Jones in the backfield and then caused a Romo fumble, which led to a Vikings field goal and a 17-3 lead. For unknown reasons, tight end Jason Witten ended up "blocking" Allen one-on-one on those two plays. I asked Adams' replacement Doug Free if he was supposed to be helping Witten against Allen, but he said he wasn't sure what happened. It seemed like a pretty good description of how most of his teammates felt following the loss.
The aforementioned Edwards had three sacks, six hurries, a forced fumble and five tackles. I didn't see a lot of No. 91 jerseys inside the Metrodome, but they'll probably be taken off the discount rack this week. Colombo has been the emotional leader of the Cowboys' offensive line since Bill Parcells salvaged his career, but he was physically whipped by the younger, faster Edwards on Sunday. Edwards finished the regular season with 8.5 sacks but he's often in the sizable shadow of Allen.
"He has played at a high level this year, just in terms of production," Childress said of Edwards. "But he showed up and he is always making plays and chasing the football. He's an extra heartbeat guy."
After the game, Childress took the opportunity to beat his chest and talk about the "nonsense" of the Cowboys being the hottest team in the playoffs. Down the road, the Cowboys will be able to look back at '09 as a successful season. They won a playoff game for the first time in 13 years and young players such as Mike Jenkins and Miles Austin have an opportunity to be stars in this league for a long time. Though he hasn't come right out and said it, owner Jerry Jones is going to bring back Wade Phillips for at least one more season. Phillips' defense was one of the best in the league over the past month and there's no need to make significant changes to the unit. I asked Phillips if he considered this a successful season.
"Well, our goal was to win it all and this isn't a success," said Phillips. "I do think we did a lot of great things and I thought winning the division was important and winning the playoff game at home was important. We need to get back to that point again next year."
The defense played well enough to give the Cowboys a chance at a comeback in the third quarter, but Brett Favre simply overwhelmed them in the first half. On his first of three touchdown passes to Sidney Rice, Favre launched a deep ball that was so precise that Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh had no clue the ball had been caught. After the game, inside linebacker Keith Brooking wasn't looking for a silver lining.
"I don't consider this season a success," he told ESPN.com. "We took some steps in the right direction, but I wouldn't call it a successful season. You dive into the NFL season every year and then it comes to an abrupt halt like this. I'll go home tomorrow and ask my wife, 'What the hell do I do now?'"
It's a question a lot of Cowboys fans will be asking as well.