Dak Prescotts stellar return vs. Buccaneers confirms Cowboys are NFC contenders again

The Cowboys didn’t win Thursday night’s epic passing battle between Dak Prescott and Tom Brady. Instead, they lost a 31-29 heartbreaker to the Buccaneers in the Week 1 kickoff game of the 2021 NFL season. But the fact Prescott dueled the GOAT as well as he did in his first game in 11 months post-ankle surgery — and with a lingering preseason shoulder injury — bodes well for Dallas’ long-term health in the fight for NFC supremacy.

Prescott deserved a better fate. He was hurt by missed connections with wide receiver CeeDee Lamb and two bad misses by kicker Greg Zuerlein. Prescott picked up where he left off when he went down against the Giants in Week 5 last season. He almost made everyone forget he had missed any real action, let alone 11 games.

Facing a dominant Tampa Bay run defense that has been No. 1 in the league since 2019, the Cowboys decided to throw out balance with Ezekiel Elliott and kept on throwing with Prescott. So much for easing him back into action and being worried about rust or rest. The final tally: Dak Dropbacks 59, Zeke Carries 11.

Although there were concerns that Prescott’s arm wasn’t at full strength because of his shoulder ailment, something that was well-documented on “Hard Knocks,” he proved he could make whatever kind of throw he was called upon to deliver in the flow of the offense.

Prescott earned every bit of his $95 million guarantee by zipping the ball everywhere to money men Lamb (seven catches, 104 yards, two touchdowns) and Amari Cooper (13 catches, 139 yards, two TDs). He got six other targets involved as well and didn’t at all mind Elliott being relegated to pass protector and checkdown receiver. Prescott showed great mental and physical toughness as he wasted no time retaking command — and opening a big lead for Comeback Player of the Year.

Prescott’s first game of his third season with wunderkind offensive coordinator Kellen Moore produced these stats: 42-of-58 passing, 409 yards, 6.8 yards per attempt, three touchdowns, one interception, one sack, 108.6 passer rating. He would have completed more than 72.4 percent of his attempts had Lamb not made several drops, and it can be argued the interception was on Lamb, too. Prescott wasn’t afraid to hang in the pocket and he picked good spots to run on his healed ankle.

The best of Prescott is back. He not only looked like the quarterback who averaged 371.8 yards per game while leading the league in net yards per attempt last season (7.72); he also looked like the dazzling rookie of 2016.

No one will know whether the Cowboys, who went 2-3 with Prescott starting last season, would have made the playoffs had he been able to stay in the lineup. Dallas finished 4-7 without him. But they did go 13-3 when he replaced an injured Tony Romo and edged Elliott for Offensive Rookie of the Year with his 8.6 adjusted yards per attempt and 104.9 passer rating five years ago.

The most important number for Prescott that rookie year? Those 13 wins, which earned the Cowboys the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Before the “QB wins are not a stat,” pro-Matthew Stafford crowd gets riled up, there was no question the Cowboys missed Prescott’s leadership and other intangibles during their freefall last season under first-year coach Mike McCarthy. 

While Prescott was in recovery during Super Bowl 55, the Buccaneers were busy shutting down Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs’ offense and Brady was earning his seventh ring. On top of its ability to take away the run, Tampa Bay was equipped with nasty edge rushers, flying inside linebackers and a underrated secondary that made a ton of plays during the team’s playoff run.

Prescott was doing his damage Thursday against the team that forced Mahomes into his worst pro performance. He was executing a one-dimensional game plan that created opportunities for him to get hit on almost every play. He will get his full arm strength back soon, and that will push his YPA and air yardage back toward their high standards.

The Bucs had few answers for Prescott. The Cowboys’ offensive line, even without ace right guard Zack Martin, gave him time. The offense was able to react well to Tampa Bay shuffling its defensive backs because of injuries, now that Cooper, Lamb and No. 3 receiver Michael Gallup again have no limitations on where they can align and what kind of routes they can run.

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Prescott consistently delivered great ball placement and accuracy. He reminded everyone that when he’s healthy, the Cowboys have a massive advantage at the game’s most important position vs. the rest of the NFC East. If they can hang with the reigning champs, then that would seem to say they are well-equipped to take on the other top teams in the conference.

When Prescott is playing like this, no one else in the division can answer at that level. The East’s other Week 1 starters are Ryan Fitzpatrick (Washington), Jalen Hurts (Eagles) and Daniel Jones (Giants).

While Brady was busy going ham with BFFs Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski on Thursday, Prescott was offering up as many responses as he could with Cooper and Lamb. Big plays with vertical threat Gallup will become more abundant soon and the tight ends will continue to have an impact. Prescott can also still count on having more balance when Elliott is busier and more effective as a rusher.

The Buccaneers are the Buccaneers. They are still who we thought they were. They have a strong case for an NFC title repeat and a return to the Super Bowl.

The Cowboys needed a boost of confidence and their concerns about Prescott alleviated. They should have no doubts now after he exceeded every expectation during an immediate difficult test. Dallas’ defense wasn’t great against Brady, but it looked much improved against the run under new coordinator Dan Quinn. It also was more opportunistic in playing good complementary football.

Again, the Bucs are the toughest all-around test (and threat) in the NFC and the Cowboys passed it better than many other teams would have. But before they can even think about a rematch when a lot more is at stake early next year, the Cowboys need to stay focused on developing into a team that can get well above .500. A tough early loss can be set to a positive tone, but Dallas is also aware now of what it needs to clean up ahead of intense division play.

Prescott and the Cowboys will be in a good spot to rebound. After a long week, they’ll take on Justin Herbert and the Chargers in Inglewood, Calif., an hour east of where they had training camp in Oxnard. Then it’ll be three consecutive home games, with the Giants and Eagles sandwiching the Panthers.

Dallas should feel confident it can win all its games over the next month. That would put the team at 4-1 heading into a tough road tilt with Brady’s former team, the Patriots. 

The 49ers, Packers, Seahawks and Rams are among the NFC teams that should have taken notice Thursday. Whoever comes out of the East won’t create an easy playoff path in 2021, not with Prescott back and getting the most out of an explosive offense than can also be balanced.

The Cowboys’ run of even-year division titles with Prescott ended when the 2020 season became a dud. Not only do the Cowboys look, as they should, like the team to beat in the East, but this version of Prescott puts them back in elite company: teams that have Super Bowl-caliber passers.

Prescott’s big makeup season doesn’t stop with the Bucs and an 0-1 start. There were a lot of signs in Tampa that he has Dallas just scratching the surface of unstoppable — and game-winning — offensive play.

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