LANDOVER, Md. – Fresh off of the first victory of his NFL career, Dak Prescott breathed a sigh of relief.
“They all come down to the wire in this league,” the Dallas Cowboys rookie quarterback told USA TODAY Sports. “Shoot, man. They just all do.”
Twenty feet away, the man Prescott is temporarily replacing reacted similarly.
“Man, this was one we needed,” Tony Romo said to tight end Jason Witten, who sat at the locker to his right. “This was a huge win.”
It’s only Week 2. The Cowboys are 1-1. They played inconsistently and made mistakes that nearly imploded their chances Sunday against the NFC East rival Washington Redskins.
But despite a questionable decision to go for an onside kick with a three-point lead in the third quarter, numerous penalties, fumbles, blown coverages and a normally sturdy offensive line suddenly giving up sacks, the Cowboys won 27-23 on the road and proved that they can compete in their division while Romo recovers from a broken bone in his back.
“We did what we needed to do to win the game in all three areas, and I thought we fought our asses off and played the right way,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.
That the Cowboys relied on their backup quarterback to lead a game-winning drive inside the game’s final five minutes verifies how much better off Dallas is compared with last year.
This was, after all, a team that went 1-11 in games that Romo missed last season with two separate collarbone fractures.
“This wasn’t the smoothest game we played,” Prescott said. “Everything didn’t go the way we wanted it to. But no matter how shaky things got, I knew we could finish. We just had to do our thing.”
Prescott completed 22 of 30 passes for 292 yards. He also ran for a 6-yard touchdown. He managed the game, threw safe passes and avoided risks. It might not have been the most impressive showing, but it was enough.
That was most evident on the game-winning drive in which Prescott completed five of six passes to four different receivers for 56 yards. It set up running back Alfred Morris’ 4-yard score.
“I keep getting the same questions every time y’all talk about Dak, but Dak is an amazing football player,” receiver Dez Bryant said. “I understand that you say he’s a rookie, but man-to-man he’s awesome. He’s amazing, and he’s going to be great from here on out.”
In the third quarter, however, Dallas almost unraveled after taking a 20-17 lead on Prescott’s TD run. The clock still carried more than 20 minutes of game time.
But Garrett — even though Washington had scored 10 points on its previous two possessions — called an onside kick. The attempt sputtered short of 10 yards, resulting in an illegal touch penalty and giving the Redskins excellent field position.
The game felt like it could turn.
But it was the unlikeliest of sources that kept Dallas in the game: A defense maligned all offseason after three starters were suspended held the Redskins to two field goals despite short fields.
It got worse for Washington.
Leading 23-20 with a little more than 12 minutes left in the game, quarterback Kirk Cousins moved the Redskins 73 yards in five plays to the Dallas 6-yard line. A touchdown here might have put the game out of reach.
The Cowboys defense, however, stepped up again.
Cousins forced a pass into double coverage, and Cowboys safety Barry Church picked it off in the end zone, setting set up Prescott’s game-winning drive.
Dallas knows how much of a hole a 0-2 start would have posed, especially coming one week after a disheartening one-point loss against another division foe, the New York Giants.
Just several hundred feet down a corridor at FedEx Field, that reality was starting to settle in.
“This game sticks in my craw no matter how you cut it when you lose at home to the Cowboys,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “I phase out the noise, but I know how big this game is to a lot of people. The ownership group, the fan base — it hurts to let them down. It hurts to let the players down. This one will sting for a while, that’s for sure, but we have to get back to work.”
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes.
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