It’s been more than two decades since the Cowboys advanced as far as the NFC Championship Game in the NFL playoffs. On Saturday, they’ll need to upset the second-seeded Los Angeles Rams to end that drought. Fortunately for Dallas, it has the league’s most clutch quarterback calling the shots in LA.
Since joining the NFL in 2016, no quarterback in the league has led more game-winning drives than Dak Prescott. The young signal-caller has been responsible for more rallies than a Roger Federer opening round win at Wimbledon. And if the Cowboys are going to be the source of anything more than sorrow in the heart of Texas, they’re going to need Prescott to be as good as he’s been throughout his three seasons in Dallas.
Prescott has been the source of 14 game-winning drives during the regular season — defined by Pro Football Reference as an offensive scoring drive in the fourth quarter or overtime that puts the winning team ahead for the last time — in his three seasons as a pro. That’s more than Drew Brees or Matthew Stafford, who clock in with a tie for second place, have had in the same time frame.
That’s a testament to Prescott’s skill, though his numbers owe a huge debt to Ezekiel Elliott, the hard-charging tailback whose ability to open up opposing defenses is the foundation from which the quarterback builds. The former fourth-round pick has been the eraser who cleans up the stray marks created by an uneven cast of playmakers, and now he can prove himself as an upper-tier quarterback by stunning the Rams at the Coliseum in the Divisional Round.
What’s so special about Dak Prescott?
Prescott’s ability to go from fourth-round pick to Week 1 starter and Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback hinges on his composure. He rose from third-string project to opening day starter as a rookie and found no moment too huge for him. And when the Cowboys called on him to out-shoot the Packers in the Divisional Round of the 2017 playoffs, Prescott answered the call:
He rallied Dallas back from an early 21-3 deficit and led his team to two different game-tying scoring drives in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, only to be undone by Aaron Rodgers’ physics-bending talent. Prescott’s final line for the afternoon? 302 passing yards, three touchdowns, and one interception that was absolutely his own fault and probably never should have been thrown.
The Cowboys’ impressive regression from the NFC’s top team to missing the postseason entirely in 2017 gave Prescott more opportunities to lead his team back from disappointing starts. While his interception rate spiked, he still put together four comeback victories in a nine-win season.
That sophomore slump tempered expectations for his third year as a pro, but any questions 2017 raised were answered as 2018 wore on.
2018 proved he’s a franchise quarterback
His work in 2018 may have been his most impressive yet, even if it wasn’t as strong statistically as his dynamite rookie campaign. Injuries across the Dallas offensive line forced Prescott to deal with more pressure than ever before as a pro, and his sack rate spiked from 5.2 percent as a rookie to 9.6 percent in ‘18 — the 28th-worst rate among starting quarterbacks as a pro. He also had to deal with a depleted depth chart of targets that lost veteran standbys Dez Bryant and Jason Witten while his team waited until Week 8 to give him a proper replacement by trading for Raiders wideout Amari Cooper.
Despite these caveats, Prescott thrived as a passer, especially as the season wore on. In the final nine games of the season — from the point of Cooper’s arrival onward — he completed more than 71 percent of his passes, threw 14 touchdown passes (and just four interceptions), ran for four more, and recorded a 103.0 passer rating. Over that span, the Cowboys were caught in seven games decided by eight points or fewer; Prescott led his team to a 7-0 record in that stretch, earning the NFC East title in the process.
His finest play may have came in a game that wound up having repercussions for five franchises, but not Dallas. Prescott trailed the Giants by seven with less than two minutes to play in a Week 17 game that had no impact on the Cowboys’ playoff standing. The game was on the line as Dallas faced fourth-and-15 from the New York 32-yard line.
And then the third-year quarterback did this:
Dak won the game with an absolute LASERBEAM. @dak pic.twitter.com/F8SkywSdtx— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) January 2, 2019
Prescott would add a game-winning two-point conversion pass to Michael Gallup moments later, sending his team to the postseason on a 7-1 heater.
And that momentum continued in the Wild Card Round with another fourth-quarter comeback — his 15th since 2016 — this time against the Seahawks. Prescott’s 1-yard touchdown run proved to be the deciding points in a 24-22 win that helped exorcise the demons of the botched hold and January 2007 playoff loss to Seattle that marred Tony Romo’s legacy in Texas.
Now he’ll have the chance to build on his legacy by pushing the Cowboys deeper into the playoffs than they’ve been since 1996. Prescott has been an island refuge in a sea of instability for Dallas — and if he can stay afloat in Los Angeles, he could usher in a new reign of greatness for America’s Team(tm).