It turns out they were right, but that was not enough to overcome Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Cowboys lost 31-29 on a 36-yard field goal by Ryan Succop with two seconds to play Thursday night.
Considering it was Prescott's first live action in 11 months coming off a dislocation and compound fracture of his right ankle and a training camp in which he was limited by a strained latissimus muscle in his right shoulder, his play was astonishing if not highly surprising.
A 31-yard completion on third-and-11 to CeeDee Lamb on the play after the two-minute warning put the Cowboys in position for Greg Zuerlein's go-ahead 48-yard field goal with 1:24 to play. But Brady answered Prescott's greatness with greatness of his own.
Prescott finished with 403 yards, matching his career high in completions (42) and attempts (58) to go with three touchdown passes and one interception. It was the eighth game of at least 400 yards passing in his career and fourth in his past six starts.
"I don't feel like I say things just to say them, so that's just a credit to all the work I put in," Prescott said. "I think when you invest that much work in rehab and prehab and just everything that has gone into the last 11 months for me to get on the field, I mean, I'm not surprised about the way that I went out there and fought. Ran the ball a couple times and did all the things that I'd normally do 11 months ago. No, I feel like I'm a better player than I was when I left the field [last year] and I told y'all that was the expectations I had for myself, and I'll continue to try to get better game in and game out."
Once the game started, Prescott looked the way he did when healthy in 2020.
His first pass went for 28 yards to Amari Cooper. He took a hit on the second series in which he completed all seven of his passes and threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Lamb on a double move. He took an even bigger hit early in the third quarter by Ndamukong Suh and got back up. He was sacked only once on a night when the Cowboys did not have their best offensive lineman, right guard Zack Martin, who is on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Prescott suffered a cut on his left hand that needed to be bandaged during the game but did not require any stitches.
"They did some medic stuff with some glue or something," he said.
Prescott attempted a personal-record 32 passes in the first half. Only one quarterback threw more passes before halftime last season: the Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes, who had 33 against the Buccaneers in Week 12. By the end of the third quarter, Prescott had 47 pass attempts, the most by any quarterback through three quarters in a game since Aaron Rodgers in Week 7 against the Chicago Bears in 2016, when Mike McCarthy was the Green Bay Packers' coach.
"I don't plan on throwing it that many times, and, no, I never questioned my health or being able to throw it 50 times or how I'd feel out there," Prescott said.
Prescott had his first opening-day interception in six games when a deep throw to Lamb deflected off the receiver's hands into Carlton Davis' hands, but he had the Cowboys in position to pull off the upset. He hit Lamb for a 31-yard gain into Tampa Bay territory and connected for 10 yards with Cooper to set up Zuerlein's go-ahead field goal with 1:24 to play.
"I mean, this is who he is," McCarthy said. "I mean, I never thought he couldn't have this kind of night. You've got to remember, he's 24-7 football. He puts a tremendous amount of effort into this."
In many ways Prescott's night mirrored his 2020. He put up giant numbers, but the Cowboys still lost anyway with the defense unable to protect the lead against Brady's heroics. In the first four full games that year, he attempted at least 39 passes. In Weeks 2-4, he threw for 450, 472 and 502 yards with eight touchdowns and three interceptions, before his season ended Oct. 11 against the New York Giants. He was on pace to throw for more than 6,000 yards when he got hurt.
Prescott underwent two surgeries, endured hours of rehab, signed a $160 million contract in March and dealt with constant questions about his shoulder after pulling himself out of a July 28 practice.
He answered every question Thursday, even if he and the Cowboys never had any.
"I enjoyed every moment of that game," Prescott said. "Honestly, this whole trip, there's been multiple moments that I've taken in and just missed the bus ride, missed the warm-ups, missed the fans, missed so much about this game that brings me so much joy. Being down in a game two points and knowing you're going to have an opportunity to go back out there and play. Just that resiliency -- missed that. Missed that feeling that sparks up in me and the fire that it had. There wasn't a part of this game or moment I took for granted."