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You can pick your poison but, spoiler alert, you’re still poisoned. Teams that go up against the Dallas Cowboys in 2021 are finding this out the hard way because even in their two-point loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a game decided by kicker Greg Zuerlein leaving four points on the field along with critical drops by CeeDee Lamb, Dak Prescott found the soft spot in the vaunted Buccaneers defense and rallied off 403 passing yards and three touchdowns — scaling back on Ezekiel Elliott and the running game that was absent perennial All-Pro guard Zack Martin in the face of the best run defense in the NFL.

So it wasn’t lack of balance that landed them their only loss of the season, but instead special teams gaffes and uncharacteristic WR drops, meaning it took a lot for the Cowboys to be worse than the defending Super Bowl champs on the road. To this overarching point, the Cowboys then scaled back on Prescott’s passes to attack the softened defensive interior of the Los Angeles Chargers and to delete All-Pro pass rusher Joey Bosa with great success, leaving with a win in Week 2 that’s now grown to a three-game win streak after they punched Sam Darnold and the Carolina Panthers into submission on Sunday.

Prescott didn’t pass for more than 200 yards in Week 4, but he had four touchdowns, and while the Panthers tried to keep that from happening, they were losing the ground battle in a big way — Ezekiel Elliott finishing with 143 rushing yards on 20 carries (and the Cowboys rushing for 245 combined yards on the day.

Be it in the air or on the ground, the Cowboys are built to give teams exactly what they order in any given week. Even fractured ribs and a tweaked hamstring didn’t stop four-time Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper from driving home that point, his 35-yard touchdown giving the Cowboys a lead atop the third quarter they’d never again relinquish, after Elliott and the defense began to soften the stew in the trenches.

“Obviously, we feel like we can beat you with the run, we can beat you with the pass, whatever you’re going to give us,” said Prescott following the 36-28 win over the Panthers. “The openings, we’re going to take them. [Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore] is doing a good job of dialing it up, and the guys are doing a good job of executing it and communicating. Even tonight, we left some meat on the bone — so to speak. 

“We left some plays out there. We want to finish that game with another touchdown on one of those last two drives. That’s just the expectation and the standard of this offense.”

The latter part of his statement is precisely how Randy Gregory, who sacked Darnold twice and hurried him 11 times, feels about the Cowboys defense cooling down in the fourth quarter when they could’ve buried the Panthers sooner. It’s a perspective that permeates the entire locker room in Dallas and, from the standpoint of the team’s offense, is attached to an arsenal of weaponry that could see anyone take over a game, and at any time. It was Prescott and Elliott in Week 4, and Elliott himself is now stacking impact games that silence his detractors. 

The two-time NFL rushing champ has now racked up 356 yards from scrimmage and four TDs over the past three games, and he’s averaging a chunky 4.18 yards after contact in the last two games. The Panthers had no answer for Elliott, seeing as he gained 4.95 yards per carry after contact, literally beating Carolina’s vaunted defense into submission while Prescott harvested the organs.

“I didn’t realize I didn’t even break two hundred [yards],” confessed Prescott. “That’s kind of the strength of this offense: getting the ball in these guys hands and you see what they can do afterwards and what Kellen’s dialing up.”

And make no mistake about it, Moore isn’t simply adapting. He’s calling plays with the goal of setting up other plays, in a high-level chess match usually reserved for the minds of coaches like Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan. That means the Cowboys offensive weaponry, as overpowered as it is, doesn’t stop at the out of bounds markers. It continues onto the sideline, where Moore continues to orchestrate a symphony impressive enough to make Ludwig van Beethoven blush in his grave.

“On the play to [wide receiver Cedrick Wilson], we took advantage of something we did in the first half and had to come back and use it against them and spring Ced open for that touchdown… and then [tight end Dalton Schultz] later. Yeah, just being able to mix it around and get it in different guys hands. All these guys are greedy, they know the next guy’s going to go and try to make a touchdown if they don’t get theirs with their opportunity. 

“So, as I said, that’s the strength and that’s the plus of it.”

Teams must now also have to once again account for Prescott’s mobility, something that was a huge question mark in his return from a season-ending fractured ankle suffered in 2020. Prior to Sunday, Prescott only scrambled a bit here and there, but nothing that showed opposing coordinators they’d have to scheme for it. But, on Sunday, Prescott ran for 35 yards on four carries, tearing off big chunks of yards and delivering first downs in the process. For months now, the 27-year-old has been adamant his ankle is probably stronger than it’s ever been, and he’s now showing it with his escapability now on public display yet again.

“Yeah, it felt good,” said Prescott of his decision to take off and run when he saw green in front of him against Carolina. “I don’t feel like I’ve moved that fast in a while.”

He’s making wiser decisions at the end of his runs now, though, considering his value to the organization’s chances to regain Super Bowl glory.

“On one of them I was like, ‘Should I get out of bounds? I think I can get some more.’ 

“It was good. Just doing whatever it takes to win. That’s what presented itself on that play and just had to go get it. I told you long ago, before the season started, I wasn’t worried about that. I wasn’t thinking about that. I told you I may have felt like I was faster because of all the work and all the rehab and everything that I put into it. It’s just about being smart with taking the hits but if the run’s there I’m going to take it.”

And so it goes, that thus far in 2021, scheming to stop the Cowboys will require more than simply knowing what they can do. It’s also about having the personnel and ability to stop it, and every single time for 60 minutes of football. It’s a daunting task that even the Buccaneers didn’t truly figure out, needing help from Zuerlein to keep the Cowboys from rolling to a 4-0 start to the season. But as they sit at 3-1, don’t count on Prescott to start “smelling the cheese”, as he puts it. 

His eyes are forward, and forward only.

“Being 3-1 [just means] we’re 3-1,” he said.  “I told you that earlier in the week in the media. We’ve got a long way to go, it’s a long season. Our expectations and standards are to be the best. And whether we’re 3-1, or whatever the record is, it’s about the next game. 

“We’re going to enjoy this one, we’re going to enjoy the day, but we’re going to get in tomorrow early and get our workouts in and prepare for next week.”



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