Bryant McKinnie can prove he deserves to go to the Pro Bowl with a strong performance Sunday.
1. We’ll find out if Minnesota left tackle Bryant McKinnie is worthy of his Pro Bowl status. McKinnie started this season well but struggled against good pass-rushers in the second half. Sunday, he will face one great pass-rusher in DeMarcus Ware and another really good one in Anthony Spencer. McKinnie admittedly was hobbled by several minor injuries in December, but he’s had two weeks to get his body right. The Vikings will help him when they can with chips and protection slides, but it will have to be on a limited basis. Rookie right tackle Phil Loadholt will need help as well. A Pro Bowl left tackle should be trusted to protect a quarterback at all times, even from elite pass-rushers. The Vikings gave McKinnie a $48.5 million contract in 2006 for games just like this one.
2. The nation has spent this week discussing the Ware-Spencer dynamic, and for good reason. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cowboys had the third-most sacks (27) this season when lining up in their base defense (four or fewer pass-rushers). Any guesses as to which team ranked No. 1 on that list? That’s right. The Vikings had 32 sacks when only rushing four men. The Cowboys aren’t the only team that has at times dominated offensive lines this season. All-Pros Jared Allen (14.5 sacks) and Kevin Williams (6 sacks) could make a huge impact on this game as well. I’m guessing that Allen knows that Dallas left tackle Flozell Adams, an excellent blocker, has also been called for six false start penalties this year. Allen will do everything he can to capitalize on that dynamic. On the other hand, Dallas is well-equipped to handle aggressive fronts. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cowboys called more draw plays (105) than any other NFL team. They also ranked first with 547 yards on those plays.
3. But if they can’t get pressure on Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, the Vikings will be in trouble. Their tackling has been substandard since two key players suffered significant injuries, and the Cowboys have at least one player -- receiver Miles Austin -- who will capitalize if given the opportunity. The loss of middle linebacker E.J. Henderson has made an impact, as has the foot injury of cornerback Antoine Winfield. Although Winfield has returned to the field, he clearly isn’t at full capacity. Normally one of the NFL’s best tacklers, he hasn’t always been in good position since returning. Austin led NFL receivers by gaining an average of 7.3 yards after the catch this season. Austin will eat up a poor tackling team.