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'We know we’re for real’: What Cowboys learned about themselves in victory over Patriots

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — As the adrenaline from a wild lead-changing, play-making end of the fourth quarter and overtime settled, the diagnosis was clear.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who threw the 35-yard, game-winning touchdown on the run, knew. Receiver CeeDee Lamb, who maneuvered the necessary yards after the catch, knew. Patriots safety Devin McCourty, who wasn’t able to thwart the play, knew. And New England coach Bill Belichick, fresh off his defense’s worst performance ever, knew.

They knew Prescott’s intentions on what ultimately became the game-sealing touchdown. They knew Prescott intended to throw to Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz in the flat on first-and-10 from the Patriots’ 35-yard line with 3:59 to play in overtime. They knew tight end Blake Jarwin was available shallow nearby. And they knew receiver CeeDee Lamb was running an over route.

CeeDee Lamb scores the winning touchdown in overtime against the Patriots.
CeeDee Lamb scores the winning touchdown in overtime against the Patriots.

But with so many options on a day in which Prescott completed passes to eight different teammates, merely knowing wasn’t good enough.

"We were in a tough call," McCourty said after the 35-29 Cowboys win.

"“Didn’t play it well enough, didn’t coach it well enough," Belichick said.

The Cowboys made a statement: Their explosive offense is dangerous.

"We know we’re for real and we believe we’re for real," Prescott said after becoming the first quarterback to pass for 445 yards against a Belichick-coached defense. "It speaks to the resiliency of this team, the never-give-up (mentality). As long as we have a chance, it’s fun."

The Patriots gave the Cowboys a scare despite Dallas arriving with what most believed to be a more-talented team. New England led for 28:32 of the game, the Cowboys repeatedly succumbing to penalties — 12 for 115 yards — and missed opportunities including two red-zone turnovers. Dallas wasn’t proud, per se, of the flags thrown for holding, unnecessary roughness, illegal use of hands and more. But the team emerged grateful for all that didn’t go their way, Prescott said.

"When those penalties come up, it’s almost a challenge that the guys embrace more than normal," Prescott said. "For the offense to bite itself in the butt all day long (and have) self-inflicted wounds, we’ve got to overcome that. And now it’s on us."

The Cowboys’ redemption moments continued to follow their miscues.

Converting on fourth down? The Cowboys failed to move the chains on a fourth-and-1 attempt on the game’s first series, yielding a short field that the Patriots handily converted into a touchdown lead. They balked again with a fumble on fourth-and-goal, four shots not enough to move the ball 1 yard into the end zone. But come fourth-and-4, with 1:28 to play and a 3-point deficit, the Cowboys found the right play call and execution. Receiver Cedrick Wilson, who had missed two touchdown targets from Prescott, fell backward with a ball he caught midair for 13 yards. Prescott was blanketed on the play. Belichick said the Cowboys quarterback repeatedly made plays in which he "thought we had him covered pretty well."

Said Wilson: "(Dak) told me we’re going to get it when we need it. Supreme confidence."

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Cowboys kicker Greg Zuerlein sought redemption, too, after shanking a 51-yard attempt wide left in the final three minutes of regulation. He had entered the game 9-of-11 on field-goal attempts though 1-of-2 on boots of 50+ yards. Still, the miss seemed like a potential game-breaker. Then a bang-bang series of plays unfolded as Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs returned an interception 42 yards to steal a Cowboys lead only for Patriots quarterback Mac Jones to throw a 75-yard touchdown his next play. In under two-and-a-half minutes of game time, hopes again rode on Zuerlein. From 49 yards out, he was good.

The Cowboys' defense, which allowed six plays of at least 20 yards beginning with their very first snap, failed to read and wreck Jones’ 75-yard near-game winner.

But come overtime, amid screaming New England fans and facing a characteristically cunning coach, the defense allowed just 21 yards, a lone first down and zero points. Playmaking when it was needed most.

"Today was the first time we truly hit adversity," rookie linebacker Micah Parsons said. "A lot of things didn’t go our way but that was a true testament to everyone that we all stayed locked in. The fact that we pulled this off was gutsy."

Guts, excellence, belief and confidence were among terms dominating postgame interviews. Players insisted they followed the club’s mental conditioning-driven mindset to "stay neutral" in big moments, rebounding efficiently from their miscues and focusing intently on one play at a time. Prescott led that charge throughout, unfazed by early turnovers, a stunted running game and officiating questions. Why not score in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime when the Cowboys are nearly obsessive about repping such situational work in Wednesday and Thursday practices? Prescott reminded his teammates those endless training sessions were for moments like this.

"Dak is a tremendous leader," Dallas coach Mike McCarthy said as the team improved to 5-1. "The confidence, it just oozes out of his ears."

As the Cowboys entered their bye week with their second road victory of the season and fifth-consecutive victory, they acknowledged that even though they weren’t trying to send a message to others, this victory sent one to themselves.

For the first time in 25 years, the Cowboys beat the Patriots. For the 17th time since he was selected in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft, Prescott engineered a game-winning touchdown. And for the first time since the 1970s, the Cowboys defense has secured multiple takeaways in a whopping 10 consecutive games.

It’s enough to reinforce to the Cowboys, who now hold a three-game lead in the NFC East, that something special is happening in Dallas.

"We knew this was going to be a dogfight," McCarthy said. "A huge challenge coming in here and we really do need these kind of wins during the course of the season.

"I think this one could really pay it forward for us."

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dak Prescott, Cowboys explain what statement win over Patriots meant

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