By DAVE CAMPBELL AP Pro Football Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The refreshed Dallas Cowboys had a steady hand back at quarterback, eager to initiate the same post-bye bounce the Minnesota Vikings had been enjoying this month.
For as badly as the first half of the schedule went for the Cowboys, they’re still alive and well this season in the well-below-average NFC East.
Andy Dalton returned from a two-game absence to throw three touchdown passes, hitting Dalton Schultz for a 2-yard score with 1:37 left to lift the Cowboys over the Vikings 31-28 on Sunday to stop their four-game losing streak.
“Everything’s in front of us. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done up to this point. It’s all about these next seven games,” said Dalton, who went 22 for 32 for 203 yards and one interception after fill-ins Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert started the previous two games.
After taking over for the injured Dak Prescott a month ago and missing games himself to a concussion and COVID-19, Dalton directed an 11-play, 66-yard drive down the stretch that was extended with a fourth-and-6 completion to Amari Cooper at the 19.
Kris Boyd stepped in front of Schultz and nearly picked off a first-and-goal pass, but Dalton delivered to his wide open tight end two plays later. That put the Cowboys (3-7) in a three-way tie for second place behind Philadelphia (3-6-1).
After three straight wins over NFC North foes following their bye to climb back into contention, the Vikings (4-6) were plenty wary of the Cowboys despite entering as a seven-point favorite.
They trailed 16-7 at halftime, more because of bad breaks than poor performance. Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook each lost fumbles forced by hard-hitting safety Donovan Wilson that Dallas converted into nine points. Minnesota also had six penalties for 60 yards in the first half.
“There are positives to point to, but ultimately when you don’t win, you leave the stadium feeling sick to your stomach,” Cousins said.
Dodging pressure all afternoon, Cousins completed 22 of 30 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns to punctuate drives of 75, 81 and 85 yards to start the second half. Adam Thielen caught the first two touchdowns, the first one with a falling-down, one-handed grab in the back corner of the end zone while being held by Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown.
Justin Jefferson had the third score, a 39-yarder that gave the Vikings the lead right back with 9:37 remaining in a confident response to Tony Pollard’s 42-yard touchdown run.
NFL leader Dalvin Cook had 115 rushing yards and a touchdown plus 45 receiving yards for the Vikings, who remained two games out of the final wild-card spot and in ninth place in the NFC.
“I really felt like we were going to win,” coach Mike Zimmer said, “throughout the whole course of the game, even as bad as we started off offensively.”
When it counted the most, though, the Vikings stalled out on their final two possessions while Cousins went 2 for 7. His fourth-and-6 throw to Thielen from the 29 fell incomplete with 1:18 left.
THE RED RIFLE
Ezekiel Elliott reached his first 100-yard rushing game of the season and caught a TD pass. CeeDee Lamb made a flat-on-his-back touchdown catch in the second quarter for the Cowboys. Cooper caught six passes for 81 yards.
Behind a reshuffled offensive line — with Joe Looney replacing the injured Tyler Biadisz at center, right guard Zack Martin taking over at right tackle for rookie Terence Steele and Connor McGovern filling Martin’s spot — the Dalton-led offense produced twice as many touchdowns at Minnesota as it had in the four previous games without the star Prescott.
Minnesota’s special teams have been in disarray this month, with two blocked punts by Detroit and a kickoff return touchdown allowed to Chicago. Long snapper Austin Cutting, whose low delivery in the last game led to a failed extra point, was replaced by Andrew DePaola.
Vikings mistakes persisted. Punt returner K.J. Osborn’s fumble was recovered early in the first quarter, but punter Britton Colquitt’s 23-yard pass to Boyd for a first down on a second-quarter fake was wiped out by Boyd’s illegal shift penalty. When they lined up again, Boyd was called for an illegal block above the waist, a rarity for the kicking team.
One bright spot: Eric Wilson blocked an extra point in the first quarter.
Cowboys: Brown (ribs) left the game in the fourth quarter. … With rookie CB Trevon Diggs (foot) on injured reserve, CB Chidobe Awuzie (groin) conveniently returned to the starting lineup from a seven-game absence.
Vikings: Brett Jones replaced RG Ezra Cleveland (ankle), becoming the fourth different starter at that position this season. … TE Irv Smith Jr. (groin, one game) and CB Cameron Dantzler (concussion, two games) each returned from absences after being listed as questionable.
Cowboys: Host Washington (3-7) on Thursday in their annual Thanksgiving Day game.
Vikings: Host Carolina (4-7) next Sunday.
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