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Know your history: The Cowboys vs Falcons matchup

Recent contests between these two have been very memorable, for reasons both good and bad

Falcons beat Cowboys 27-7 Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Teleram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Cowboys and Falcons have faced each other quite often, which may seem surprising. If you take out the Cowboys’ three divisional teams, whom they play twice a year, then only four other NFC teams have played Dallas more times. One of those teams, the Cardinals, used to be in the same division while the other two teams - the Packers and 49ers - were frequent playoff enemies back in the day.

There’s quite a bit of history here, but you could easily argue that the last three games between these three teams have been extremely memorable games, and all for very different reasons. At least two of those three contests are now simply referred to as “The Atlanta Game” and the context of the conversation immediately informs which one you’re talking about. Let’s recap those three matchups.

November 12, 2017 - A backup left tackle? What could possibly go wrong!

Let’s get this one out of the way early. The Cowboys had just ripped off three straight wins to get to 5-3 when they drew a road game against the Falcons. Atlanta had narrowly lost in the Super Bowl the year prior, but they had squandered a 3-0 start to the 2017 season and fell to 4-4 coming into this game.

The Cowboys seemed to have the momentum until key players suddenly dropped like flies. Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension was back on, and this time it was really happening. Tyron Smith was also set to miss his first game of the year, while Sean Lee was also absent.

That meant a big game was needed from Alfred Morris and Rod Smith, while Jason Garrett felt confident in Chaz Green’s ability to hold down the blind side for Dak Prescott. Little did he know that Adrian Clayborn, a veteran edge rusher with two total sacks coming into the game, would abuse Green to the tune of six sacks, setting a record in the process.

What’s worse is that no adjustments were made throughout the game. Neither Garrett nor Scott Linehan did anything like calling quicker passes, screens, bootlegs, or keeping a tight end or running back in to chip Clayborn and help Green out. It was just a massacre, and the Cowboys lost 27-7.

November 18, 2018 - The start of a complete season turnaround

The 2018 Cowboys were a truly unique team. They decided in the offseason to dump Dez Bryant and rely on a committee of wide receivers - featuring the likes of Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams, Tavon Austin, and Deonte Thompson - to get the job done. Predictably, this backfired and Prescott struggled to get anything going in the passing game.

It wasn’t long before Dallas limped out to a 3-5 start, losing a Monday Night Football matchup with the Titans in their first appearance since trading for Amari Cooper. The next week, they notched a narrow defeat of a similarly struggling Eagles team, but few could have predicted what would come next.

Another road trip into Atlanta’s rowdy Mercedes-Benz Stadium almost exactly a year after the first “Atlanta Game” and the Cowboys were taking on a rising Falcons team. Atlanta, then in their fourth season under Dan Quinn, had lost the previous week and snapped a three-game win streak.

Clayborn was no longer on the Falcons roster, and Dallas was looking to get on a roll with Cooper getting in sync with Prescott. That didn’t quite happen in this one, as Coop was held to 36 yards on three catches and Prescott went without a score. However, Zeke had himself a day after missing the prior season’s game, and Brett Maher drilled all three of his field goals to give a narrow 22-19 victory. That ended up being the impetus for a five-game winning streak for the Cowboys, who went on to reach the divisional round of the playoffs.

September 20, 2020 - The watermelon kick

This one is the freshest in our memories, and for good reason. Coming off a close loss to the Rams in Mike McCarthy’s debut with America’s Team, the Cowboys were looking to get in the win column. So, too, were the Falcons after dropping their season opener to the Seahawks.

Things got out of hand for Dallas very quickly, and the Falcons took a 20-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. That was extended to a 29-10 halftime lead, and many likely assumed that the game was over.

But the Cowboys were resilient, and blowing leads is kind of what the Falcons do best. Prescott ran in two touchdowns in the third quarter before hitting Dalton Schultz for a score in the fourth quarter. That’s when McCarthy showed off his newfound love of analytics by going for two in the appropriate moment, even though it didn’t work. Another rushing touchdown from Prescott with 1:49 left in the game made a successful onside kick imperative to complete the comeback.

That’s when the world got to witness the glorious watermelon kick.

The successful recovery was so bizarre, so inexplicable, that it could likely never work again. But the Cowboys only needed it to work once, and it did. That led to a surgical drive from Prescott, setting up Greg Zuerlein’s 46-yard field goal to give Dallas a thrilling 40-39 victory.

Three weeks later, the Falcons fired Quinn after an 0-5 start, allowing him to eventually land in Dallas. One has to wonder where things might stand had the Falcons held on to win that game in late September. Either way, this week’s clash will be Quinn’s first time facing his former team, and everyone in Dallas is happy he’ll be on their sideline this time.