MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The fuel for this dazzling season for the Dallas Cowboys can be found up front, with an offensive line that’s helped make this team a handful to try to stop.
“They’re really, really good. They’re the best line I’ve seen in a long time in the NFL: physical, athletic, big,” said the usually understated Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who could be forgiven if he sounded envious of the group on the other side.
Just as the front five have made a significant impact on the success of the Cowboys (10-1), the ever-important position has played a major hand in the recent slide by the Vikings (6-5).
With center Joe Berger ruled out of the game on Thursday night because of a concussion, the Vikings will use their seventh different starting lineup combination in 12 games this season; Nick Easton makes his first NFL start. That doesn’t include others who’ve subbed in for injured teammates on the fly.
“Once again we’ve got to rework the line,” left guard Alex Boone said, “and figure out what we can do best.”
The Vikings have struggled for the last three seasons to establish a reliable, stable starting five. Injuries, particularly this year with three starting tackles on injured reserve, have ravaged the position. But they’ve only invested two picks in the first three rounds of the last 10 drafts in an offensive lineman, with right tackle Phil Loadholt (No. 54 overall) in 2009 and left tackle Matt Kalil (No. 4 overall) in 2012.
Loadholt retired before training camp because of injuries. Kalil had season-ending hip surgery after playing in the first two games this season.
The Cowboys, by stark contrast, have three first-round draft picks in their starting lineup: left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin.
There’s no mystery why the rookie tandem of running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott have been able to thrive so swiftly or why the Cowboys have won 10 straight games.
“There’s a selfless nature to them that I think is really good, and it’s one of the best offensive lines I’ve ever been around,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “They really set the tone for our football team.”
Here are some key angles to know about the game:
BACK AND FORTH WITH BRYANT: After backing away from harsh comments about Washington cornerback Josh Norman following the 31-26 Thanksgiving Day win, Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant struck a similar tone with a few more days to think about it. After the two nearly ended up in a post-game fight following several testy exchanges, Bryant yelled toward reporters on his way into the locker room that the Redskins should ask for their money back.
Norman signed a five-year contract worth as much as $75 million after Carolina surprisingly rescinded the franchise tag and made him a free agent. Bryant kept pushing the criticism on Twitter before backing off.
“I wish I’d never done it,” Bryant said. “I have nothing against that guy. I’m pretty sure he’s got nothing against me.”
KEEPING HIM QUIET: Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes will likely be tasked with following Bryant and unlikely to be drawn into any trash talking.
Rhodes had one of his best performances against the New York Giants while helping limit loquacious wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to three catches for a career-low 23 yards at the peak of his early-season frustration.
“Xavier stays focused on what it is he’s got to get done,” Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said.
FAMILIAR FACES: Cornerback Terence Newman played for Dallas from 2003-11. He won’t be the only one on the Minnesota sideline who might see those Cowboys uniforms and, despite the intense desire to beat them, have some memories triggered.
Zimmer still keeps a home in suburban Dallas, which is where his son and current Vikings linebackers coach Adam Zimmer lived during his middle school and high school years. His dad, while making sure to avoid sounding overly nostalgic, listed several people still working in the Cowboys organization he remembers well when asked this week to reflect.
“Anytime you’re somewhere 13 years,” Zimmer said, “it kind of grooms you into who you are a little bit. We had some great teams there.”
DEFENSIVE SHUFFLE: Cowboys safety Barry Church will be back after missing four games with a broken right forearm, but his replacement, J.J. Wilcox, is likely out with a thigh injury. The Cowboys haven’t created a turnover since the injury to Church, their interceptions leader with two.
“Just another veteran player back there to recognize things and just experience,” said Church, who will play with a small cast. “And we’ll see what I can do.”
GROUNDED GAME: The Cowboys are the only team in the league that hasn’t allowed a player to rush for 100 yards this year, a streak that doesn’t look to be in danger this week.
The Vikings have only topped 100 yards once as a team, on Oct. 3 against the Giants when Jerick McKinnon gained 84 yards on the ground for Minnesota’s individual season high.