The drama-filled quarterback controversy is over for at least a week after a record-setting, bounce-back performance from rookie sensation Dak Prescott.
And the Dallas Cowboys are back in the win column.
But not just thanks to Prescott and rookie running Ezekiel Elliott, though both played well in the 26-20 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at AT&T Stadium Sunday night.
It was the maligned defense that stood tallest of all, as the Cowboys upped their record to 12-2 while snapping Tampa Bay’s five-game winning streak.
Time and time again, the defense turned the Buccaneers (8-6) away with the game on the line in the fourth quarter.
Can’t say enough about Dak, his presence out there. ...Have a game that is just unprecedented almost as a rookie when this was very like a playoff game.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, on Dak Prescott
It was Orlando Scandrick’s interception of Jameis Winston with 24 seconds left that sealed the victory.
All told, Winston was intercepted three times, sacked four times and fumbled once. Defensive end David Irving led the way with two sacks and a pass deflection to share the lead role with Prescott and Elliott.
Elliott rushed 23 times for 159 yards and a touchdown. Prescott completed 32 of 36 passes for 279 yards and a rushing touchdown.
“Can’t say enough about Dak, his presence out there,” owner Jerry Jones said. “How he’s stepped back in here and performed, have a game that is just unprecedented almost as a rookie when this was very like a playoff game. We all knew — everybody knew — how much this game meant to us. Those guys really stepped up.”
The Cowboys remain ahead of the New York Giants (10-4) in the NFC East race and still control their destiny for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
But they can’t blink after getting back on the winning track following last week’s 10-7 loss to the New York Giants, snapping their franchise-record 11-game winning streak, was a must.
The Cowboys can clinch the NFC East and home-field advantage with a win next Monday against the Detroit Lions or a Giants loss in their game against the Eagles on Thursday.
Prescott will get credit for his fifth fourth-quarter comeback. He now has 12 wins a rookie, just one shy of the Ben Roethlisberger’s all-time record.
But it was most important that Prescott played well and quell a mini-quarterback controversy, considering some fans and media had started calling for former starter Tony Romo to replace the rookie after last week’s effort. Against the Giants, Prescott completed 17 of 37 passes for 165 yards with a quarterback rating of 45.4.
It was Prescott’s third consecutive game of less than 200 yards passing, causing some concern on the outside though the Cowboys never wavered inside the locker room.
His performance against the Buccaneers was proof enough.
Prescott opened Sunday’s game completing his first nine passes and finished with the second best completion percentage in NFL history to calm the crowd and controversy.
Per Elias, Prescott completion percentage of 88.9 trails only Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon’s 89.5 in 2002.
“I don’t pay attention to the noise,” Prescott said. “I couldn’t tell you much that was said really all week. I kind of found some later in the week. But that really doesn’t bother me. If anything, it’s motivation. I just wanted to come back and perform after the game I played last week. That was the only thing in my mind, was just to respond from last week’s performance. He said, she said doesn’t affect me.”
Prescott responded and so did Elliott, who kicked off a controversy of his own when he finished off a 2-yard touchdown run in the second quarter by jumping in the giant Salvation Army red kettle behind the end zone.
It drew an excessive celebration flag, but it went viral on the internet.
“I will tell you, the Salvation Army should give him the highest award,” Jones said. “My dream is that the NFL would fine the daylights out of me and I’m going to take them to the Supreme Court and we’re going to get the Salvation Army a lot of notice.”
Everybody on the Cowboys got a kick out of Elliott after the game.
My dream is that the NFL would fine the daylights out of me and I’m going to take them to the Supreme Court and we’re going to get the Salvation Army a lot of notice.
Jerry Jones, on any impending NFL fine for Ezekiel Elliott
But the Cowboys and the crowd had to sweat things out after a seemingly comfortable 17-6 halftime lead dissipated quickly in the third quarter.
Tampa Bay took a 20-17 lead into fourth quarter, thanks to two Winston touchdown passes, 42 yards to Adam Humphries and 10 yards to Cameron Brate.
The Cowboys, tied the score on a 40-yard field goal from Dan Bailey early in the fourth. Bailey missed field goals of 56 and 52 yards in the first half.
That’s when the defense took over.
An Irving sack and tipped pass led to a Jeff Heath interception.
A potential 20-yard touchdown pass from Prescott to running back Lance Dunbar was nullified by a holding penalty on tackle Tyron Smith.
Bailey’s 38-yard field goal made it 23-20.
Another stop by the defense was offset by an offensive miscue when tight end Jason Witten fumbled for only the fifth time of his career.
But the Cowboys defense came up big again, forcing a three-and-out possession.
A punt put the Cowboys at their 4, but Prescott and Elliott took over from there.
A 19-yard pass to Dez Bryant was followed by runs of 42 and 10 yards by Elliott.
But to show how much coach Jason Garrett trusted the defense on this night, he shunned going for it a fourth-and-1 at the Tampa Bay 15.
It turned out we wanted to make it six-point game. We were trusting our defense to do something. They certainly did.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, on deciding not to go for it on fourth-and-1 late
“We thought about going for it there,” Garrett said. “Our defense had played pretty well. It turned out we wanted to make it six-point game. We were trusting our defense to do something. They certainly did.”
Bailey’s 33-yard field goal made it 26-20 at the 2:58 mark, but it gave the Buccaneers a chance to win the game with a touchdown .
The defense forced another three and out, thanks to a sack by Irving on first down.
And then Scandrick and the defense came up big one more time at the end of the game.
“Our guys are mentally tough. They understand it’s a 60-minute game,” Garrett said.