Dak Prescott thrives for Cowboys in the face of (more) adversity

It's now reaching the point where it's impossible to think of something Prescott hasn't overcome in his first NFL season. He has proven to be so much more than a lightly regarded fourth-round pick -- one who wasn't supposed to be ready to play at this level so early -- and that he's good enough to keep Tony Romo on the bench following the four-time Pro Bowler's return from a back injury that sidelined him earlier this year. Now Prescott has shown what he can do with people finally seeing his flaws. He had endured three disappointing performances before the Buccaneers came to town on Sunday, all of which created an opportunity for him to display his mental toughness once again.

Prescott threw 36 passes against Tampa Bay. Only four of those attempts fell incomplete, while his 279 passing yards broke a string of three straight games when he didn't even eclipse the 200-yard mark. As Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after the victory, "I think he's shown that he can do what you hope a quarterback can do. He came back when he didn't play as well as he wanted to play. It shows you that he's not worried about anything that's being said about him. He's going to go to work and go to town so we can quit worrying about that kind of stuff."

Of course, Jones was one of those people who was contributing to all the talk about Prescott last week. After the Cowboys lost to the rival Giants last Sunday, Jones cryptically stated that it would be a great storyline if Romo somehow managed to return to the field and lead Dallas to a championship. It wasn't so much of an endorsement for Romo as it was a means for Jones to keep his team firmly entrenched in the headlines. It also was enough to take the discussion about Prescott's play to an entirely different level.

There was no question that the rookie signal-caller had reached a critical point in his career trajectory. He only had three completions of longer than 15 yards in his three previous games. The Cowboys' offense also had become incredibly ineffective on third down, as Dallas had gone 2-for-24 in converting those situations in their two prior contests. The Giants' loss only reinforced the concerns that Prescott had hit a rookie wall, as he threw two interceptions and completed just 45.9 percent of his passes in that 10-7 defeat.

So it was basically time to see how Prescott would handle a different type of adversity: The kind that comes when people stop lauding your strengths and start focusing on your weaknesses. Prescott joked that "there was less time spent on social media" this past week, but he also proved that he wasn't going to respond to his issues by trying to do too much. After all, this is the same rookie who was so efficient that he posted a passer rating of at least 100 or better in 10 of his first 12 games. Prescott acknowledged that he might have been too eager to create big plays in that Giants loss, an ambition that cost him dearly in the end.

That explains why Sunday saw him return to a more measured approach to leading this offense. The ball came out faster, more receivers got involved (eight different players caught a pass on Sunday) and there was more confidence in his approach. "I think that's my game," Prescott said. "I think last week I just got away from that. I got away from my usual taking what they give me, getting the ball out quick and being patient. Tonight was just to get back to what I've been doing all [year] long."

"He's someone who has handled every situation that he's come across really well," added Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. "He's handled success well and he's handled adversity well. [That's] adversity in games and adversity from week to week. Whatever it is, he's the same guy."

Prescott's performance would've been more impressive if the Cowboys' offense had been more consistent. There was more success on third down (Dallas was 5-for-13) and running back Ezekiel Elliott continued his dominant rookie season (he ran for 159 yards and a touchdown). However, the Cowboys continue to draw penalties that destroy their momentum at critical junctures of possessions. Had Dallas not ended this game with eight penalties for 91 yards, this contest might have been a blowout instead of one that ended with Tampa Bay having a shot at a game-winning drive in the final minute.

Prescott pointed that out in his postgame press conference -- "I think the only thing that slowed us down was when we were stopping ourselves," he said -- and he already understands there is no room for self-destruction once the postseason arrives. It's already becoming quite apparent that the Cowboys will have enough problems with teams who are learning how to attack their offense. Prescott has been smooth and steady when he's not under pressure. The teams that have caused him problems (the Eagles, Vikings and Giants) all have athletic defensive linemen who weren't fazed by the Cowboys' massive offensive line.

In fact, Prescott has yet to have any real success against the G-Men. He's lost to them twice and he's only completed 51.2 percent of his passes in those games (while throwing one touchdown and two interceptions). It's fair to wonder how Prescott would fare if he faced the Giants again -- or a team as disruptive as Seattle -- in the postseason. That's looking like the next biggest challenge for him to overcome, especially in a season where expectations surrounding this team have reached epic levels.

The Cowboys are now 12-2 and one more win will clinch the NFC East title for them. The top seed in the NFC playoffs also would come with that victory, which is why next week's game against the Detroit Lions is so pivotal. The really good news for Dallas is that it no longer has to wonder about the learning curve of the rookie quarterback. From everything we saw on Sunday night, Dak Prescott is back to being the player we've become accustomed to seeing each and every week.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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