Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett preaches daily, weekly, incessantly and seemingly boringly every week about staying focused, poised and controlling what you can control no matter the situation.
It’s worked well for the Cowboys all season as they dealt with a roller coaster that is running back Ezekiel Elliott’s legal battle with the NFL in federal court over his six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
After being suspended again on Monday, Elliott missed two days of practice and then got back on the field with another court ruling on Friday.
But it was in Sunday’s 28-17 victory against the Kansas City Chiefs in which the Cowboys put Garrett’s lessons to the test on the football field with character revealing, big-boy answers in the face of trying circumstances before a packed house of 93,273 at AT&T Stadium.
Imagine being ahead 14-3 with 21 seconds left in the first half following an 82-yard scoring drive. It was a drive that included a 21-yard pass to Dez Bryant on third-and-15 from their 13 with 1:30 left and a 56-yard pass to Terrance Williams on a broken play before quarterback Dak Prescott scrambled 10 yards to the end zone on a third-and-goal play.
“I went to the sideline when they called timeout and we talked about if we run the ball, we make them take a time out,” Prescott said of the decision to not be conservative at the start of the drive on third down backed up at the 13 with a 7-3 lead. “We could play that whole game. Or we could just go get the first down and put pressure on them. We called a pass play and believed what we called.”
It was the beginning of a drive that gave the Cowboys confidence, momentum and control of the game, potentially up 14-3 heading into halftime.
Then imagine being down 17-14 the next time you touched the ball.
That was the shocking situation that Cowboys found themselves in later in the third quarter.
The Chiefs got the ball at their own 37 following a late-hit penalty on safety Byron Jones on the kickoff following the Prescott touchdown. A delay of game penalty followed by a pass for 12 yards put the ball at the 44 with 2 seconds left in the half.
“It was a good call,” Byron Jones said. “I slammed him down too late. That’s my fault.”
So Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith tossed an underneath pass to Tyreek Hill against a defense that was backed up at the end zone waiting for the Hail Mary pass.
Hill ran 30 yards before he encountered a defender and then darted left and back to the middle to the end zone through at least six flailing and flatfooted Cowboys as time expired.
“It’s something we’ve got to prepare for,” Byron Jones said. “He’s a guy if you put the ball in his hands, he’s going to make a big play. ”
Jones compounded the gaffe by the defense with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the play for taking his helmet off.
“They did a really good job. It’s a good design on that play. We have to do a better job. I have to do a better job of coaching that play and getting our guys in position to make that play. That’s really on me,” said Garrett, who said the Cowboys were preparing for the Hail Mary.
The Chiefs got the ball to start the second half and started at the 38, thanks to Jones’ penalty.
They promptly marched 62 yards to the end zone, making the score 17-14 on 2 yard pass from Smith to tight end Travis Kelce, who beat Jones in coverage.
The Chiefs added fun to the insult with an end zone celebration mocking a children’s potato sack race with Kelce winning against Hill.
“I haven’t seen a complete replay of (the Hill touchdown) because I wasn’t looking,” owner Jerry Jones said. “I was looking down eating my hot dog. The best thing that you can do to be in a ballgame is have a great play that goes for you. If it goes against you, that can affect momentum. Then they get the ball back and drive it all way down in the second half. This team had every reason and every right to get to get down. They did not.”
It was character showing time for the Cowboys and, led by Prescott, they didn’t blink.
A 12-play, 75-yard scoring drive, capped by a 2-yard scoring run by Elliott, was followed by a 13-play, 87-yard drive, capped by a 7-yard pass from Prescott to Cole Beasley.
“It was just about staying focused,” Prescott said. “We expect points on every drive. That is our standard. Nothing changed for the offense, from going up to going down, we just simply didn’t have the chance to get the ball. We were just thinking our normal mindset to go downfield and score and we did that.”
And the maligned Cowboys defense went from embarrassing to game-saving in making the 28-17 lead stand up.
Safety Jeff Heath followed the first sack of rookie defensive Taco Charlton’s career with an interception of Smith with 5:12 left in the game.
It was Heath’s first interception of the season and the first thrown by Smith all season. Save for the two drives to end the first half and start the second, the Cowboys kept an explosive Chiefs offense in check. Running Kareem Hunt had 37 yards on nine carries and just 24 yards on four receptions.
The speedy Hill had just 9 yards on four carries and one catch for 8 yards outside of the 56-yard touchdown.
“I think our defense and offense responded,” Garrett said. “Our defense responded throughout the rest of the second half. Good things are going to happen in games. Bad things are going to happen in games. Putting that play (touchdown before halftime) behind you and moving forward is sometimes easier said than done. We felt like we gave them one.”
Prescott, who owner Jerry Jones said is playing as well as any quarterback in the league, completed 21 of 33 passes for 249 yards with two touchdowns passing and one running to lead the Cowboys to their third consecutive win and move to 5-3 on the season.
“It’s huge, especially after a couple of those close losses that put us at 2-3,” Prescott said. “We stayed focused and put ourselves in this position. I said a couple of weeks ago, even with some some losses, that we were headed in the right direction. We are getting where we want to be.”
They will be looking for their fourth consecutive win against the reeling Atlanta Falcons (4-4) next Sunday.
But their first hope is for a win in federal court early next week when Elliott hopes to be granted another preliminary injunction to remain on the field for the rest of the season.
Elliott rushed 27 times for 93 yards after missing two days of practice while on brief suspension.
“I was a little rushed,” Elliott said. “I’m not going to lie. Honestly, I had no idea when I came in on Friday that I was going to have a chance to come in. I practiced and spent all day watching film. Saturday, I was just trying to catch up for what I lost.”
Despite seeing his streak of three consecutive 100-yard games snapped, Elliott didn’t lose much or miss much.
His running helped Prescott and Williams to break out in the passing game. Williams had nine catches 141 yards, the first 100-yard outing of the season for a Cowboys receiver. Bryant had six catches for 73 yards.
“I thought he played very well,” Garrett said of Elliott. “He’s a guy that allows us to control the game. Much of what we do offensively comes off that. He’s got a relentless spirit about him. He’s physical. He wants the ball.”
Drew Davison: 817-390-7760, @drewdavison
Dal—Beasley 6 pass from Prescott (Nugent kick), 2:36.
KC—FG Butker 38, 7:19.
Dal—Prescott 10 run (Nugent kick), :13.
KC—Hill 56 pass from A.Smith (Butker kick), :00.
KC—Kelce 2 pass from A.Smith (Butker kick), 9:06.
Dal—Elliott 2 run (Nugent kick), 3:29.
Dal—Beasley 7 pass from Prescott (Nugent kick), 8:58.
Total Net Yards
Time of Possession
RUSHING—Kansas City, K.Hunt 9-37, A.Smith 5-19, Hill 4-9, West 1-3. Dallas, Elliott 27-93, Prescott 3-27, Morris 1-11.
PASSING—Kansas City, A.Smith 25-34-1-263. Dallas, Prescott 21-33-0-249.
RECEIVING—Kansas City, Kelce 7-73, West 5-30, K.Hunt 4-24, Thomas 3-41, Hill 2-64, Robinson 2-18, Chesson 1-10, Travis 1-3. Dallas, Williams 9-141, Bryant 6-73, Beasley 4-24, Butler 1-6, Witten 1-5.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—None.