ARLINGTON — What took place at AT&T Stadium Sunday afternoon counts only one game in the standings.
It could mean much more before the season is done.
It could be the game that nudges Dak Prescott into another category.
That’s a lot of weight to ascribe to a narrow victory over a winless Atlanta team in Week Two. But the nature of this improbable comeback, the way Prescott and others responded in the face of adversity, can reverberate well beyond the 40-39 final score.
Every successful season has a game or two that coaches and players point to with pride and say that’s the moment. That outcome had an emotional impact and instilled confidence well beyond the one game it meant in the standings.
Substantial work remains before Dallas can look back on this win over the Falcons and make that claim. But the Cowboys overcame a 15-point deficit in the final 7:57 to avoid an 0-2 start and serious buzzkill to open the Mike McCarthy era.
“You look at past experiences and look at any great season, you have big moments that you’re able to build off of,” McCarthy said. “This is a big moment.
“But the fact of the matter is that we’re 1-1. We understand that.”
The Cowboys understand they had no business winning this game, not after a first quarter in which they put the ball on the turf four times (losing three), failing to convert a first down on a fake punt and giving up touchdown passes of 22 and 42 yards.
A comeback? That concept appeared absurd since Dallas scored on four consecutive possessions in the second and third quarter and only narrowed its deficit by seven points.
Hollow yards on offense, no big plays on defense and questionable decisions on special teams characterized the first 52 minutes of this game for Dallas. Then Prescott changed the narrative.
Prescott wasn’t bad. He wasn’t the reason the Cowboys found themselves trailing by double-digits for most of the afternoon in front of 21,708 pandemic fans. The quarterback wasn’t the reason the team lost its opener against the Los Angeles Rams eight days earlier.
But he didn’t step up to win that game, either. The top quarterbacks in this league rise to the occasion late in games.
Prescott? He entered Sunday’s game with a 1-7 record in one-score games stretching back to the start of last season.
“I was waiting on that one-score game question,” 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.”
Funny. McCarthy chose the same word to describe Prescott’s performance.
“Huge performance,” McCarthy said. “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 today.”
Prescott became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 400 yards (450) and run for three touchdowns in a single game. He was at his best in the fourth.
Dallas trailed 39-24 when it got the ball back with 7:57 remaining. Prescott completed 12-of-17 passes for 162 yards for a touchdown and ran for another before Greg Zuerlein drilled the 46-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.
“I thought the whole football team, with Dak in the lead there, showed great resiliency,” McCarthy said. “There were a bunch of big-time plays.
“It was great clock management by Dak at the end and Greg nailed it for the victory.”
Again, that doesn’t tell the full story.
Dallas trailed by nine points when it got the ball back with 2:57 left in the game. On third-and-seven, Prescott found Noah Brown for 47 yards, putting the ball on the Atlanta 15-yard line.
Not so fast. Rookie CeeDee Lamb was called for a blindside block. The Cowboys lost 42 yards in field position and faced a third-and-two.
Prescott came right back to Lamb for the crucial conversion. He hit Michael Gallup down the left sidelines for 38 yards on the next play, giving the Cowboys a first-and-goal on the 5-yard line.
“It was a great play,” Prescott said of the contested catch. “MG just continues to show up and make huge plays time after time in one-on-one situations.
“He’s a guy that I count on. He’s a guy that this offense counts on in those situations. He wants his number called.”
The Cowboys scored seconds later. They recovered an onsides kick. Prescott hit Lamb for 24 yards, Ezekiel Elliott ran for two more then Zuerlein capped it off.
“It’s a big chunk of confidence that we’ll carry forward,” McCarthy said. “I’m very proud of the team.
“I’m very proud of everybody.”
Catch David Moore on The Ticket (KTCK-AM 1310 and 96.7 FM) with the Musers on M/W/F at 9:35 a.m., BaD radio on Wed at 2:10 p.m. and the Hardline on Tu/Fri at 4:10 p.m. during the regular season.
Find more Cowboys stories from The Dallas Morning News here.