ATLANTA – What a difference a year makes?
While nobody on the team or the coaching staff wanted to acknowledge the significance of last year's dismal loss to the Falcons that pretty much derailed the Cowboys' season and led Atlanta to the playoffs, it had to be the elephant in the meeting room all week.
How could you not think about Dak Prescott getting sacked eight times, and the Cowboys only scoring seven points in what turned out to be their worst loss of the season? They go back nearly 365 days later with similar records for both teams trying to get their seasons on track.
Of course, there were three big differences this time around. But since they were so important, I went ahead and exaggerated a bit.
How about 153 reasons why the Cowboys are leaving Atlanta with a win and not a terrible loss.
That might be about the extent of my limited math skills but I've got 153 right there. That's why the Cowboys won this game.
Ezekiel Elliott, No. 21, whose six-game suspension started last year with the Atlanta game, was not only on the field this time but was arguably the best player on it, and that includes Julio Jones over there with the Falcons. The Cowboys leaned on Zeke all day long and finally, at the end, he was able to bust through and be the difference.
How about No. 77? Tyron Smith's absence was felt in a major way last year as his replacement, Chaz Green, had no answers for the Falcons' rush. Smith even suffered a shoulder/neck injury at the very end of this game, but was able to stay in there and protect Dak's blind side for the most part. It wasn't a perfect game for the O-line, which gave up two sacks for 17 yards lost, but that's 75 percent less than a year ago. Heck, I even think there was one drive last season in that game in which they allowed two sacks in a row.
And now let's go with No. 55. Leighton Vander Esch is obviously a rookie (although you'd never know by watching him) and wasn't on the team in 2017. But the position he is playing took a big blow when Sean Lee suffered a hamstring injury early in the game last season and never returned.
Even though Lee is still dealing with the same issues, the Cowboys are in a much different place now with Vander Esch in the mix. This is exactly why the Cowboys drafted him 19th overall this past April. They knew Lee could get hurt, which has happened twice already this year. But while this team was 1-8 in the previous nine games that Lee didn't play, things are different now.
They've won three games now without Lee, including the last two here on the road.
Why? Well, Vander Esch is playing out of his mind. In fact, he's playing exactly like Sean Lee. He fights through blocks, he chases the ball sideline to sideline and he is a forceful tackler who doesn't get dragged around for extra yards. And he might even be better than Lee in the passing game, as he has picked off two passes the last two weeks. His play on the goal line Sunday was one of the more underrated plays of the game.
So despite again having injuries to deal with, including four on the defensive line alone, the Cowboys were able to overcome the obstacles this time around, thanks to their 153 reasons. Because that's what great players do. They elevate their game to overcome weaknesses.
Yes, it wasn't just Zeke, Tyron and Vander Esch. They got other contributions in this game. That goes with every team with every game. It takes every player in uniform to win these close games. We all know that.
But just like those three players made a difference in losing last year. They were just as important to getting this win on Sunday.