The Dallas Cowboys’ season is over, but in reality their postseason loss just marked the beginning of their promising future.
At this point, everyone knows their story. The Cowboys lost their starting quarterback in Tony Romo during the preseason, which led to a rookie in Dak Prescott taking over “America’s Team” by surprise. Mixed in with another rookie phenom in Ezekiel Elliott, and the Cowboys, and their fan base, finally felt like winners once again.
On Sunday afternoon, that still felt like the case, even though the Green Bay Packers were able to advance to the NFC Championship game in thrilling fashion. The Cowboys had fought their way back from a 21-3 deficit, while putting up an astounding 18 points in the 4th quarter.
Their entire team had come alive, just to lose at the end to a vintage Aaron Rodgers performance, capped off by Mason Crosby nailing a 51-yard field goal to give the Packers a 34-31 victory as time winded all the way down.
While the game was ultimately decided by field goals, with Crosby becoming the first player to score a pair of +50 yard attempts in the last 2 minutes of a playoff game, it was a showdown between leaders who had, for the entire season, carried their teams.
Entering the 2016 campaign, it was expected from Rodgers, a former 2-time MVP, but not from Dak and Zeke to carry their respective franchises. The Cowboys’ rookie combo went on to exceed all expectations, edging their name into the MVP conversation, while setting a franchise record by winning 13 straight games.
They had earned themselves a bye week, before they had to step back on the gridiron. It wasn’t often you heard about a rookie QB who had a chance to make a run for the Super Bowl, but that was the position that Prescott was facing on Sunday afternoon. It was an unrealistic expectation, especially considering no team had ever won with a rookie QB under centre.
Even though Prescott didn’t even guide the Cowboys to the NFC Championship game, let alone the Super Bowl, it’s hard to deny that he, and his Pro Bowl teammate in Elliott, look well on their way. They stepped up under pressure, most notably Prescott; who guided the Cowboys through thick and thin as they only came a field goal away from advancing.
Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott: 1st pair of rookie teammates to have 300 Pass yds & 100 Rush yds in a playoff game in the Super Bowl era. pic.twitter.com/07xcleXyM3
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 16, 2017
In their divisional round matchup against the Packers, they were able to score the first points of the game to take a 3-0 lead. Unfortunately for them, their defence would get torched by Rodgers, as he spent a combined 13:36 minutes on the field for 3 consecutive touchdown drives.
The Packers held a dominant 21-3 lead at the 7:37 mark of the 2nd quarter, and it looked like the Cowboys were in a world of trouble behind their star duo that had yet to play in the postseason. Instead of stepping back and shying away, Prescott responded in the same way he had all throughout the 2016 season; executing to perfection to gain momentum back on their side in Jerry World to close the half.
Prescott would target his best receiver in Dez Bryant; connecting on a 21-yard pass, to get them in position to complete a 40-yard TD to cut the lead to 21-10. After a Packers punt, Prescott would march the Cowboys down the field once again for 36 yards, to get them in position for a field goal that would cut Green Bay’s lead to 8 for the final points of the 1st half.
Even though they ended the first 30 minutes with momentum on their side, Rodgers would answer back with a TD to start off the 3rd quarter. The lead was back up to 15, and for the first time all game, a QB would make a mistake; with Prescott throwing into the hands of Micah Hyde for an interception.
It’s safe to say that everyone makes mistakes, and that certainly seemed to be the case on Sunday afternoon; with Rodgers following Prescott with an interception of his own into the hands of Jeff Heath. It was the stroke of luck that the Cowboys needed to keep themselves in the game, but it gave Prescott the opportunity to bounce back like a true leader for his team.
Never was there a time that Prescott faced this much pressure. Being down 28-13 in his first playoff game for America’s Team, surely had to surpass the pressure he felt when going up against Romo for their starting QB job.
Like he had all year, Prescott was able to respond. The rookie quarterback went 6-6 on his pass attempts to guide the Cowboys down the field, finishing with a 15-yard TD to Jason Witten to cut the lead to 8 once again.
A possession later, Prescott continued to live up to the pressure, while also getting some much needed help from Elliott, who picked up 34 of his 125 rushing yards in the following drive. Together, they managed to get the Cowboys down the field in 11 plays, to ultimately finish with a touchdown pass to Bryant, his 2nd of the game, to go along with his 132 yards.
The Cowboys were down 28-26, and needed to go for the 2-point conversion; something they didn’t complete throughout the entire season. With 4:08 left in the game, knowing Rodgers’ ability to manage the clock, the Cowboys were able to turn to their quarterback once again to make the right decision. Prescott ran the ball into the end zone, but had to push his way for the extra yard after getting stopped by a wall of Packer defenders.
It’s easy to see why Sunday’s Packers vs Cowboys game ended up drawing the highest TV rating for a divisional round playoff game in the last 20 years. With the score tied at 28, both QBs looked ready to continue delivering for their teams down the stretch, as they competed for a chance to play in the NFC Championship game.
Throughout his career, Rodgers has stepped up in big moments, and he certainly rose to the occasion once again; getting his team down the field with a 37-yard drive that ended with a 56-yard field goal by Crosby. A possession later, Prescott would exchange the favour, orchestrating his team down the field for a 42-yard drive to position Bailey for a 52-yard field goal that would tie the game at 31.
It looked like arguably the best game of the playoffs was bound for overtime after Prescott had put up 18 points in the 4th quarter. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, they had left way too much time on the clock for an elite field general in Rodgers.
Perhaps spiking the ball on a 1 & 10 with 1:07 left in the 4th, leading to their field goal on a 4th and 3, wasn’t the best idea by head coach Jason Garrett; since it ultimately gave Rodgers 35 seconds to work his magic. The Packers’ QB wouldn’t disappoint, coming up clutch on a 3rd and 20 at their own 32-yard line; throwing a 36-yard bullet to Jared Cook, who probably made the catch of the year after getting both his tip toes inside the gridiron before falling out of bounds.
Crosby would get the ball with only 3 seconds left on the clock, but it was enough time for him to be able to kick a 51-yard field goal to give the Packers a 34-31 victory, and end the Cowboys’ historic season.
The Cowboys weren’t able to live up to some of the expectations that came their way after winning a franchise-best 13 games during the regular season, but they were able to still prove themselves while getting a good look of what their future should resemble.
Prescott proved himself under pressure in his first playoff game, leading his team to more points in the 4th quarter than the Packers had the entire 2nd half. He became the first rookie quarterback in the Super Bowl-era to throw for 3 TDs in a playoff game, while he showed incredible poise going agains the Packers’ blitz; converting on 7 of his 8 attempts for 105 of his 315 total yards on Sunday night.
The playoffs are a different beast, but his performance shouldn’t have come as any surprise after his jaw-dropping 2016 campaign. Alongside his fellow rookie in Elliott, who rushed for an NFL-leading 1631 yards, Prescott was able to prove himself after getting drafted in the 4th round not even a year ago.
Prescott found his opportunity at the right time when the Cowboys needed him most. He responded by holding the highest passer rating of any rookie QB in NFL history at 104.9, while he worked his way into a starting role for the wealthiest franchise in professional sports, for years to come.
I could write 1,500 words on Dak Prescott, and it wouldn't be as good as a seven-word Dez quote:
"Dak is that dude — a true beast."
— David Helman (@HelmanDC) January 12, 2017
All stats for this article are from NFL.com and ESPN.com
You can follow Bryan Meler on Twitter @BryanMelo97