You are inside the Dallas Cowboys locker room Sunday evening and coach Mike McCarthy is surrounded by his players and drenched in victory after outlasting the New England Patriots, 35-29, in overtime:
“Hey, men, let me say this,” McCarthy begins. “A lot of great things today. We need these kind of wins. We’ve been kicking ass here for a couple of weeks. These games will go a long way in December and January.
“You’re awesome. We had a lot of things go against us. Just kept playing, kept playing. This is why we spend as much time as we do on the end of the game. No one blinked … Great fight. You guys were awesome. This is how you go into the bye week.”
The Cowboys go into their bye week with a 5-1 record and riding a five-game winning streak that now overshadows the loss to defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay in the regular-season opener.
The latest of those five wins, Sunday’s heartstopper in Foxboro, MA., is exactly the kind of game the Cowboys have too often lost in past years.
It’s close games like the 24-22 loss to the Jets and 28-24 loss to the Vikings that got Jason Garrett fired after the 2019 season. It’s games that teeter between victory and defeat like the 35-30 loss to the Rams and 35-31 loss to Green Bay in consecutive weeks in October 2017 that seemed to be a clingy part of this franchise’s culture.
Not this afternoon. And maybe not this season.
Make no mistake. These Cowboys suffered failures this game. And pain.
They missed field goals and extra points, had a whopping 115 yards in penalties, and authored terrible third-down efficiency. Quarterback Dak Prescott, who became the first quarterback to throw for 445 yards against a Bill Belichick Patriots team ever, left New England in a walking boot and is scheduled for an MRI Monday morning.
Prescott said he strained his right calf — the same leg as his dislocated his ankle last season — on the game’s final play.
“There was a little pain and I would have been able to keep going,” Prescott told reporters. “I had my adrenaline up and probably wouldn’t have even felt it at the time. But at the time you relax it’s like, ‘Oh, there it is.’
“I could have kept playing if I had to. I’ll be fine.”
Prescott didn’t have to keep playing because his final throw was a 35-yard walkoff touchdown pass to CeeDee Lamb to close out the game.
That was the culmination of a day in which Belichick tried zone, man, blitzing and everything every other type of leverage defense he could to upset Prescott and the rest of the Dallas defense.
It was a day in which Belichick found no answers while Prescott threw three touchdown passes.
“Can’t say enough about Dak Prescott and the way that ball was being distributed,” McCarthy said. “The calmness and the confidence he had in the pocket and I thought our pass protection was excellent.
“He’s on top of his game right now.”
Unlike Dallas teams of yesteryear, which seemed supremely talented but unable to translate great skills into great success, these guys met the challenge posed by their own mistakes.
And the Cowboys obviously overcame a gritty, motivated opponent.
That’s what the Patriots were on Sunday. They came into this game with a 0-3 record at home and needing a win to change the arc of their season. They left the game with a moral victory. Merely a moral victory.
“When you come up to a place like this with so much success,” Prescott said, “and know what you’re going against and how desperate they are trying to get a win and trying to get things rolling on their end, it was very important for us to come in and lock in.
“As I say, to be able to show the resiliency in all those moments and be able to have a chance at the end to win it and us to go do it speaks volumes.”
It didn’t look as if that would be the way this would go at the start.
New England started fast, scoring touchdowns their first two offensive possessions. And even when superior Dallas talent seemed to take over, the Patriots refused to relent.
Take the fourth-quarter interception by Dallas cornerback Trevon Diggs as an example. It gave Dallas a 25-21 lead with 2:21 left in the game. But 16 seconds later the Patriots got a 75-yard touchdown pass from Mac Jones to Kendrick Bourne to retake the lead, 29-26.
But despite the New England late lead, the Cowboys were not bowed.
“I don’t think there was ever a point we felt we weren’t going to win the game, at least in my head,” said Dallas defensive end Randy Gregory. “Having Dak back there, we have a lot of confidence in him. I really felt we were going to go down there and score. We wouldn’t have a problem. We got the field goal. And at that point, we’ve got to finish out the overtime.”
That is exactly what Dallas did, and McCarthy and others believe that will affect the team the remainder the of season.
“We have spent a tremendous amount of time on ‘last game’ scenarios,” McCarthy said of end-of-game scenarios. “Coming off of last season, it was clearly a top three issue. We needed to be better.
“And I was excited to be in this position and definitely to do it here. Because these are great moments you grow from as a football team. You can’t practice this. But to go out and do it and be clutch, these are experiences you grow from.”
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero