Chip Scoggins
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Vacation is over. A dose of impending reality greeted the Vikings upon returning to work this week.

Dak Prescott. Lamar Jackson. Justin Herbert. Aaron Rodgers.

All in a row.

Sorry, there are no Sam Darnolds in that group of quarterbacks on the horizon.

"I think we're good, too," Vikings defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said.

Don't remind Patterson of what lies ahead. He knows but can't see past Sunday's prime-time matchup against the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL's highest-scoring offense.

To expend time and energy focusing on anything else would bear witness to the NFL's powerful seduction, which Patterson likened to a soap opera's daily cliffhanger.

"They always do something to make you turn it back on at 11 o'clock the next day," he said.

Wait, is that … Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb at the door?

Dun, dun, duuuunnnn!

Patterson encourages fans to tune in.

"It's going to be a fight," he said.

The Vikings invested heavily in their defense after being overmatched in these fights last season. The organization added eight defensive players and welcomed back end Danielle Hunter, linebacker Anthony Barr and nose tackle Michael Pierce from injury and/or opt-out. An overhaul to that degree brings certain expectations.

This would be an appropriate time for that investment to pay dividends.

At 3-3, the stretch between now and Thanksgiving will reveal how the Vikings measure up against playoff-caliber teams. That answer likely hinges on the defense's ability to contain a quartet of quarterbacks and offenses that stress opponents in different ways.

The Cowboys lead the league in total offense (460.8 yards per game) and scoring (34.2).

The Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens rank second and fourth in the NFL in rushing.

Three of those opponents — Cowboys, Chargers and Ravens — feature top-10 passing offenses. The fourth has a guy named Aaron Rodgers.

The task is challenging enough, but the Vikings tackle that stretch without No. 1 cornerback Patrick Peterson, sidelined three games because of a hamstring injury.

The coaching staff's traditional bye week self-scout uncovered a mixed bag with the defense. Good in some areas, concern in others.

The positives: The Vikings lead the league in sacks and rank second in third-down defense.

The negatives: They rank 26th in rushing defense and 24th in red-zone defense.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer prides himself on his defenses, but they’ll be put to the test when facing high-caliber offenses for the next four weeks.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer prides himself on his defenses, but they’ll be put to the test when facing high-caliber offenses for the next four weeks.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

The defense has performed better of late but is still not consistent enough to anyone's satisfaction.

"We've tightened some things up, but it doesn't mean everything is fixed," safety Harrison Smith said. "We have to stay vigilant and not say, 'Oh, we're playing good, that will continue into the future.'"

The Cowboys present a true litmus test because of their balance, which Patterson described as a "two-headed monster" if both running and passing games are functioning effectively.

Elliott and Tony Pollard bring a 1-2 punch on the ground. Lamb and Amari Cooper form a dynamic receiving tandem. Prescott is dealing with a calf problem but has shown no lingering issues in returning from a severe ankle injury.

"You're not going to shut this team down," Patterson said. "They're too good."

As usual, everything starts at the line of scrimmage. The Cowboys have a premier offensive line, ranking No. 1 in run blocking and No. 4 in pass blocking, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Vikings defensive line excels at creating pressure but has been leaky against the run. One won't be enough against the Cowboys.

"If they can run whenever they want to and throw it whenever they want to," Patterson said, "then that's going to be a long night for us."

Patterson sounded almost defiant as he talked about the challenge — "They've got Pro Bowl players. We've got Pro Bowl players, too." — which revealed a glimpse of his competitive spirit percolating in anticipation for a big game.

Mike Zimmer no doubt feels that, too. Defense is his pride and joy. He'd rather gargle rotten milk than suffer through back-and-forth shootouts. That might be unavoidable given the quarterbacks coming in rapid-fire succession. This stretch will show whether a purposeful and extensive defensive makeover can produce the desired result.