Words matter. And certain words raise the stakes exponentially just for having been uttered.
Players talk about big games. They talk about important games. They refer to key games, statement games, and even must-win games.
But when a team’s leader uses the P-word in Week 11, it’s like Ralphie’s schoolyard friends invoking the hallowed “triple-dog dare” in terms of conveying the critical nature of what’s about to take place.
“This is a playoff game,” Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott told reporters this week ahead of their meeting with the NFC North-leading Vikings.
“You’ve got a team with one loss, and then us coming in, coming off of one. We know what this means. We know what this means in the division, we know what this means in the NFC.”
A victory in Minnesota would put the Cowboys at 7-3, with a chance to move to 8-3 if they can win their Thanksgiving contest just four days later. That would keep them within striking distance of Philadelphia, with that rematch coming at home on Christmas Eve.
A loss against the Vikings, however, sends them to 6-4 and scrambling for answers as the much-improved Giants come to town, looking to deliver a knockout blow in front of a nationwide holiday audience.
The Cowboys have beaten the Vikings in four of their last five meetings. And they’ve won in Minneapolis two years running, though neither of those games even saw Prescott on the field.
So yes, the Dallas defense is rightfully under fire for blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead to Green Bay and giving up 200+ rushing yards per game in their last two outings. But Prescott knows Sunday is also an opportunity for him to get back on track, too, after missing Weeks 2 through 6 with a fractured thumb on his throwing hand and coming back to mixed reviews since.
Prescott stands 23rd among the league’s passers in completion percentage. While his current 63.8% doesn’t seem that far off his career mark of 66.5%, it is a notable dip. His cumulative number would have him outside the top 10 by just 0.2%.
His passing yards per game are down as well: 259.8 through his first six seasons, but just 214.0 so far in 2022. And his four interceptions this year? That equals all the picks he threw in his entire 16-game rookie campaign.
The Cowboys’ $40 million man is still unquestionably the leader of this team (both now and for the foreseeable future), but he’s also clearly rusty and not in sync with his receiving corps.
“It’s five games in [to the season] for me,” Prescott explained. “Some things are just getting on the same page, making sure guys understand. And they do. We obviously hit a lot of it in the game and continue it throughout the week, just understanding where I’m at in my trust in them and making sure that they feel the same thing and are seeing the same thing. But obviously [we’re] not 5-0 in those games, so damn sure not as clean or as good as I’d want it.”
Prescott looks to start turning the ship around with Sunday’s visit to the home of the Vikings.
“It’s about going up there, putting our best foot forward, and making sure that we put our best performance out there, just show the team that we are, in all aspects of our game.”
And if it’s really a game with playoff-level importance, then it’s time for Prescott and the Cowboys to collectively man up and stick their tongues to that frozen flagpole.