Sitting at 1-6, it's safe to say that the 2013-14 season has been a tough one for the Minnesota Vikings.
Heading into their Week 9 showdown with the Dallas Cowboys, the Vikings will be looking to pull off an upset and throw a wrench into the Cowboys' playoff aspirations.
In order for that to happen, though, the Vikings will have to take advantage of a few crucial matchups on Sunday, so let's break them down.
Dez Bryant vs. Alan Williams
Don't look now, but the Vikings' 29th-ranked pass defense is going to have a really tough time in slowing down Cowboys superstar wide receiver Dez Bryant.
With 45 receptions for 641 yards and eight touchdowns this season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Bryant is currently the fifth-best wide receiver in the league.
The mere presence of Bryant out on the field spells trouble for a Minnesota defense that has been absolutely obliterated through the air this season.
If the Vikings are to have any hope of winning, dealing with Bryant has to be a top priority for defensive coordinator Alan Williams.
For Williams, turning things around on defense is essential not only for the Vikings' success, but also for his own future with the organization. Being responsible for the NFL's 30th-ranked defense is usually not the best way to keep your job.
Although it's hard to imagine any of Minnesota's cornerbacks stopping Bryant, there is one crucial element Williams can try to implement that might slow him down: Place an emphasis on tackling.
If you want to see a perfect example of how missed tackles can lead to huge plays, look no further than the Vikings' game last week against the Green Bay Packers.
You'll notice in the picture above that Green Bay wide receiver Jordy Nelson attempts to split the Vikings defense by running directly up the middle of the field.
When Aaron Rodgers sees Nelson has some space to operate with, he fires a crisp pass directly at his favorite target.
Instead of giving up just a 10-yard gain, linebacker Chad Greenway misses a tackle and allows the speedy Nelson to get away and explode downfield for a 76-yard touchdown.
Simple mistakes like these are just some of the issues the Vikings have been dealing with this season.
If they are to have any shot at containing Bryant, Williams and his staff need to make sure they put a serious emphasis on tackling in Week 9.
Mackenzy Bernadeau vs. Letroy Guion/Fred Evans
With Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com tweeting that starting Cowboys right guard Brian Waters is going to miss the remainder of the season, the Vikings have a chance to take advantage of backup right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau in Week 9:
Jerry Jones also said that Brian Waters is OUT for the remainder of the season with the triceps injury. Bernadeau will start in his spot.
By the Vikings lining up defensive tackles Letroy Guion and Fred Evans against Bernadeau throughout the contest, it's going to essential for these guys to play well if Minnesota wants to collapse the pocket.
The problem is that this matchup isn't going to be easy for the Vikings.
With Minnestoa struggling to find consistency at the position, Guion is the 59th-ranked defensive tackle in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus metrics.
While his backup, Fred Evans, has actually played better—Evans has a positive 2.3 grade by PFF this season—the Vikings coaching staff decided to give Guion majority of snaps last week against the Packers.
No matter who ends up getting the bulk of the work against Dallas, both Guion and Evans have to be prepared to attack Bernadeau every chance they get.
If the Vikings want to slow down the Cowboys rushing attack and limit quarterback Tony Romo's time in the pocket, this is one battle they must win.
Cordarrelle Patterson vs. Cowboys special teams unit
For all of the troubles the Vikings have faced this season, one of the bright spots has been the special teams play of rookie wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
According to Ben Goessling of ESPN.com, Patterson has been given the green light on kick returns. After Patterson took back a huge 109-yard kick return against the Packers in Week 9 for a touchdown, it's clear why the coaching staff has so much faith in this young man.
It won't be easy for Patterson to bust loose against the Cowboys.
According to Football Outsiders' metrics, the Cowboys have the second-best special teams unit in the NFL.
A talented group that has yet to surrender a touchdown on kickoffs, the Cowboys' special teams have done a fantastic through the first eight weeks of the season.
However, all of that can change in the blink of an eye with Patterson on the field.
With Patterson arguably the most dangerous kick returner in the NFL today, Bleacher Report's Tim Arcand wrote a great piece detailing why Patterson is so hard to stop on special teams.
Regardless of the final score on Sunday, watching Patterson play has become the most exciting thing for Vikings fans to watch this season.
*All stats courtesy of ESPN.com unless noted otherwise.