Sports

Wilber's big play keys Cowboys' 11th straight victory

Dallas Cowboys free safety Byron Jones (31) celebrates in front of Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, right, after breaking up a pass in the end zone during the second half of an NFL football game Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Minneapolis. The Cowboys won 17-15. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Dallas Cowboys free safety Byron Jones (31) celebrates in front of Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, right, after breaking up a pass in the end zone during the second half of an NFL football game Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, in Minneapolis. The Cowboys won 17-15. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

MINNEAPOLIS — Kyle Wilber came to his locker to start getting dressed when a hoard of media gathered around him.

"They must think I'm Dak," Wilber said, referring to rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.

This time, a third-string linebacker that has bounced from position to position during five years in Dallas took centre stage over any of the Cowboys' numerous playmakers.

Wilber stripped Vikings punt returner Adam Thielen and recovered the ball at the Minnesota 8-yard line in the fourth quarter, setting up a touchdown in a 17-15 victory over the Vikings for the Cowboys' 11th straight win.

"That's what coach (Jason Garrett) emphasizes to us. Make a play on the ball, make a difference on special teams," Wilber said. "I'm just trying to do my job."

On a night when the powerful Cowboys running game had a hard time getting going against a determined Vikings defence , Wilber's big play made all the difference. The Cowboys were held to season lows in points, yards (264) and first downs (13) and trailed 9-7 when Wilber punched the ball out.

"Just didn't do my job well enough," Thielen said. "Just bad ball security and the ball got out on me."

Dez Bryant caught an 8-yard touchdown pass from Prescott on the next play to help the Cowboys (11-1) squeak it out. Bryant finished with four catches for 84 yards, including a 56-yarder that set up a 1-yard TD by Ezekiel Elliott in the first half.

Sam Bradford threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Jerick McKinnon with 25 seconds to play, but his 2-point conversion throw sailed over Thielen's head, leading to the sixth loss in seven games for the Vikings (6-6).

"We'll have to win out," Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr said of the team's playoff chances. "I was hoping to get this win today and go on a run, but hopefully it starts next week."

Takeaways from the game:

RELATIVELY SMOOTH TRANSITION: Vikings special teams co-ordinator Mike Priefer had one day to prepare for his NFL head coaching debut, after beloved boss Mike Zimmer had emergency eye surgery to repair a detached retina. Offensive co-ordinator Pat Shurmur and offensive line coach Tony Sparano, both of whom have been head coaches in the league before, remained in their roles to minimize the disruption. Defensive co-ordinator George Edwards took over the play-calling duty from Zimmer.

Priefer's only critical decision turned out well, a challenge late in the fourth quarter that resulted in a first down being overturned for Dallas when replays showed Prescott's slide began before the marker.

"When you have a bunch of guys that work hard, when you've got a great locker room with great leadership, it makes my job a little bit easier to prepare for this type of game," Priefer said.

LAST GASP: Bradford argued to the officials after the 2-point conversion failed, saying the Cowboys should have been penalized when a defender hit him in the facemask. A flag would have given the Vikings another chance, but none was thrown. "I'm sick and tired of the reffing in this league right now," Vikings defensive end Brian Robison said. "I'm sick and tired of it. You've got holding calls all over the place that people don't want to call. Bradford gets hit in the face at the end of the game and you don't call it. I'm not laying this loss on reffing, but at some point it's got to get better."

BULLET DODGED: The Cowboys had two turnovers in the game — a strip sack of Prescott by Robison and a fumble from receiver Lucky Whitehead. They were their first two giveaways in five games. "It's not the best game we've played all year, but when it mattered we made the plays we needed to and got the win," Elliott said.

DAK'S LEGS: Prescott had a quiet game through the air, completing 12 of 18 passes for 139 yards. But he also rushed for 37 yards, converting two big third downs to keep drives alive. "It wasn't a clean game, but nobody ever flinched or thought anything different was going to happen besides us winning the game and making the plays to do that," Prescott said.

LOCKED OUT: Vikings punter Jeff Locke has been enjoying a career-best season in his fourth year with the team, but he slumped badly in this game with a 16-yarder, a 25-yarder and a 33-yarder that led to a field goal. All three of them were end-over-end wobblers that took an unfriendly bounce back toward the line of scrimmage. "I'm pretty disappointed in how I punted tonight," Locke said. "Especially in a close game like this, we need the field position to help us win."

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