A storied Dallas Cowboys season is all set to conclude with the NFC East champions as the No. 1 seed in their conference and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They're riding a 13-2 record into Week 17 on the back of a number of new 2016 faces.
We knew the most popular newcomer is the jovial face of rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott. It's clear his selection in the NFL draft has been the finishing touch on a team that was brewing a beast of a rushing attack for years now with multiple first-round selections spent on the offensive line. Elliott added another 80 rushing yards, a pair of touchdowns and several more breath-taking plays to his illustrious resume Monday night.
Everything the Cowboys do begins and ends with Elliott. However, his rookie backfield mate has been just as a big of a reason for Dallas' return to the ranks of the NFL's elite.
Dak Prescott seems to just get better every single week. We saw the rookie show well as the team's caretaker and occasional playmaker at the start of the season. He's been great all year, but he was a complementary asset to a team that had more pivotal building blocks. Yet, Prescott hit a small bump in the road in Weeks 13 and 14. His performance in the team's loss to the New York Giants in Week 14, when he completed 46 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions, even drew the long dormant "Tony Romo should be the starter" preachers out of the woodwork. It was worth asking whether this Cinderella story quarterback was finally turning back into a pumpkin. Now we know that nothing could have been further from the truth.
With the national spotlight on him in both games, Prescott strung together the two finest outings of his stellar year. After a strong showing against Tampa Bay in Week 15, he dismantled the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football to put an exclamation point on a season where the fourth-round pick will certainly garner some MVP whispers.
Early in the season some pundits stuck a pejorative dink-and-dunk label on the rookie passer. He's developed so much since those narratives were constructed. All three of Prescott's touchdowns came on passes that traveled 10 or more yards in the air tonight. In total he threw eight such passes against the Lions, completing six of them for 127 yards and the three scores with a 156.3 passer rating. That was the best passer rating on throws of 10-plus air yards of any Week 16 quarterback.
Dak's development as a downfield passer shows what kind of bright future he has as an NFL starter that not only helps his team, but is the catalyst that wins them games. Prescott averaged 9.6 air yards per attempt Monday, which was his second-highest mark for the season. He averaged 10.3 against the Eagles in Week 8. To underscore his level of progression, Prescott completed 48.7 percent of his passes in that contest against Philadelphia, and 75 percent versus the Lions.
Another area where Prescott has shown noted development is in his rapport with No. 1 receiver Dez Bryant. At times this season Prescott has just defaulted to taking the open read and focused on what the defense gave him, leading to big games for the likes of Cole Beasley and other ancillary players. That's certainly fine, and it helped the team get to the record they have today. Yet, it's clear what having an X-factor like Bryant does for a team. When he's playing at an elite level, he provides the counterpunch that makes Dallas' offense a near unstoppable force.
Prescott showed a willingness to fit the ball to Bryant in difficult situations that we haven't always seen from him this season. Bryant averaged a measly 1.5 yards of separation from the nearest defender on his five targets. Bryant had less than a yard of separation (0.8) on both of his touchdown receptions, including his dynamic one-handed score.
Not only does this show what a rare talent Bryant is at winning contested catches and that Prescott is willing to make use of him in those situations, it also brings to light the rookie's pinpoint accuracy to drop a pass in the perfect position. If Prescott and Bryant are hitting their stride and building a chemistry anywhere close to what the receiver had with Tony Romo, this team will be a chore to knock out of the postseason dance.
As an added bonus, Dez himself found another way to contribute in the offensive attack by throwing a touchdown pass of his own. Bryant's third-quarter touchdown pass traveled 23.4 yards of raw distance across the field and went over 10-plus yards in the air into the end zone. It caught the Lions' defense so off-guard that Jason Witten had a whopping 5.6 yards of separation from the nearest defender at the time he caught the pass.
With a running game roaring at the height of its powers behind a rookie in the midst of an all-time great season with an offensive line of epic quality, the rest of the NFC can't afford to deal with a Cowboys team that has even more up their sleeve. Bryant's output as a wildly efficient No. 1 receiver simply isn't fair to pile on.
Yet, the remainder of the NFC field could meet in battle with this team. Even worse, they'll face a quarterback who looks nothing like a first-year signal-caller should. In bouncing back from his lowest moment two weeks ago, Dak showed the world he is special. It's plain to see. Be prepared to witness it in January.