Vikings vs. Cowboys: The spotlight's on Miles Austin
Damn was I wrong last week. Wasn't the first time, and unless I go Biff from Back to the Future II -- it surely won't be the last. Such is the business of prognostication.
What requires far less conjecture is that of the Vikings (12-4) three potential Wild Card round opponents for this Sunday's Divisional Playoff at the Metrodome (12:00 Central), the Dallas Cowboys likely offer the greatest degree of resistance to the Purple's first appearance in an NFC Championship game since 2000. With the sizzling Green Bay Packers felled 51-45 by Arizona in what proved the highest scoring game in NFL playoff history, the Cowboys arrive towing the league's hottest sack of pigskin embers.
Not that such heat defined the beginnings of their season.
Dallas (11-5) began the campaign a measured 2-2 entering a Week 5 matchup with lowly Kansas City. They opened their $1.2 billion stadium with a Week 2 loss to the Giants, and their respected defense had allowed nearly 1,500 yards and 80 points in the team's first four games while the 2008 sack champs didn't accrue a 2009 sack until Week 3. The Chiefs would ultimately take the Cowboys to the wire (and beyond, in a 26-20 OT loss) on that mid-October Sunday -- but few will remember the score a few clicks down the line. Rather, that game will be remembered as the birth of wide receiver Miles Austin.
Including his game-ending 60 yard touchdown in the affair, Austin corralled 10 balls for 250 yards and two touchdowns in what was his first career start. Filling in for the injured Roy Williams, Austin's yardage total set a Cowboys franchise record, an NFL record for a player's first start, and marked the highest total in the league since Buffalo's Lee Evans went for 265 yards in November of 2006. That was the same year that Austin entered the league as a return specialist after having set receiving records at Division 1-AA Monmouth University (Summit, N.J.). According to ProFootballReference.com, Austin is the second Monmouth baller to make the NFL since household name Ned Scott played one memorable season at tackle for the Rock Island Independents in 1924.
In that rookie season of '06, Miles Austin had as many catches as Miles Davis. The ensuing two years also offered little evidence to suspect that this dude would lead the NFC in receiving yards this season. In 2007-2008, Austin totaled 18 catches for 354 yards and three touchdowns in 28 games while playing sparingly behind Williams, Terrell Owens, and Patrick Crayton. Prior to that Williams injury in Week 5, Austin's first month of 2009 offered a whopping 5 catches for 81 yards and a Week 1 score.
Those diminutive seasonal beginnings make Austin's '09 appear all the more remarkable. Along with those NFC-leading 1,320 receiving yards, Austin concluded the year ranked in the league's top-15 in receptions, yards per catch, touchdown catches, yards after catch, 1st downs, and receptions of 20+ yards. All those chunky stats become more impressive when considering that Austin ranked tied for 21st in the NFL as a receiving target.
For a Vikings defense that concluded the year ranked 19th against the pass -- minimizing Austin's production is the most immediate concern for a defensive backfield that oft-struggled against some of the league's top receivers. Wideouts such as Charles Johnson, Derrick Mason, Greg Jennings, Nate Burleson, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and both Steve Smiths all scored, reached the 100-yard mark or nabbed double-digit catches versus the Vikings this year. Austin has seven straight games of six or more catches, and has scored in five of those contests.
The Vikings vs. Cowboys matchup is a showdown filled with offensive thoroughbreds: Favre, Peterson, Romo, Barber, Witten. But who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated playoff preview? Austin.
The postseason road to the Vikings first Super Bowl appearance since 1976 begins anew on Sunday. For the Purple defense to find some tread on the tire, the focus begins with limiting the Miles.
Please check back later in the week for Part 2 of the Vikings vs. Cowboys. Until then, keep apprised of the matchup via the City Pages Sports Twitter. Each new follower receives a free & creepy Jerry Jones smile!