ATLANTA -- A little more than one year ago, the Dallas Cowboys’ season effectively ended at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the eight sacks of Dak Prescott telling the story of a sorry year.
It was a loss that was particularly tough on Ezekiel Elliott, who admitted he had a difficult time watching last year’s loss to the Atlanta Falcons. He was at his home watching it on TV while serving the first game of a six-game suspension stemming from a domestic violence allegation made by a former girlfriend in July 2016.
On Sunday, the Cowboys kept their season alive with a 22-19 win against these same Falcons, punctuated by an all-around superior performance from Elliott, who finished with 23 carries for 122 yards and a touchdown, giving him back-to-back 100-yard games for the second time this season. He also caught seven passes for 79 yards and made a huge block on Michael Gallup's 10-yard catch that converted a key third down on the Cowboys' game-winning drive.
It was Elliott's fourth career game with at least 200 scrimmage yards, which is already tied with Emmitt Smith and DeMarco Murray for the most in Cowboys history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“We know he’s a difference,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “He’s a difference-maker for the opponent. He’s a difference-maker for us. He took it on his shoulders. We put it on his shoulders. He basically did everything that you could ask for to win that game. I’m sure they’d tell you the same thing. He was the difference.”
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott did his part, too, engineering the winning drive in the final two minutes that culminated with a 42-yard field goal by Brett Maher as time expired.
It was Prescott’s seventh fourth-quarter game-winning drive, and he was able to walk out of Atlanta feeling much differently than he did a year ago. Prescott completed 4 of 6 pass attempts on the drive, including the 10-yarder to Gallup and a 19-yard floater to Cole Beasley that put the Cowboys in position for Maher’s attempt.
Much like the Cowboys, it has been a season of highs and lows for Maher, who beat the Detroit Lions in Week 4 with a 38-yard field goal, and hit the upright on a game-tying attempt against the Washington Redskins in a Week 7 loss.
Earlier in the fourth quarter Sunday, Maher missed a point-after attempt that allowed the Falcons to come back and tie the game. But he made up for it in the end, when his 42-yarder sliced just inside the right upright for the win.
More importantly, the Cowboys’ season is still alive after winning consecutive games for the first time this season.
“The team is just really picking up right now,” Prescott said. “Everyone is buying into their role. No matter how big it is. No matter how small it is on offense, defense, and special teams. Everyone is just buying into their role and we’re all coming together. We’re all playing more comfortable and better, complimentary football. When you can do that, you get wins like we did tonight on the road.”
At 5-5, the Cowboys have a quick turnaround with the Washington Redskins visiting AT&T Stadium on Thanksgiving Day. The Redskins will not have quarterback Alex Smith because of a severe ankle injury.
The Atlanta defense has been shredded this season, but mostly through the air. Six times the Falcons allowed an opposing quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards. Prescott had 208 yards in an efficient performance that finished with big plays late.
Dallas' defense also played a key role.
When Sean Lee suffered a hamstring injury early in last year’s loss, the defense crumbled. Lee was on the sideline Sunday with another hamstring injury, but his replacement, Leighton Vander Esch, turned in two of the biggest plays of the game.
He intercepted a Matt Ryan pass that deflected off Calvin Ridley, who many Cowboys fans wanted their team to draft instead of the linebacker. Vander Esch's pick set up Elliott’s touchdown run with 12:26 to play, and he broke up a third-down pass to tight end Austin Hooper a few minutes later that forced Atlanta to kick its fourth field goal of the game.
The defense finally cracked late with Julio Jones’ 34-yard touchdown catch with 1:52 to play, but to hold a Ryan-led offense to just one touchdown was impressive.
And now they have to do it again in four days.
With their season very much alive.