By Dwain Price
If the Dallas Cowboys qualify for the playoffs by a single game this season, they’ll probably look back to the dramatic events of Sunday as to the reason why.
Down 20 points after the first quarter and 15 points with under five minutes remaining in the game, the Cowboys rallied and somehow pulled victory from the jaws of defeat en route to executing a stunning 40-39 triumph over the Atlanta Falcons before 21,708 socially distanced fans at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
The Cowboys recovered an improbable onside kick with 1:48 left, and Greg Zuerlein booted a game-winning 46-yard field goal as time expired, leaving Dallas with a 1-1 record and tied with Washington for first place in the NFC East.
“We showed our resiliency today,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “I just want to thank those 21,000-plus fans that showed up today. They were a huge difference. I know the team fed off of that, and I know late in that two-minute drive after the onside kick, it was simply just incredible.
“It was an incredible game to be a part of, but I think the team just showed their faith and resilience in each other.”
None of this exuberance appeared probable for the Cowboys after they fumbled four times – they lost three of them – and botched a fake punt, all directly leading to a short field Atlanta had to work with and a 20-0 lead by the Falcons before the first quarter was over. But despite their own failures, the Cowboys hung around long enough to get the biggest break of the game when, trailing, 39-38, C. J. Goodwin recovered an onside kick by Zuerlein.
Instead of going the customary route of placing the ball on a tee and kicking it, Zuerlein laid the ball flat on the artificial turf and kicked it. The ball swirled around several times and there were four Atlanta players near it and could have recovered it before it traveled 10 yards, but they instead chose to let the ball keep swirling around.
By the time the ball traveled 10 yards – when a member of the Cowboys could be the first to legally touch it without being penalized – Goodwin pounced on it at the Atlanta 46-yard line.
“Yeah, with the new rules you have to have something slow where your guys can get to the ball,” Zuerlein said. “In years past you could run, so you do different things. But now, you’ve got to have something slow. It gives our guys a chance to block and hop on it.
“I have never used it before in a game. But we practiced it early in the year just in case because you have to have something.”
After Prescott completed a 24-yard pass to rookie CeeDee Lamb to get the Cowboys in field goal range, Dallas ran down the clock and sent Zuerlein out for the game-winning kick.
“It was an excellent big-time home win for us – exciting football game,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “We tried everything and we needed everything to get it done. Obviously, the start of the game was not what we were looking for. We had the ball on the ground on six of the first 15 offensive plays.
“Their field position in the first half was definitely overwhelming and it obviously resulted in the point differential. I’ll just say this, at halftime we talked about having this opportunity as a new team and we needed this opportunity. I just can’t say enough about the fight of the football team.”
The Cowboys trailed 29-10 at the half and appeared to lack any type of energy or emotions. So what was it about McCarthy’s halftime speech that was so inspiring?
“Coach McCarthy said it at halftime, ‘We need to be here. We need to be right here where we are,’ “ Prescott said. “The final score didn’t matter as much as finding out the type of men that we have within this team. But to show the resiliency to go out there and continue to fight and come out with the win, it does so much.
“That (win) was huge in so many ways.”
It was huge, because as running back Ezekiel Elliott said, “No, we weren’t supposed to win it. We weren’t supposed to win that game. But it is a testament to the type of guys we have in this locker room, and we went out there and got it done.”
The Cowboys “got it done” because Prescott became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for at least 400 yards and rush for three touchdowns in the same game. Overall, Prescott completed 34 passes in 47 attempts for 450 yards and a 10-yard touchdown pass to backup tight end Dalton Schultz, who caught nine passes for 88 yards.
“He’s just so steady,” McCarthy said of Prescott. “It’s tough on a quarterback, particularly when you get in a hole like that. But I thought we was strong in the pocket.
“I thought he was smart with the football. He’s just so composed. I thought he had a very strong performance.”
Lamb also had a strong performance as he had six receptions for 106 yards, and Amari Cooper added six catches for 100 yards. Meanwhile, Elliott rushed 22 times for 89 yards and a touchdown, and caught six passes for 33 yards as the Cowboys are now 2-7 in their last nine games that were decided by a touchdown or less.
“Definitely, I’m proud of the team,” Prescott said. “Like I said last week, it was just about getting one win underneath our belt. We needed a win in a close game, and it will all start rolling from here.
“It just gives everybody confidence and juice through the team, coaches and fans as well. It was a one-score game, but we were down a few scores. For us to show the resiliency and stay at it was huge. I’m proud of everybody.”
The Cowboys played without nine injured players, including five starters. But they soldiered on and prevailed despite three turnovers, two botched fake field goals and a missed two-point conversion.
“I thought the whole football team, with Dak in the lead there, showed great resiliency,” McCarthy said. “The ability to overcome all the adverse situations and take it all the way down to the wire. . .
“It was great clock management by Dak at the end and Greg nailed it for the victory. We spent a lot of time on the final segments of game and our guys did a great job of executing it here in the clutch. We found out a lot about ourselves.”