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Return to Atlanta: Can Dak Prescott & Cowboys expel haunting memory of last year’s Falcons game?

Last year, the Falcons broke the Cowboys, can Dallas ‘unbreak’ themselves with a victory?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Jerry Jones called it “The Burning of Atlanta” but many of us just refer to it as “the day that broke Dak Prescott”. Last November, the 5-3 Dallas Cowboys walked into Atlanta a team that averaged 28 points per game and walked out a team that would average 16 points over the final eight games. It was an absolute disaster as the Cowboys fell to the Falcons 27-7 in their first of six games without Ezekiel Elliott.

Perhaps the biggest absence was that of Tyron Smith because his replacement, Chaz Green, was charged with giving up six sacks. As a team, the Cowboys had allowed eight total sacks but the damage this game did to the quarterback’s psyche was even worse. Prescott would go on to be sacked 22 times in the final eight games versus only 10 in his first eight games. Dak’s touchdown to interception ratio feel from 16-4 previous to the game to 6-9 after. Prescott only reached 200+ yards passing in two of his final eight games. Heading into this year’s week four game versus the Lions, Prescott had gone nine of his last 11 games under 200 yards passing.

Since that dreadful day, Prescott just hasn’t been the same quarterback that he was in his first 24 games, the disparity is inexplicable. At times, we’ve seen Prescott abandon clean pockets, hold the ball far too long, walk into sacks, lack anticipation in his throws, and the most cardinal sin has been turning the ball over. He has played clean games since Atlanta but the poised, unflappable, dynamic quarterback that made him a candidate to lead this franchise is seldom seen and never lasts. At some point, that clock strikes midnight and this offense reverts back to a drudging mess. Part of their offensive failures can be attributed to play-calling and his supporting cast but it doesn’t absolve Prescott of his crimes.

There is hope on the horizon for Dak Prescott if they can make a successful second-half push.

Last year’s loss to Atlanta ended up being detrimental to the Cowboys playoff hopes and this year’s rematch will be no different. Both teams are 4-5 and desperately need to stack wins together in order to keep pace in the NFC. The Falcons will duke it out with the Panthers for a wildcard berth but the Cowboys have one path, win the NFC East. There are reasons to believe that Dak Prescott can exorcise his demons. Though the Cowboys just picked up their first win after dropping their previous two, Prescott is actually slowly getting better since the bye week.

Prescott has seen his completion percentage rise from 63% in the first seven games to almost 70% in the past two. The last game he passed for under 200 yards was in the 40-7 thumping of the Jaguars. Over the first five games, Dak’s passer rating was 83.2 but he’s averaging 101.5 over his last four games, the problem is that the Cowboys are only 2-2 in those games. Prescott has only thrown one interception in the last four games after throwing four in the first five games.

There is clearly a correlation in Prescott’s improvement and the arrival of Amari Cooper to this Cowboys offense. Even in their first outing, a 14-point loss to Tennessee, Cooper’s impact was noticeable. As the season continues, the addition of Amari Cooper will allow the Cowboys to make a better evaluation of Dak Prescott. Cooper’s presence is not the only evidence that this team may be quickly improving as Prescott’s protection has improved, too.

This line has struggled without Travis Frederick, especially in efforts to block thereally good defensive tackles they have faced. Well, being able to hold one of the best in check is a huge step forward. Fletcher Cox was held to just three tackles and zero sacks; that’s huge because Cox can destroy any offense’s plan. Give credit to Marc Colombo for getting this line to play much better on a short week and protect the quarterback. Tyron Smith looked like his old self again but they also plugged in Xavier Su’a-Filo at left guard. When was the last time this team shuffled the line and it ended up paying off in a positive way?

Of course, this quarterback still has a lot of work to do, he needs to consistently step up in the pocket and fire the ball. Dak must also limit the fumbles as he has had six in four weeks and he was lucky to get half of them back. He also needs to continue to improve his reads, pocket awareness, and delivery. Prescott isn’t the natural passer that some wish he would be and he’s got to work even harder to improve on that. You hear guys like Bryan Broaddus praise him as someone who will always give relentless effort to be better.

It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t still have moments of sloppiness in the pocket but this win over the Eagles was encouraging. Earlier in the first-half, Prescott missed multiple open receivers, held the ball, and stepped into pressure. By late in the second quarter, Prescott was in rhythm with his receivers, picking up 79 yards between five different receivers, and ultimately stretched the ball across the goal line to take 13-3 lead.

This game with the Falcons won’t be easy though they have their own struggles. The Falcons were in a Super Bowl hangover last season and they walloped the Cowboys. These current Falcons have managed to score over 30 points in four their five home games. For Dak Prescott, his last visit to ‘Hotlanta’ was a painful one though you can argue it was due to variables outside his control.

Now is the time for Prescott to expunge that nightmare from his memory. The Falcons are even worse than the Eagles in the secondary, 30th in pass defense. They are also 21st in run defense. Where Atlanta can beat you is with their own offense that is full of weapons at Matt Ryan’s disposal. Dak doesn’t need to concern himself with out-passing Ryan, it’s not likely to happen. Heck, Carson Wentz passed for 360 yards, almost 100 yards more than Prescott, but it feels empty when you end up taking the ‘L’. This Falcons game is huge for Dak Prescott’s confidence but one thing he’s never been short on is mental toughness.

Keep in mind, after last year’s excruciating loss to Atlanta the Cowboys lost their next two games. They were outscored 92 to 22 in those three losses, averaging just over seven points per game. It wasn’t enough to get into the playoffs but Dak Prescott and the Cowboys won four of their last five games, outscoring opponents 21 to 12 on average. The Cowboys are going to have their hands full with a Falcons team scoring 88% in red zone at home. It’s going to take more improvement from this quarterback to make a late-season push possible. It starts with Prescott returning to Atlanta, almost a year removed from his last visit, and hopefully it ends with a much needed exorcism. Burn some sage or whatever is necessary in preparation for this opponent and then expel this haunting spirit for good.

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