Pregame: Worst start since 1961 at stake in Vikings-Cowboys
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
Putting together a start streak as a Minnesota Vikings quarterback has become as noteworthy as winning a game in 2013.
Quarterback Christian Ponder will get his second straight start on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, the first time he'll string together starts since September.
Ponder's fourth start, a 44-31 loss to the Green Bay Packers last week, was his first without a turnover this season. His next shot to retain the starting job comes against a Cowboys' league-worst pass defense, currently allowing 315 yards per game.
Both Ponder and running back Adrian Peterson will play again in their home state of Texas on Sunday.
However, any offensive outburst will likely come from the Cowboys, as quarterback Tony Romo's 18 touchdown passes are third-most in the NFL and he'll be going up against a Vikings secondary that's without three of four starters.
Cornerback Chris Cook will miss his second game this season with a hip strain, safety Jamarca Sanford will be held out from a groin pull and safety Harrison Smith will miss his third straight game on injured reserve.
Three reserves defending the likes of receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten could get dicey as the Vikings defense hasn't grabbed a turnover since Smith's injury. The Cowboys have injury issues of their own, as they'll be without budding rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne and guard Brian Waters. Linebacker DeMarcus Ware is also doubtful.
On Sunday, the Vikings begin their two-game stretch in five days as they host the Washington Redskins on Thursday night football on Nov. 7.
If the Vikings lose on Sunday, it'll be the first time they've started with a 1-7 record since the inaugural season in 1961. If the Vikings win, this squad will be on par with the 1990, 2002 and 2011 teams that began 2-6.
Let's take a look at the five key matchups heading into Sunday.
For the purple
Yo Adrian? - Running back Adrian Peterson's 36 carries for 150 yards across the past three games caused a stir at Winter Park this week about why the NFL MVP has averaged 12 carries per game in that stretch. Peterson's 128 carries this season are still sixth in the league, but the Vikings' inability to hold onto the ball has stifled his opportunities as of late. The Vikings are currently last in the NFL in time of possession, averaging 24:52-of-60:00 per game, and held the ball for a season-low 19:06 against the Packers last week. Getting Peterson going early is a cliché, but getting him to cross the first-down marker is the real key. The Vikings' 117 first downs this season are the worst in the NFL only behind the Oakland Raiders (111).
The replacements - The Vikings' chances to one-up the Cowboys on Sunday will increase exponentially if they can get one of the replacements in the secondary to step up. Safeties Andrew Sendejo and Mistral Raymond will start on Sunday after both missed multiple tackles in the loss to the Packers last week. Romo and the Cowboys showed they can still lose games after winning the turnover margin +4, as they did last week at the Detroit Lions. The Vikings offense has combined to score 34 points in the last three games, which won't cut it without a few timely Romo interceptions. Coach Leslie Frazier said he hadn't decided as of Friday which cornerback would replace Cook, but none of the five on the roster have an interception this season.
Special teams - Viewers should root against touchbacks on Sunday, as both of the NFL's top returners will be featured. Vikings rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson returned his second kickoff for a touchdown last Sunday and earned NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. He leads all return men with 39.1-yards-per-return. Cowboys receiver Dwayne Harris is second on the list with 35.7-yards-per-return. The Vikings' coverage units have shown a lack of discipline as they allowed a 93-yard punt return to Packers cornerback Micah Hyde last week and watched as Chicago Bears specialist Devin Hester set a team record for return yardage in Week 2.
For the blue
Romo - Tony Romo has thrown 10 touchdowns in the last four games. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers showed what a surgical artist can do against the Vikings. However, Romo is not Rodgers. He's not entirely a one-man show, but what makes the Cowboys quarterback so dangerous are his receiving options. Bryant, Witten and emerging rookie Terrance Williams have provided Romo with the adequate release valves for his often on-the-run throws. Past quarterbacks have burned the Vikings with quick releases, draws and screen plays. That hasn't been the Cowboys' method of operation recently, as they've faced high-powered offenses like the Denver Broncos and Lions. But it'll be interesting to see which defensive holes the Cowboys choose to pick on.
Turnovers - The Cowboys are tied for the NFC lead with a +9 turnover differential along with the Seattle Seahawks. Their 11 interceptions are third-most in the NFL and are coming off a loss in which they took the ball away from the Lions four times. The Vikings have recorded just one special teams turnover, none on defense, since returning from their Sept. 29 victory in London.
Out - RB Matt Asiata (personal), TE Rhett Ellison (ankle), DT Fred Evans (knee), S Jamarca Sanford (groin), CB Chris Cook (hip)
Probable - WR Greg Jennings (knee), LB Chad Greenway (wrist), K Blair Walsh (hamstring), DT Kevin Williams (knee)
Out - CB Morris Claiborne (hamstring), G Brian Waters (elbow), LB DeVonte Holloman (neck), S J.J. Wilcox (knee)
Doubtful - LB DeMarcus Ware (thigh), WR Miles Austin (hamstring)
Probable - DT Jason Hatcher (neck), RB Lance Dunbar (hamstring), WR Dwayne Harris (hip), RB DeMarco Murray (knee), DE George Selvie (shoulder), S Barry Church (hamstring)