Now for the game of the weekend. Just before the Cowboys took off from Providence for Dallas on Sunday night, I asked Dak Prescott what it felt like to put up 35 points and 445 yards against Bill Belichick’s defense. Think of that number: 445 passing yards. Belichick’s head-coached 422 games in his 27 years running the Browns and Patriots. No quarterback has ever thrown for that many yards.
“Yeah, I mean it’s great,” Prescott said. “We know the coach and the Super Bowls and the standard here. When you’re able to come up here and do something that hasn’t been done on them in a long, long time, it’s great, and it gives us such confidence. Especially doing it here. What an atmosphere. The fans were so into it. It was so special. What a great, great road win.
“I think what we’ve shown now, six games in, is we can win games on offense or defense. We’re feeling pretty good about ourselves.”
They should. Who saw any team with a three-game lead in the NFC East after six weeks?
So many good quarterbacks now. In my 38 seasons covering the NFL, I’ve never seen a class of quarterbacks as good as this one. Try to make a top 10 right now, for how quarterbacks are playing right now. Not who are the best, but how they’re playing right now, this month. It’s fruitless, but here goes:
Joe Burrow, playing with such command an confidence and accuracy, 12th? That just shows the depth of these quarterbacks now. Plus, it’s so fungible. If I did this in three weeks, Mahomes could be first. Lamar Jackson could be. Anyway, my point is there’s an embarrassment of riches at quarterback right now. But Prescott, no matter how you quantify or qualify your factors for such a list, has gone in five years from the 135th player picked in the draft to someone so trustworthy, someone so indispensable, that he’ll be a fixture on talk-show lists like this for years. And no one will be remotely surprised if it’s Prescott and the Cowboys who go on a tear this year, and if it’s the Cowboys who get hot at the right time and storm into Super Bowl 56 in Los Angeles in four months.
Prescott is playing with such confidence. With Gillette Stadium at a fever pitch, he was perfect on the last drive of the game. Five of five, each ball thrown in the perfect spot, the last one against Cover Zero—which I’ll get to.
First, I want to pass along something we talked about after discussing this game. New England quarterback Mac Jones lost Sunday, and he threw what should have been a game-killing pick-six to Trevon Diggs (the ball just finds this guy) with 2:27 left in the fourth quarter. I said to Prescott how impressive it was that Jones, on the very next snap, threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to get New England back in it, and how impressive it was that Jones took three or four brutal shots on the day and just kept playing Rocky Balboa. He kept coming back for more.
Prescott didn’t wait for me to finish. “Those two things that you just said, honestly, are the two most important things to be really good at this position. You gotta be able to take a lick and not flinch and make the play when the hard hit’s coming. And when you have a bad play or an interception and the game changes right there, you gotta have the water-down-a-duck’s-back mentality. Let it go. It’s over. Mac’s got that. I really like what I see out of him. He’ll be a good quarterback for a long time.”
I prefaced the last drive with that because it’s the universal truth about being a quarterback, and it’s something Prescott shows all the time—and showed on this evening in eastern Massachusetts.
Go to the last drive now. Dallas ball, two minutes into overtime, at its 20-yard line. Next score wins. On second-and-eight, Matthew Judon flushed Prescott to the right. On the run, Prescott hit a sliding CeeDee Lamb for 14. First down. Next snap: Judon with pressure again, Prescott hit tight end Dalton Schultz for six. Same sort of sliding to the right, evading the big hit. Next snap: Patriots rushed five, Prescott in a hurry, Amari Cooper on a crosser for nine. After a seven-yard run, it was second-and-three from the Patriots’ 42-yard line. Parallel pass to Lamb for seven, and now the clock was down to four minutes left.
First down at the New England 42. Dallas wanted to score a touchdown, not settle for a field goal from the prolific but imperfect Greg Zuerlein. Prescott expected heavy pressure, because New England wasn’t getting home rushing four or five. “I love Zero Coverage,” Prescott said. That leaves receivers singled, mostly, with no safety help and a six or seven-man rush. “One hundred percent. When I see zero, I know my guys are gonna win and they’re gonna win fast.”
But what New England did wasn’t Zero Coverage in the true pressure sense. It was sort of a mush rush, with seven defenders near the line but not committing at the snap. Frankly, I don’t know what good it did, because the Patriots didn’t pressure Prescott; he was sure he was about to take a big hit. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore called a play that he thought, at minimum, could hit the tight end for 10. At max, maybe he could hit one of the two downfield wideouts in single coverage.
“It was a designed roll out,” Prescott said. “Great call by Kellen. He’s just been on fire all year long, honestly. Just for him to give a formation that we ran out of couple times, a condensed formation, and to allow me to run the naked out of it (a bootleg right). They actually brought zero. A safety [Adrian Phillips] gets ready to come off the edge and at that point I’m about to just have to throw hot to the tight end, Dalton Schultz, and the safety turns around to go cover the tight end. When he does that, I’m able to look up downfield and see CeeDee coming across. At that point it was just about making the throw.”
First he looked away from Schultz, then he did the same with another tight end, Blake Jarwin, trolling the middle but not open.
“Then here came CeeDee right across the field, deep,” Prescott said. “Wide open.”
— NFL (@NFL) October 17, 2021
The design of the play was good because New England’s mush-rushers had to respect Ezekiel Elliott at the left of the formation. Elliott had a convoy of blockers and could have made some yards.
But when Prescott saw Lamb with two steps on cornerback Jalen Mills, he said, “It was over.” The throw traveled 32 yards in the air, and right at Lamb.
“Playmakers win,” Prescott said. “And we’ve got the playmakers.”
They’ve also got the quarterback. In his career, playing with the game tied in the fourth quarter and overtime, Prescott is amazing: a 79-percent passer, 10.6 yards per attempt, nine TDs, no picks, and a rating of 148.3.
Prescott told me he’ll take time to get fully healthy in the Dallas bye week. He felt a twinge in his calf on that last throw, and he said he’ll spend time “getting my body right, getting healthy.”
For a guy one year removed from a grotesque ankle break and surgery, it’s amazing how well he’s playing. He’s apace to throw for 5,100 yards and 45 touchdowns. The best news Sunday for Dallas might not have been the Dak-led winning final drive. It might have been Randy Gregory. He’s finally repaying the organization for standing behind him during his substance-abuse issues. With Gregory’s help on the edge, the Cowboys are surrendering just 24 points a game, an improvement of a touchdown from last year. With a healthy quarterback and a pressure D, it’s not just Jerry Jones’ sunny-sidedness that gives Dallas legit optimism for a deep playoff run.