As he reflected on the closing minutes of his team’s Week 9 blowout loss to the Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott looked for the positives.
A pair of touchdowns in the final six minutes of play ensured the Cowboys avoided a 30-point drubbing. But they served little purpose beyond that.
Or did they?
Prescott would have argued on the contrary. He described those closing moments of play as a character-building sequence. He believed despite having had their six-game win streak snapped, he and his teammates would benefit in the long run from the experience because of their refusal to quit.
Fast forward to this week as the Cowboys returned to AT&T Stadium and welcomed in the Atlanta Falcons. The outcome certainly would suggest that perhaps the quarterback was onto something.
A week after the Cowboys experienced utter embarrassment at the hands of the Broncos, that same Dallas team thundered back to throttle the Falcons 43-3. The performance marked the Cowboys’ first 40-point victory in 21 years, and more importantly, restored a degree of order for a squad heralded as a potential Super Bowl contender.
The Falcons, at 4-5, certainly don’t rank among the NFL’s most formidable teams. They very well could flirt with a double-digit loss total. But if the Cowboys are to achieve the goals they have set for themselves, and if they are indeed as good as many around the league believe they could be, they needed this type of response to the Denver loss.
Sunday’s meeting with the Falcons could have either served as a get-right game or one of those outings where the problems from the week before snowballed and took Dallas further off course.
The Cowboys experienced the former after correcting weaknesses that had plagued them on a variety of fronts. As they did, they turned in not only their most well-rounded performance of the season, but one of their most authoritative victories in recent years.
A week after a rusty performance as he came back from a one-game injury absence, Prescott completed 24 of 31 passes for 296 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers. The offense dominated time of possession (37:41 to 22:19) with a balanced outing that produced 22 first downs. The unit got off to a strong start, scoring on four of its first five possessions.
The defense, despite missing several key contributors, recorded three takeaways, denied Atlanta on 10 of 11 third downs and held their opponents without a touchdown. Dallas even scored on special teams following a blocked punt recovered for a touchdown.
“I feel like we dominated today, played the way we know how to play,” wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, who had six catches for 94 yards and two touchdowns, told reporters. “We preached ‘Stay the course, handle your business and win your individual matchup, and that’s what we did today. … The tone was already set from the moment we walked into the building. We came in with the right mindset and attacked the day.”
As Lamb indicated, the Cowboys came into Sunday’s game on a mission. But that’s because they came away from the Denver defeat with the right kind of mindset.
NFL coaches often say that the true measure of a player or team comes in the face of adversity. Dallas certainly had its first brush with unfamiliar adversity last week.
After opening the season with a narrow loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas reeled off six straight victories. So, trailing Denver by 30 with less than half a quarter left to play represented uncharted territory.
Coach Mike McCarthy could have easily waved the white flag, pulling his starters to guard against injury and then work to get them back on track the following day.
But instead, the coach kept his first-team offense in the game because he had some scenarios he wanted them to work on. Prescott said he would have argued against coming out of the game anyway, and his teammates shared that mindset and refused to take the defeat lying down.
The mindset that fueled the Cowboys in those closing minutes of play carried over into the practice week leading up to the Atlanta game.
Prescott said during his postgame interview after the Atlanta win that the focus of the week had centered on accountability as he and his teammates first aimed to correct the flaws in their individual games, and then pushed each other to elevate their level of play.
The results of that commitment to one another manifested themselves in the authoritative victory, which improved the Cowboys record to 7-2 and kept the squad in a commanding position of a three-and-a-half-game lead in the NFC East.
But Dallas’ aspirations extend well beyond simply winning the division, so getting the win against the Falcons carried great importance, especially entering a tough stretch that features Kansas City, Las Vegas and New Orleans.
Bad days happen in the NFL, even for good teams, as this season has shown with underdogs knocking off favorites almost weekly. But it’s the response that matters most, and on Sunday, the Cowboys delivered the rebound necessary for continuing their quest for contention.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.