In what was a huge must-win game in Week 4 of the season, the Dallas Cowboys leaned on what they could count on most.
No, it was not quarterback Dak Prescott slinging it around to open up the struggling pass offense as promised by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
And while Prescott played well, passing for a season-high 255 yards and two touchdowns, it was running back Ezekiel Elliott, the team’s best player, going for a career-high 240 yards in total offense. He rushed for 152 yards and caught four passes for 88, including a 38-yard touchdown on a screen.
The deciding play was a 34-yard over the shoulder grab from Prescott on game-winning field goal drive to power the Cowboys to a 26-24 victory against the Detroit Lions at AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys (2-2) got the desperate win, thanks to a clutch 38-yard field goal from new kicker Brett Maher as time expired.
“It was just a big-time play,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Zeke is an outstanding football player. “He ran the ball really well really well today. But he is an outstanding receiver, both coming out of the backfield and when we line him up on the line of scrimmage. Dak liked what we saw in coverage. Zeke did a great job on the route. Talk about a nut-cuttin’ time throw. Critical situation to make that throw and for Zeke to be able to finish and put us in position for the game winner was big time. Brett did a great job drilling it. He didn’t blink.”
Now, they head into next Sunday’s game against the Houston Texans (1-3) fighting for the pride of the state with all their goals for the season still intact.
Prescott showed poise and confidence and Elliott showed his versatility to go with his dominance.
“I think we got back to our old self, and it showed,” Elliott said. “We wore that defense down. We hit some big runs in the second half after we wore them down and then we went out there and did what we had to do to win the game. We needed it. Probably the most important win this time of year.”
Here are five thoughts from the game:
1. Quarterback Dak Prescott didn’t actually sling it around but he threw it a lot better than he did the first three games of the season, completing 17 of 27 passes for 255 yards. He had four completions longer than 20 yards after having just one in the first three games and passed for two touchdown passes with no interceptions. And yes he topped the 200-yard barrier for the first time this season and just the third time in the last 12 games dating back to last season. Prescott was accurate and efficient. But the team’s inability to get in the end zone, having to settle for three field goals early appeared like it was going to hurt them. Prescott also needlessly took a sack that took Cowboys out of field goal range. He has to throw that ball away. But he proved game with it mattered most, directing a nine play 55-yard game-winning scoring drive in the final two minutes. The drive almost got thwarted before it started as defensive Da’Shawn Hand knocked the ball out of his hands on the second play of the drive. Prescott calmly picked it up and threw it out of bounds for an incompletion. A 9-yard pass to Allen Hurns gave them a first a first down and then he hit Elliott with 34-yarder two plays later.
“Yeah, you’ve heard me say this before, he’s a damn good football player,” Garret said of Prescott. “He handles success. He handles adversity as well as anyone I’ve been around at that position. He’s a great leader. He never blinks. He just goes out and plays. I think if you look at his performance today, it’s the way we want our quarterbacks to play. A balance of run and pass and again, attack a lot of different ways. He threw to different guys all over the field, made plays with his feet, made plays with his arm, made plays at the critical moment. So he’s an awfully good football player.”
Asked if he needed the comeback win and bounce-back performance to boost his confidence, Prescott said he never wavered.
“I know what I can do,” Prescott said. “ I know the player that I am. And I never waver and I’m never going to get down on myself. All of us have good days and bad days and if all of us were judged by our bad days our jobs, then we’d all be in trouble.”
2. Despite the talk all week of the Cowboys planning to sling it around, running back Ezekiel Elliott was the focal point of the game plan against a Lions defense that ranked last in the league against the run. Elliott rushed 25 times for 152 yards marking his second straight 100-yard game. He also caught four passes for 88 yards, giving him a career-high 240 yards total offense. Elliott’s running helped the Cowboys be as balanced as it’s has been all season. But the final result is what mattered most. Elliott had a blocking in the back penalty that killed a potential scoring drive. But it was Elliott who made the difference the game-winning scoring drive with 34-yard catch to put the team in field goal position.
“Once I saw we got the 2-minute offense and they were playing man to man, I lined up in the slot,” Elliott said. “I was excited. I got them one-on-one with me. He made a perfect throw. One pass, we won the game.”
Elliott was focused on having a big game from the beginning, all the way back to pre-game warm ups, per Prescott and guard Zack Martin. He had that look in his eyes.
“Anywhere you got him the ball, anywhere he had the ball in his hands, he was dominating the game and setting the tone from the screens to the check-downs to that last play right there,” Prescott said. “He just showed how physical he was in the run game. It was just a dominating performance for him.”
3. Terrance Williams was inactive and Brice Butler was active for the first time. But a Cowboys receiver corps that complained about being open and not getting the ball offered a mixed bag on Sunday against the Lions. Michael Gallup had a 37-yard completion but Tavon Austin dropped a would-be touchdown pass in the end zone. The Cowboys did shorten the rotation and Butler didn’t play at all. Allen Hurns had a big third-down catch to keep the final drive alive and Cole Beasley had four catches for 53 yards on the day. Tight end Geoff Swaim had three catches for 39 yards including his first career touchdown. While offensive coordinate Scott Linehan promised more wrinkles, the big difference was more aggressive throws down the field and better execution, per Beasley.
“Guys stepped up to the challenge and stepped up to the plate,” Beasley said. “It wasn’t our best but it was a step forward.”
4. The Cowboys played without linebacker Sean Lee on defense for the first time all season. The team went 1-4 without Lee last year. Rookie top pick Leighton Vander Esch started in his place and had a productive game. The Cowboys gave up a 32-yard run early but held the Lions in check on the ground. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence had a monster game with three sacks and three tackles for loss. The biggest issues the Cowboys had were on the back end where cornerbacks Chido Awuzie, Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis gave up big plays to Lions receivers Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay and safety Jeff Heath had a horrible game tackling. And when Tate caught a 38-yard touchdown, his second of the day, put the Lions up 24-23 with 2 minutes, 17 seconds left, things looked bleak. But the offense got it done in the end, which is a welcomed change from the first three games when the Cowboys averaged 13 points a game and all the pressure was on the defense.
“The offense came to work and they put up points,” Lawrence said. “When it came down to the wire it was really one dimension, they had to pass the ball. I am basically trying to show the world I am no one trick pony. Every time I step on the field I am here to put on a show.”
5. Nobody is calling for Dan Bailey anymore. Kicker Brett Maher proved the Cowboys made a good decision when they kept him over the proven Bailey after final cuts. After missing his first kick of the season in the opener against the Carolina Panthers, he has now made eight in a row. He made four field goals against the Lions, including the game winner from 38-yards out with no time left on the clock Sunday afternoon. Receiver Cole Beasley said they had confidence in Maher but they were proud to see him show why the Cowboys decided to keep him.
“It was exciting, a great feeling,” Maher said. “It was a big kick for me. I was happy to do my part. It’s nice to be able to come through in moments like that.”