The Dallas Cowboys pulled off a magic act.
Despite three first half fumbles that left them in a 20-0 hole, and despite some questionable decision-making from new head coach Mike McCarthy, they still managed to drag themselves out of it, scoring 16 points in the last 5 minutes of the football game to win it at the gun, 40-39.
“This is a big moment to build off,” McCarthy said after the game. “We found out a lot about ourselves today. I can’t tell you how proud I am of our players.”
This is a game the Cowboys will reflect on later this season. A win that had no business existing. And a massive confidence boost for a team that looked like it needed one, early on this game.
“We weren’t supposed to win that game,” Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “It’s a testament to the type of guys we have in this locker room. We got it done.”
It was a disastrous start for Dallas, with quarterback Dak Prescott, Elliot and tight end Dalton Schultz all fumbling in the first quarter. The Falcons turned those three turnovers into 17 of their 20 first quarter points. The other Falcons field goal came after Dallas failed to execute on a fake punt.
The first quarter could only have gone worse for Dallas if their defense hadn’t stood tall a couple times, and forced Atlanta field goals when the Falcons were gifted a short field. It easily could’ve been 28-0 Atlanta, after one period.
But Dallas did at least a couple good things in the second quarter. And then the second half of this football game brought redemption for just about every Cowboy that could have needed it.
Dak Prescott completed 34 of 47 passes for 450 yards, threw for a touchdown and ran for three more, to atone for his early fumble.
Ezekiel Elliott ran for 89 yards, caught six passes for 33 more yards, and ran for a touchdown to atone for his fumble.
Dalton Schultz caught Prescott’s touchdown pass and made several other big plays throughout the second half, finishing with 9 receptions for 88 yards, to atone for his fumble.
Even head coach Mike McCarthy was at least moderately vindicated for some of his decision-making – although that element is still questionable.
Dallas scored all 40 of their points from the second quarter on, including 30 after halftime. They trailed by 15 points with 5 minutes to play. And yet they won, to even their record at 1-1.
McCarthy’s decision to go for a two-point conversion felt reckless and unnecessary in the moment. And yet, it may just be part of why Dallas was able to come back and win this football game.
At the time, it felt foolish to go for two at that moment, when Dallas could have cut the lead to a single possession by just kicking an extra point. Instead, McCarthy decided Dallas would go for two, and try to cut the lead to 7. They failed, and the Cowboys remained in a two-score deficit with 4:57 to play.
But in the 2020 of football games, crazy and unpredictable from top to bottom, that actually worked to the Cowboys benefit.
Down 9, Dallas knew they still needed two scores, and drove 76 yards in nine plays, scoring in just 1:08 of game time to cut the lead to 39-37. Had they been down just eight points, might they have been more deliberate, only to possibly fail on a two-point conversion with no time left?
Instead, Dallas had one more chance. You know, as long as they could recover an onside kick -- just about the unlikeliest thing that could happen in an NFL game.
And then came the onside kick to end all onside kicks.
New Cowboys kicker Greg Zuerlein elected to forgo the tee, and kick the football from its side. It wobbled sideways toward the 45-yard line, and then took an impromptu right turn to stumble its way to the 50, just barely making it the requisite 10 yards before Cowboys cornerback C.J. Goodwin pounced on it to give Dallas a final chance.
And then, in his final act of retribution for the sloppy fumble in the first quarter, Prescott went to work. A 24-yard completion to rookie wide receiver CeeDee Lamb got Dallas into field goal range. Two Elliott runs and a 3rd down spike by Prescott with 5 seconds to play set up Greg Zuerlein for the 46-yard field goal as time expired, and Dallas took their first lead of the day at the only moment that matters.
Afterward, McCarthy was asked if he’d ever lost a game at AT&T Stadium.
“No,” McCarthy said. “I haven’t. Let’s keep that going.”