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Friday, October 15, 2010
Welcome to the Desperation Bowl

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings -- two teams from which much was expected this season -- find themselves one loss from a bleak future.

"Who would have thought both teams would be 1-3?" Vikings quarterback Brett Favre said at a news conference this week. "There's still a ton of football left for both teams. Whoever loses will obviously be 1-4, but it's still wide open.

"That's not to say that it gives you a free pass to lose. We call it desperate. Whatever. Both teams are well aware of what's at stake."

The Cowboys and Vikings play each other Sunday in Minneapolis with their seasons on the line. They met in a divisional playoff game in January, among the NFL's Elite Eight. But with each team at 1-3, a loss 10 months later will likely prove fatal to their playoff hopes.

In the 20 years of the current playoff system, only 21 of 240 teams have made the playoffs after starting 1-3 -- less than 10 percent; the 2008 Vikings, who won nine of their final 12 games, were one of those teams. Only five teams that began 1-4 during that span made the playoffs.

Late Wednesday morning was the first chance to take the temperature of Cowboys players after the bruising Week 5 loss to the Titans. Miles Austin sat on a couch but declined to talk. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff also passed. The marquee defensive players never showed. No one asked the four players working the dominoes at a table in the middle of the room -- no one had to.

Only one player in that locker room -- tight end Jason Witten -- made himself available to the mainstream media in the 45-minute availability window. I asked him what the Cowboys were feeling behind closed doors.

"I think everybody is frustrated," Witten said. "Guys are just saying, 'How can we fix this?' And staying positive, as [coach] Wade [Phillips] said, and saying, 'How can we get it turned around?' and not panicking and saying 'I've got to be the guy that wins the game for us.'"

There's no sense of panic?

"There's panic as far as our approach and 'Hey, every stone's got to be turned over to give ourselves chance,'" Witten responded.

Seemed like an honest answer.

Later, I asked Phillips about the team's mood.

"Unfortunately, we can't change our record, where we are," he said deliberately. "But we can change from now on, so it's still how you finish, not how you start."

I asked him if he had seen evidence of panic that Witten had referenced.

"No," Phillips said, "we're not panicking."

And then, oddly, he nodded his head and waved his hand for emphasis. He seemed to be looking for a response.

"That was my question," I acknowledged.

"OK," he said, smiling slightly. "That's the answer."

OK, then. No panic here in Dallas. Good to know.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota the mood was much the same.

"It's no secret where our records are at right now; neither one of us are happy with it," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "In my experience, typically in these kind of games, the most desperate team wins, the most desperate team that's clawing for a victory. Expect it to be contested tooth and nail."

Is Childress worried about Favre's emotional state of mind?

"I'm worried about a lot of guys' emotional state," Childress said. "I just don't want guys to get mentally ill four games into the season. We talk about that. You make your corrections and then you get on with your next opponent. You don't let the last game beat you twice."

Favre must have been happy when attention this week moved from the NFL investigation of his off-field conduct with the Jets to his throwing elbow, which is plagued by tendinitis. He said casually earlier in the week that he might miss the Cowboys game but, seriously, what are the chances that he will willingly let his record consecutive starts streak of 289 games go without a fight?

"You go through different things in your life," Favre said. "Football is a very tough sport, mentally and physically. Last year was great, almost too great. But I woke this morning and was eager, a little tired from the trip, but was eager to get over here ... I feel that confident that it will right itself in the end."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.