Cowboys, Dak Prescott feed off momentum in win over Panthers — and during interrupted interview – USA TODAY

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Dak Prescott smiled, turning left to assess the cacophony of window-banging, foot-stomping, clapping and cheering that made it easy to forget it was indeed mere minutes after 4 p.m. local time.

“For it to be a noon game, they’re ready to go,” Prescott said of Cowboys fans at the field-level bar — visible through a room-length window — nearly drowning out his postgame news conference. “That’s awesome, right?”

The Cowboys had just improved to 3-1, knocking off the Carolina Panthers 36-28 in a game in which Dallas had led by 23 early in the fourth quarter. Prescott was a week short of the first anniversary of his season-ending ankle injury. He had thrown four touchdowns and made no mistakes, scrambling twice for 36 yards as well. The game went so smoothly, he didn’t even realize he hadn’t thrown for 200 yards.

So why stem the tide? Prescott pumped his arms, waving for the jersey-clad cluster to ramp up the volume.

The window-banging intensified, a vibration emanating through the room in the annals of AT&T Stadium. A “Let’s Go Cowboys” chant became louder and louder.

“I have to call a snap in this (noise),” he goaded reporters. “Y’all can ask questions in this.”

On Sunday, against Carolina’s top-ranked defense, the Cowboys did much more than just call snaps amid such energy. They compiled their third straight win to follow a two-point Week 1 loss at the home of the defending champion Buccaneers. They rushed for 200 more yards than the Panthers’ defense was allowing entering the game. Prescott’s throwing shoulder demonstrated how far it’s come from a training camp strain when he aired out a dime to receiver Amari Cooper for a 35-yard touchdown in an explosive third quarter.

And Prescott was feeling so good that he didn’t even try to top the mint green suit he’d rocked after Monday night’s 41-21 win over the Eagles. No, this time a T-shirt and Jordans would do. Neither the attire nor the opponent’s game plan mattered: Prescott was confident his team could win any look.

“We think we can beat you with the run, we can beat you with the pass,” Prescott said. “Whatever you want to give us, the openings, we’re going to take them.”

Cowboys QB Dak Prescott after 36-28 win over Panthers: “We can beat you with the run, we can beat you with the pass. Whatever you’re going to give us.”

— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) October 3, 2021

Prescott bet on Cooper downfield in single coverage. He completed a handoff to running back Ezekiel Elliott for a first-quarter score up the middle. He found each of his top two tight ends on well-designed plays — plays that Prescott and coordinator Kellen Moore had discussed at halftime to tweak based off defensive looks they’d spotted the first half. Four touchdowns, four different players, four different designs. What was most important was that the Cowboys responded.

The Panthers missing a 54-yard field goal? Touchdown, Cowboys. Carolina quarterback Sam Darnold absorbing a drive-killing sack from rookies Chauncey Golston and Osa Odighizuwa? Touchdown, Cowboys. Darnold intercepted by red-hot cornerback Trevon Diggs? Touchdown, Cowboys. And finally, when Diggs nabbed yet another pass intended for Carolina star receiver D.J. Moore, the Cowboys scored a field goal.

No Carolina mistake went unpunished. A 14-13 Panthers halftime lead was not safe.

I’m old enough to remember training camp practices when Dak Prescott was rehabbing a throwing shoulder strain, Amari Cooper rehabbing from ankle surgery.

2 months later: Dak to Amari, 35-yard TD 🔥. Cowboys lead

— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) October 3, 2021

“Just to be down a point coming into halftime and then coming out of halftime and taking off in the third quarter like we did, when we focus one play at a time, when we complement the defense’s turnovers with touchdowns rather than a turnover of our own or field goal, that’s what it turns into,” Prescott said. “Just keep learning from each game and taking the momentum. We just beat a good team right there.

“To take the confidence, take the momentum with that victory is going to be huge.”

During the first half and the fourth quarter, the Cowboys were by no means the better team. They failed to stop Darnold from two first-half rushing touchdowns and stalled on a drive as the Panthers’ defense pressured Prescott. But the Cowboys grounded their game in the run, the Dallas offensive line further establishing the caliber at which it can play. The Panthers entered the game allowing 45 rushing yards. The Cowboys exited with 245.

“Every football game has an ebb and flow to it,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. “There are momentum swings that you have to stay in tune with. You have to be ready for the counterpunches that the opponent plays, but I like the way our guys stay up on the balls of their feet and keep punching.”

The Cowboys know they cannot rely weekly on the momentum the wild third quarter carried. Elliott’s 47-yard run was encouraging, his longest carry since his rookie season in 2016. His 143 rushing yards ranked second-best among his performances since 2018. But equally important was the threat that back Tony Pollard posed, pitching in 67 yards on 10 touches. The goal wasn’t just to stay fresh until the fourth quarter against the Panthers — it’s to stay fresh through four quarters, and beyond, of this season.

Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott rips off 47-yard carry. Longest rush since rookie year. Against a D that arrived allowing 45 rushing yards per

— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) October 3, 2021

Questions remain, including defensive reads like those against Darnold’s early rushes and Moore’s late fourth-quarter touchdowns. But most disappointing to Cowboys players was how their blowout lead slipped away in the fourth quarter. No one wanted to pin the Panthers’ 15 unanswered points only on Diggs’ sideline stint for what the Cowboys described as back tightness after taking a cleat to the back. The Cowboys had played off each other in the rush and cover, notching five sacks amid two interceptions. They’d disrupted the Carolina offensive flow well before allowing 140 yards the final period of the game.

Allowing the lead to slip to a single possession was unnecessarily playing with fire, they knew. Eliminating that softness must come next.

“The biggest thing I want to see us do is play a complete game,” Elliott said. “We shouldn’t, but we get up, and I think we kind of let our foot off the gas pedal. I think our next step as a football team is going out there and choking a team out.”

Prescott agreed.

“I’m sure the defense is pissed they allowed some of those late touchdowns,” he said, “and I know we’re upset that we didn’t capitalize on a few of those touchdowns.”

The Cowboys must continue to create a winning culture, Prescott and Cooper said, an aura they feel is more palpable than last season, but still not quite there. They had checked the box of toppling an uncommon opponent on the road against the Chargers. Next came a manhandling of the Eagles at home, security in division play that always heavily influences postseason eligibility. And Sunday, against an undefeated Panthers team, the Cowboys showed they could overcome a halftime deficit — a skill they never managed in Prescott’s most recent complete season.

“All the respect in the world for them, I mean a solid team,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters after the game. “Got [Darnold] playing well, certainly very meaningful due to the stature of Carolina.

“That was a very meaningful win.”

Prescott needed to look no further than the window to his left to see what this win meant to the fan base, the stadium energy of the third quarter seemingly bottled up and again released as he addressed the media.

“That’s your example: Personifies it,” Prescott said, pointing to the fans. “How great is it? The intensity they are creating (is) special.”

As he wrapped up his news conference, Prescott headed back toward the Cowboys’ locker room with another stat he deems most important – a win. He paused mid-stride before walking through the double doors, glancing at the eager fans.

Prescott waved his arms one more time, the fans erupting anew. He considered the Super Bowl aspirations he hopes to fulfill for them in this year’s host city, Los Angeles.

“We want to be the best,” Prescott said. “We want to win. And we want to win late in the year.

“We want to go play in the last game out in California.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein