ARLINGTON, Texas – The goal for the Giants' defense, Landon Collins had said Wednesday, was to keep the ball in the hands of Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott.
Be careful what you wish for.
The Giants’ wish indeed came true in the first half against the Cowboys on Sunday night at AT&T Stadium, but the result was not at all what Collins and the defense expected.
Instead of riding formidable running back Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys hitched their wagon to Prescott, and the young quarterback carried Dallas to a 20-13 victory.
“We definitely heard that,” Prescott said of Collins’ statement. “When I said, ‘Challenge accepted,’ I accepted it. But I can tell you I wasn’t the only one who accepted that challenge. This team accepted it. That offense accepted it. And we wanted to go out there and show you.”
Prescott’s passing numbers weren’t exactly stellar – 16-for-25 for a mere 160 yards and one touchdown – but he controlled the game and made plays when they were needed. He piled up 46 yards on six rushes, including three critical runs to set up the fourth-quarter touchdown drive that made it 20-3 and put the Giants away for good.
That drive represented Prescott’s most impressive work of the night. With the Cowboys holding a 13-3 lead and 14:08 left in the game, he gave them exactly what they needed, leading a 14-play, 82-yard drive that put seven points on the board and took 8 minutes, 23 seconds off the clock.
During that drive, Prescott hit five of six passes for 34 yards and ran three times for 19 yards. He contributed a 2-yard quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 at the Giants’ 46 and gains of 9 and 8 yards on read options that led to Elliott’s 6-yard score with 5:45 left.
“We were backed up … and we thought it was important to go out there and get a touchdown, not just a field goal,” Prescott said. “That was a huge drive. We made some big-time plays. The receivers got open, offensive line protected. It was huge.”
On Wednesday, Giants safety and defensive leader Collins made it clear that his team's emphasis was on stopping Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 2016.
In doing so, he sent something of a challenge to Prescott. A fourth-round draft choice from Mississippi State, Prescott was thrust into the spotlight as a rookie in 2016 when starter Tony Romo was injured in a preseason game, and he was very effective as the Cowboys raced to a surprising NFC East title.
But Prescott struggled badly late last season, reaching 200 passing yards only twice in his last eight games and throwing six touchdown passes and nine interceptions in that span.
He was just as ineffective last week in the season opener, passing for only 170 yards without a touchdown and missing several open receivers as the Dallas offense floundered in a 16-8 loss at Carolina.
On Sunday night, though, Prescott took control right from the first snap, hitting Allen Hurns on a slant for 9 yards. Two plays later, Prescott hit a home run, stunning the Giants with a 64-yard touchdown pass to open wide receiver Tavon Austin.
Austin's stutter move off the line caused cornerback Janoris Jenkins to stumble, giving Austin a step. That was all he needed. Austin gathered in Prescott’s accurate pass along the left sideline, slipped through Curtis Riley’s attempt at a tackle at the 10-yard line and took the scenic route to the end zone.
On Dallas’ next possession, Prescott did his damage with his legs, pulling the ball out of Elliott’s belly on a read option and taking off around left end for a 15-yard gain that put the Cowboys in field-goal range. Brett Maher's 37-yard field goal gave Dallas a 10-0 halftime lead.
Elliott also played a starring role, rushing 17 times for 78 yards, including two electric runs of 19 yards – one of which turned a draw up the middle into an outside play, thanks to a hard cut, and the other a quick hitter that broke through the center of the Giants’ line.
Austin added 79 yards receiving and 15 yards on a slickly executed reverse, taking a toss from Elliott around the left side just before Prescott’s 15-yard run.
But in the end, it was Prescott's show.
“I don’t think Dak needed that motivation to go out there and play that way,” Elliott said. “He took it to them and he led us.”