ARLINGTON, Texas – As many beautiful completions as Dak Prescott threw on Sunday, it was funny how much attention centered on a throwaway.
That's the difference between winning and losing in the NFL.
Facing a crucial 2nd-and-3, down one point with two minutes to play, Prescott was stripped by Lions defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand. For what felt like an eternity, the loose ball bobbled on the AT&T Stadium turf – right up until Prescott scooped it up, hauled toward the sideline and threw it out of bounds.
"The whole thing was riding on it, and he had presence of mind to get it, field it properly and get back up and do something with it," said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones. "I will always remember that play."
That sounds a bit strange, given that it was one of 10 incompletions on a day when Prescott completed 63 percent of his passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns – his first 200-yard performance since last December and just his third in the last 12 games.
But in a league like this, where four of the eight early games were decided in the game's final seconds, Prescott's presence of mind meant everything.
"I didn't feel any pressure," Prescott said. "To me, it was just 'Pick it up, turn around and you might just get a freebie of someone wide open down the field."
Of course, he didn't get a completion, but his quick thinking kept alive the drive that won the game. Thanks to a career day from Ezekiel Elliott, who racked up an absurd 240 all-purpose yards, this Cowboys offense looked a lot like the juggernaut from 2016, with Prescott making just enough plays through the air to complement Elliott's obvious ability.
Fittingly, it was a beautiful throw from Prescott to Elliott that put Dallas in position for the game-winning field goal. Before the ball was even snapped from his own 41-yard line, Prescott saw his All-Pro running back matched up against a linebacker and knew exactly what to do, dropping a dime to Elliott on a wheel route for a 34-yard gain.
"I'm willing to take that matchup any day of the week," Prescott said. "We got a nice spread out and got that matchup, which was a chance we wanted to take, and Zeke did a great job getting open and getting us down the field."
It was the type of throw that's been lacking from the Cowboys' arsenal in the early going of the season, and it literally made the difference in a nail-biter finish.
"Dak dropped it right in the bucket to him," said Zack Martin.
These heroics weren't limited to the fourth quarter, though. Prescott made clutch throws throughout the afternoon, whether it was the 37-yard deep shot to Michael Gallup, or the huge 19-yard gainer to Cole Beasley when the Cowboys were driving early in the fourth.
Prescott didn't even credit any "new wrinkles," which he and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan hinted at during the week. He said it simply came down to playing better.
"Sometimes I just tell y'all things, but I don't necessarily think we had new wrinkles, we just executed a lot better," he said.
Cool as ever, Prescott insisted that having a nice day at the office did not serve as a confidence-booster, saying that he doesn't allow his bad days to throw him off track.
But for an offense with so many new pieces, this surely had to have an effect on the overall psyche of the group. The Cowboys rolled up 414 yards of offense against the Lions, which is a full 137 yards more than they were averaging coming into the game. They also converted 42 percent of their third downs, which is almost twice as good as their abysmal average of 23.5 percent.
Prescott found Geoff Swaim for his first career touchdown, and both Gallup and Allen Hurns were as involved as they've been all season.
Who can say what it means going forward, but that's got to help settle things for an offense that's still discovering itself.
"It's been one player, here or there, these first three games that we're off and that's the reason we're off," Prescott said. "The execution had not been clean all across the board, so when you come out tonight and the execution is there and every guy knows how important each play is -- you don't take it for granted and do exactly what you need to do – it call came together and it was easy."
To be blunt, it's kind of hard to imagine after the first three weeks of the season, but this is the offense the Cowboys had gotten used to expecting in the early going of Prescott's career.
It's too early to say that one game signifies a trend, but it's an encouraging sign – for both the Cowboys' offense and their third-year quarterback.
"It's important for us to go back this week and use this confidence we got from this game and this momentum to go clean these plays up and get better and better," Prescott said.