It had been so long that Ezekiel Elliott couldn't remember the last time the Dallas Cowboys won a game.
Forty-two days might have seemed like 42 years to Elliott and the rest of the Cowboys, considering all that had gone wrong before beating the Minnesota Vikings 31-28 on Sunday.
The Cowboys snapped a four-game losing streak, won a road game for the first time this season and put themselves in the NFC East race with six games to play, even with a 3-7 record.
"We never thought we were out of it," Elliott said. "Our division's been struggling this year. We're right where we need to be with what's been going on with the division. We've got to build on this success, so we can't come out on a short week and take a step back against a division opponent. We've got to make sure we build on the success and keep getting better."
The Cowboys' season took a drastic turn on the day they beat the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium on Oct. 11, when Dak Prescott suffered a dislocation and compound fracture of his right ankle. Andy Dalton started two games as Prescott's replacement before getting hurt, and he was followed by Ben DiNucci for a game and Garrett Gilbert for one more.
On Sunday, Dalton threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Dalton Schultz with 1:37 to play for the winning score, four weeks after suffering the first concussion of his career and three weeks after testing positive for COVID-19.
The Cowboys could be in first place in the NFC East with a win on Thanksgiving against the Washington Football Team. Of course, Washington can also make that claim, at least until the Philadelphia Eagles and Giants play their games.
After 10 games, no team in the division has more than three wins. The Eagles, who lost to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, are in first place with a 3-6-1 record. The Cowboys, Giants (who were idle Sunday) and Washington are all 3-7, but the Giants hold the tiebreaker, followed by Washington and the Cowboys.
"There's a lot of football left to be played," coach Mike McCarthy said. "You have to play your best football in November and December, so obviously with the state of our division, that focus is ours. We need to win Thursday, and this will be our first opportunity to really stack success, and that's the key to where we are as a team. All three phases played well. This is clearly the most rounded performance, victory we've had this year. It took us a little longer to get here, but I clearly think the journey will make us stronger.
"We need to do something with this win. It needs to mean something."
To claim first place in the division, the Cowboys would need back-to-back wins for the first time under McCarthy, and the first time since they opened the 2019 season with three straight wins.
Consistency has not been a trademark of the Cowboys' season, but the win against the Vikings could serve as the catapult they have been waiting for.
Few folks expected the Cowboys to win Sunday. But the Dallas defense came up with two takeaways, leading to nine points in the first half, and two key fourth-quarter stops. The offense was able to score four touchdowns in a game for the first time since losing Prescott. Dallas entered Sunday with just two touchdowns in the four games without Prescott.
Dalton threw for just 203 yards and had a pass intercepted for the fourth time, but he was clutch when he needed to be. Trailing 28-24 with 4:00 to play, Dalton directed an 11-play, 61-yard drive in which he completed 5 of 7 passes for 37 yards. On fourth-and-6, he hit Amari Cooper for 10 yards five plays before his scoring throw to a wide-open Schultz.
"Andy's a guy that's played a lot of ball," Elliott said. "He's a vet. I think he's in Year 10. He's been in that moment a bunch of times. We trust him. ... He was definitely clutch and came up big at the end."
Behind an offensive line that was using its seventh different starting combination that included Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin at right tackle, Elliott also came up big, finishing with his first 100-yard game of the season, rushing for 103 yards on 21 carries, setting up Tony Pollard's 42-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Elliott also had a receiving touchdown.
Rookie receiver CeeDee Lamb made a Dez Bryant-like touchdown grab in the first half and impacted the game more than his four catches for 34 yards would indicate.
In the end, a maligned Dallas defense stiffened after wilting in the second half -- Adam Thielen had 123 receiving yards, Dalvin Cook had 115 rushing yards -- with two key stops in the fourth quarter to set up Dalton's winning drive and end a potential tying drive by Minnesota.
"This is what it's about," McCarthy said. "Trust me, it's great to win because that's what this is all about. It's about winning and our team earned it."