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‘We weren’t supposed to win’: How the Cowboys mounted one of the greatest comebacks in team history

Dallas Morning News logo Dallas Morning News 9/21/2020 By Calvin Watkins, The Dallas Morning News

ARLINGTON — Ezekiel Elliott said the Cowboys were flat.

Four fumbles on the first five possessions of a football game will do that to a team.

Down 20-0 in the first quarter with a 19-point deficit at halftime adds to it.

The Cowboys kept believing.

There was no choice but to believe and when kicker Greg Zuerlein made his 46-yard field goal as time expired Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium, it allowed the sidelines, Jerry Jones' suite and the 21,708 in attendance to forget about social distancing.

The Cowboys completed one of the great comebacks in franchise history, with a 40-39 victory over the Falcons.

Do you know what the Cowboys' record is now when they trail by 19-plus points at halftime? 2-35.

You could say the Falcons choked.

“We weren’t supposed to win that game,” Elliott said. “But it’s a testament to everybody in this locker room and we went out there and got it done.”

Asked to describe the scene in the locker room, the running back said, “It’s crazy. A lot of juice in there. A lot of happiness.”

The entire day seemed surreal.

The Cowboys allowed fans to buy tickets to an NFL game in the midst of a pandemic. They had social distancing rules, towels placed on seats to signify where people were allowed to sit. There were no standing room tickets, some booing when the Falcons ran onto the field, no reaction from the fans when Dontari Poe knelt during the national anthem. As the Cowboys trailed 20-0, the place sounded like an Arizona Fall League game.

Quiet.

When the Cowboys ran into the locker room at halftime, boos came quickly.

“We were just flat,” Elliott said. “We didn’t have any energy. But I think after that third turnover, we got together. ‘Man, look they’re not stopping us. We’re only stopping ourselves we’re giving them the ball. If we take care of the ball we’re going to have a chance to go win that thing.’ We took care of the ball and scored and the defense made the stops they needed to make and we ended up getting the dub.”

The Cowboys started this contest like they were taking their dogs for a Sunday afternoon trip to the dog park.

At some point the Cowboys needed to wake up.

“You’re never out of a fight,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “This league is won at the last minute, at the last second a lot of the times that we play. You got to fight to the finish and that’s what we did and we came out victorious.”

It sounds like a cliché, but it’s the truth. Sometimes you need breaks to win much like Julio Jones dropping a touchdown pass on a shot put of a throw from fellow receiver Russell Gage.

You need Michael Gallup to land his backside inbound after he made a leaping catch for a 38-yard gain.

And sometimes you have to overcome your own mistakes, like a fake punt at your own 29 and making questionable decisions like going for two points after a touchdown while trailing by nine with five minutes left.

“Hey man, that was one of the best games I’ve been a part of,” linebacker Joe Thomas said. “I still can’t believe we came back and won that game. We talked about at halftime to win the second half, and I think we did that. We counterstepped and came out with a ‘dub.’”

The Cowboys had life when Prescott sneaked in from the 1 with 1:52 left to make the score, 39-37.

The home team had no timeouts and was desperate to recover an onside kick. Smith believed a recovery was possible. Zuerlein’s kick kept spinning and spinning and spinning until C.J. Goodwin dived on the ball, giving the Cowboys life.

The sideline erupted, the fans erupted and the Falcons faltered.

All that was needed to reach field goal range.

Prescott spiked the ball when the Cowboys reached the Falcons' 28 with five seconds left.

Zuerlein jogged onto the field and calmly made the kick to complete the comeback.

Jerry Jones hugged Jerry Jones Jr., in the suite, and players mobbed Zuerlein on the field.

Elliott’s mother, Dawn, posted a selfie of herself on twitter: “Ugly Game. Zeurlein has me crying? #That’s my kicker.”

Yeah, it was that kind of day, a game that you kept believing. If not, you were crying.

“Ecstatic,” Smith said of the locker room scene. “We understand how tough it is to win in this National Football League, and we’re blessed to get a victory and we needed it. And now we’re 1-1 and were .500 and we got to keep this thing going.”

Biggest comebacks

The Cowboys' comeback from a 20-point deficit tied for the fourth-largest deficit overcome in a victory:

Points

Opponent

Date

Score

21

New Orleans

10/21/1984

30-27 (OT)

21

at Washington

9/12/1999

41-35 (OT)

21

at St. Louis

9/21/2014

34-31

20

at Washington

9/5/1983

31-30

20

Atlanta

9/20/2020

40-39

Anatomy of a comeback

The Cowboys trailed by 20 points in the first quarter, 19 points at halftime and 15 points in the fourth quarter. How Dallas pulled off its improbable comeback:

Atlanta, 39-24 (7:57 remaining): Dallas holds Atlanta to a 32-yard field goal after a 10-play, 35-yard drive. It gives the Falcons a 15-point lead but is their final score of the game.

Atlanta, 39-30 (4:57):TE Dalton Schultz scores on a 10-yard pass to cap a 10-play, 75-yard drive. Dallas goes for 2 but an Ezekiel Elliott run is stopped short.

Atlanta, 39-37 (1:49): The Dallas defense stiffens, holding Atlanta to 12 yards on five plays and forcing a punt. Dallas then drives 91 yards in nine plays, scoring on a 1-yard run by Dak Prescott.

Dallas, 40-39 (0:00): After C.J. Goodwin recovers an onside kick, Dallas moves 26 yards in six plays with no timeouts, setting up Greg Zuerlein’s 46-yard game-winning field goal.

Find more Cowboys stories from The Dallas Morning News here.

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