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Dak Prescott proved why he’s the Cowboys’ quarterback after everyone said he should be benched

Fans were ready to bail on Dak Prescott after his slow start against the Packers. Then he showed how great he can be.

Divisional Round - Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys lost to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, and it wasn’t Dak Prescott’s fault. Being a rookie quarterback who supplanted a successful veteran, you might suppose that Prescott was the reason the Cowboys won’t be advancing to the NFC Championship. You would be wrong.

That’s not to say that Prescott couldn’t have played better, especially at first. After a slow start — 4 for 9 for 52 yards — fans started calling for the perfectly healthy and capable Tony Romo to enter the game.

The worst thing about the fixation on the rookie at that point was how it ignored the 100 other ways the Cowboys were giving the game away. The Packers took a 21-3 lead during a stretch when the Cowboys: 1) committed a bizarre unsportsmanlike conduct penalty involving an extra man in the huddle that negated a 22-yard pass, 2) gave up 7 yards per carry on the Packers’ opening three drives, and 3) got zero pass rush and left receivers glaringly open for Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers started the game 15 for 20 for 191 yards and a touchdown. His brilliance only made Prescott’s pedestrian numbers look even worse. An 18-point deficit put even more pressure on Prescott to produce. The Cowboys went away from running back Ezekiel Elliott for much of the first half.

After the Packers scored their third touchdown, on a 1-yard run by Ty Montgomery, the Cowboys took over possession on their own 25-yard line with the game slipping away. That’s when Prescott stepped up.

That picturesque 40-yard throw to Dez Bryant capped a 3-for-3 drive. Suddenly, Prescott’s numbers didn’t look so bad, and after a field goal and a pair of stops the Cowboys were within one score at halftime, 21-13.

Prescott continued to play up-and-down football. He gave an incredible effort to flip a pass to Jason Witten while getting tackled:

And a few plays later telegraphed a swing pass for an interception:

The calls for Romo to play picked up again after that. The Packers led 28-13 at that point, and again it looked like they might run away with victory.

Prescott was vindicated once again when, on a third-and-8, Rodgers heaved the ball deep down the right sideline and overthrew wide receiver Davante Adams for a bad interception of his own. The play proved that, well, mistakes happen, even to All-World Throw Gods like Rodgers.

Tony Romo went through this, too

The funniest thing about the Prescott/Romo situation is that, for once, Romo was being over appreciated. He has absorbed a lot of the same nit-picking criticism Prescott received this season, but it was spread over a 10-year span. It wasn’t that long ago when a lot of people said the Cowboys should move on from Romo. In 2013, Romo threw for 506 yards and five touchdowns against the Denver Broncos, and headlines afterwards focused on the one late interception he threw in a 51-48 loss.

Romo has long been irrationally criticized. Part of the reason is because he plays for the Cowboys — a popular, highly visible franchise — and another part is that the Cowboys happened to lose even when Romo played well. But no matter the reason, Romo didn’t deserve the hate. His 97.1 career passer rating is fifth all-time among quarterbacks with at least 300 career attempts. He has a history of late-game screw-ups, but he has never been as a big a problem as people made him out to be.

And it was only when he was on the bench, healing behind a sensational rookie, that his praises were sung loudest. He was active in Week 11. When Prescott struggled mightily in the Cowboys’ Week 14 loss to the New York Giants, there were calls far and wide to bench the rookie who still had reasonable odds to win NFL MVP. It didn’t help that Romo looked outstanding in his brief Week 17 appearance.

And here’s the thing: Maybe the Cowboys would have been better off with Romo. Despite the fact that Prescott’s 104.9 season passer rating was better than Romo had in any of his seasons except for one, it’s not unreasonable to believe that the Cowboys would have won that second meeting with the Giants and beat the Packers with a veteran behind center.

But to even discuss the possibility does a disservice to Prescott, who had perhaps the best rookie season by a quarterback ever. The caveat is that he played behind that offensive line, which plowed the way for the league’s best young running back to lead the NFL in rushing. It’s true, Prescott wasn’t tasked to do as much as some passers to keep his team afloat. It’s also true that he never faced a three-score deficit until Sunday.

But then there was Prescott leading the Cowboys down 15 points late in the third quarter after Rodgers’ pick. Elliott had a 14-yard run to start the ensuing drive, but Prescott did the rest, going 6 for 6 for 67 yards, two third-down conversions, and a 6-yard touchdown strike to Witten. Then the next drive: 4 for 7 for 34 yards and a third-down touchdown to Bryant (and another third-down pickup on a pass interference call). Prescott bulldozed into the end zone for the 2-point conversion, tying the game at 28 points apiece.

Then one last gasp: After the Packers’ Mason Crosby hit a 56-yard field goal with 1:33 remaining, Prescott engineered another game-tying score. He hit Williams over the middle for 24 yards, then Witten for 11. Because the Cowboys called for Prescott to spike the ball, he only had two attempts to get a first down and potentially drive the Cowboys for a touchdown. Instead, a third-and-3 attempt was batted down, forcing the Cowboys to settle for a well-earned field goal.

There were a few factors that led to the Packers’ incredible finish: 1) Aaron Rodgers is inevitable, 2) Crosby was atypically clutch, and 3) the Cowboys defense relented. None of those things have anything to do with Prescott, because he was fantastic when he absolutely needed to be. Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who spent all season hinting at Romo’s return, didn’t mince words.

The Cowboys lost, but there’s no point questioning Prescott any more. He took on as much pressure as a rookie can, down three scores in a duel against one of history’s best pure passers, and did more than any quarterback — even a Hall of Famer — could have been expected to do.

As Romo can attest, satisfying Cowboys fans with anything less than a title is a Sisyphean task. In defeat, Prescott proved that he deserves to be the Cowboys’ quarterback for a long time, no matter what anyone says.