‘Hit them in the mouth:’ Cowboys’ fast start leads to all smiles (and a face bruise for Dak Prescott)

In Week 9’s debacle against Denver, it took the Cowboys nearly 56 minutes of game play to put their first points on the board. Seven days later versus Atlanta, it took just barely three.

Dallas came in eager to prove last week’s blowout loss was an anomaly. They did that- and then some- in delivering a 43-3 beatdown of their own over the visiting Falcons. Demons were exorcised, monkeys were shaken off of backs, bad tastes were washed out of mouths, and by the time the final whistle blew, the Cowboys had re-established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the NFC.

Following last week’s game in which nearly everything went wrong, head coach Mike McCarthy’s squad was desperate to string together some early success in Week 10. In trying to help the team get back to themselves, McCarthy actually began the afternoon going against his own instinct.

After winning the opening coin toss, the Cowboys elected to start on offense for the first time this season.

“Prefer to defer would be my tendency, but this was purely a focus,” McCarthy told reporters in his postgame press conference. “We wanted to get out there, jump out front, and get the lead. Let our defense play with the lead was the intent.”

Mission accomplished. Quarterback Dak Prescott led the offense 73 yards in eight plays, ending the drive with a 13-yard pass to wideout CeeDee Lamb.

The score was just 7-0, but a message had already been sent. The ‘Boys were back.

“I feel like the tone was already set from the moment we walked in the building,” Lamb said after the win. “I feel like, together, we came in with the right mindset and right game plan and just came in and attacked the day.”

Ezekiel Elliott, as usual, expressed things slightly more colorfully.

“We want the ball; we want to hit them in the mouth first,” the running back explained. “We wanted to go score first and that’s what we did.”

Wide receiver Michael Gallup, returning from an seven-game absence, agreed that a quick opening touchdown was crucial in helping Dallas turn the page from last week.

“That’s a big boost, especially when you get the ball first like that,” remarked Gallup, who wasted no time logging his first catch since Week 1 on that opening possession. “For the defense, just to see it, they come out fired up. We’re fired up, ready to get the ball back again. We definitely need it. We need to come out here and play fast from the start.”

The Cowboys did indeed, racking up 29 points in the second quarter alone, the highest single-quarter point total in franchise history.

Prescott connected with 10 different Cowboys receivers along the way, finishing 24-of-31 for 296 yards and a pair of touchdown throws. And that was in just three quarters; the Cowboys had a 40-point lead going in to the final frame, and No. 4 was a spectator from that point on.

But the sideline view allowed him to more fully put last week’s embarrassment in perspective.

“Last week just wasn’t us, and everybody in that locker room knows that,” Prescott told the media Sunday. “It left a bad taste in our mouth. I think it was a taste that we needed, as I said, to understand how tough this game is. But tonight just showed that when we focus in, we take it one play at a time, when our heart and minds are where our feet are, we’re capable of doing some great things.”

The offense did plenty of great things, allowing zero sacks, dominating time of possession, going 5-of-5 in the red zone, topping 40% in third-down efficiency, and converting all three fourth-down tries on the day.

“It felt like us. We got back to the basics, and that’s the kind of offense we are,” said offensive lineman Terence Steele, making his second straight start at left tackle in place of Tyron Smith. “This is how we play, and this is what we should put on film [from] here on forth.”

If it seemed as though the Cowboys played most of this Sunday with a Bronco-sized chip on their shoulder, McCarthy didn’t dispute it after taking out a week’s worth of frustrations on Atlanta.

“Well, it’s part of it,” the coach admitted. “I think the most important thing is you are able to learn from all of your experiences, and you have the opportunity to pay it forward, and I think as a football team, we did. Seven days ago we didn’t like where we were when I was standing up here. That was the response that we needed, and our guys did a hell of a job.”

The Denver loss wasn’t just about a lack of points or poor stats. The Cowboys- most troubling of all- lacked physicality for most of the Week 9 nightmare, and that was something the offense sorely needed to recapture.

So perhaps it shouldn’t have been a shocker when the Cowboys, already nursing a 36-3 lead in the closing seconds of the third quarter, kept the offense on the field on a 4th-down play at the doorstep of the Falcons’ end zone rather than let new kicker Lirim Hajrullahu attempt his first field goal.

Prescott ended up scrambling. And despite having gained enough yardage for a fresh set of downs, the quarterback threw himself into an Atlanta defender at the goal line. Add a late push from Steele, and the Cowboys leader drove the final nail in the Falcons’ coffin with six hard-earned points.

“I had to re-establish some toughness,” Prescott said later as he talked through his thought process during the improvised run. “At that point, I was actually getting ready to dive and just didn’t want the ball to go off a guy’s leg or something like that and realized I had the defender squared up. And at that point, yeah, it’s goal-line. I told you guys earlier in the year: certain plays, certain positions on the field, I’m going to go back to my instincts and [I’m] going to get the touchdown or the first down. But being smart about it.”

Elliott, who had two rushing scores in a 14-carry outing, was watching from the backfield as his quarterback put himself in harm’s way for the team’s last touchdown.

“I saw. I mean, Dak’s a big dude; those DBs are a little smaller. Maybe don’t want him doing that when we’re up 40,” Elliott laughed in his postgame reamrks. “I said something, joking, to him, after that drive. What do you expect him to do, one-on-one on the goal line? You’ve got to go get the touchdown. That just shows the type of quarterback that we have, it shows the type of the leader he is. He’s going to leave it all out there.”

Turns out, though, the goal-line hit wasn’t even the hardest shot Prescott took on the afternoon. Cowboys players were so amped up about reasserting themselves that the quarterback was left with a bloodied face after an earlier sideline encounter with one of his own receivers.

“After the second touchdown to CeeDee,” Prescott shared, “I come off the field, put my helmet down, then I see CeeDee coming past me, so I give him a holler, tell him ‘good job,’ and I guess he thinks I have my helmet on, so he leans in to do the the helmet tap. Face mask to cheek. I’m all right. I’m tough.”

That he is. And so is the entire Dallas roster, as they reminded the league on Sunday. But Prescott swears that following up a humiliating loss with the club’s largest margin of victory in over two decades wasn’t about making a statement to anybody but the men inside their own locker room.

“I don’t know if I’m necessarily into the whole ‘trying to make statements.’ We’re just trying to continue to get better and take it game by game, and when you’re in the game, play by play. I think when we do that, we’re capable of accomplishing whatever we want. We’re not going to get overconfident again.”


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