Cowboys return to scene of their grisly 2017 downfall

FRISCO, Texas -- As great as Dak Prescott felt after last Sunday night's victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, trouble lurked around the corner.

As the Dallas Cowboys quarterback reached down for one of his bags, he was asked about what he remembered from his trip to Atlanta last season, with a return to Mercedes-Benz Stadium a week away.

“Yeah, I don’t want to be hit that many times,” Prescott said.

No game defined the Cowboys’ 2017 season more than the 27-7 loss to the Falcons last Nov. 12. It started the Cowboys on a three-game losing streak that they never recovered from, and they missed the playoffs.

Prescott was sacked eight times, six times by Adrian Clayborn. Backup left tackle Chaz Green, filling in for an injured Tyron Smith, gave up four sacks before he was benched for Byron Bell, who gave up two sacks.

With Ezekiel Elliott serving the first game of a six-game suspension, the offense struggled. Prescott threw for just 176 yards. He was hurried and harried the whole game. The run game was not explosive. It wasn’t much better on defense after Sean Lee was lost to a hamstring injury as the Cowboys gave up 27 straight points.

The Cowboys' offense never recovered from what happened to them inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium last November.

Prescott threw for more than 212 yards in a game just once in the second half of the season. He had nine interceptions to just six touchdowns. He was sacked 32 times in 2017, and 22 of them came in the final eight games.

The passing game continued to struggle to start this season, only recently finding more solid footing with the arrival of Amari Cooper in a trade from the Oakland Raiders.

In a meeting with his coaches, caught on the Amazon series, "All or Nothing," head coach Jason Garrett took the blame for not making adjustments during the Atlanta game. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said on the series, “This game just literally sent us f---ing reeling.”

The Cowboys return to Atlanta on Sunday needing a win as badly as they needed last week’s win at Philadelphia. Smith will play this time, although back spasms kept him out of Wednesday’s practice, and Green is now a backup with the New Orleans Saints.

Elliott will play, too.

“It was tough to watch,” Elliott said. “A tough time for me, but I’m glad I’m out there this year and maybe help my guys and try to get this one.”

Elliott did not want to dwell much on last year’s absence.

“That’s all behind me,” he said. “It’s hard to need extra motivation. We’re going into the game 4-5. For the rest of the season, our backs are going to be against the wall. We have to do the best we can to go out there and try to win every one of these last games. I’m sure those guys on the other side are the same way.”

To get ready for Sunday’s game, the Cowboys watched every aching second of last year’s painful loss.

“It’s one of those ones you watch, but you speed through watching it,” Prescott said.

What made the performance so shocking was that the Cowboys knew they would eventually be without Elliott at some point last season. They felt confident in Alfred Morris as Elliott’s replacement. In 2016, Green filled in well for Smith in two games.

The Cowboys were also coming off a six-game stretch in which they scored at least 28 points in every game, including a 28-17 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs the previous week.

Against Atlanta, it all fell apart.

In their last 18 games, the Cowboys have scored 28 or more points in a game just three times and only once this season.

“You could argue yes to that [getting knocked on their heels in Atlanta], because we didn’t play real well in that stretch,” Linehan said.

The Cowboys’ offseason plan was to make sure they did not suffer another Atlanta meltdown. They added a veteran offensive tackle in free agency in Cameron Fleming. They drafted guard Connor Williams in the second round. In the second week of the season, they added veteran guard Xavier Su’a-Filo. He replaced an injured Williams last week and the Cowboys had their best moment of the season.

The addition of Cooper has benefited Prescott, who has had two of his top three passing games the last two weeks.

“You live and learn in this league,” Linehan said. “I think you learn more from games like that than you do the ones that you feel good about. I think it was a valuable experience and I think our guys are using it as motivation to get ready for this one.”