In Dak Prescott’s conversation with Jerry Jones that led to the biggest win – and arguably the best performance – of his career

TAMPA, Fl. — Jerry Jones found Dak Prescott before kickoff.

The owner of the Dallas Cowboys team knew his quarterback had thrown 15 interceptions this season in the major league, seven games since his last non-turnover performance.

Prescott had been discussing risk versus reward decision making this week as he prepared for his fourth-ever playoff game and easily the highest-stakes game of his career.

The chance to break a 30-year playoff drought on the road. The chance to finally get through Tom Brady’s infamous comeback.

The Cowboys’ philosophy was clear: Take what the defense gives us. Play smart. Do not insist on heroics of every game.

But also? Jones didn’t build the Cowboys into the most valuable franchise in the sport, according to Forbes, by playing it safe. So he didn’t want Prescott to do that Press – but he wanted his quarterback to do that to trust.

“I spoke to him before the game and all I said was ‘Absolutely don’t not take risks,” Jones said at 12:21 a.m. ET on Tuesday, effusively following his team’s 31-14 wild card victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “Be aggressive.”

“There was no question that Dak should win this game for us… to get out here and make a difference. He did. He was. It was known to everyone, including his teammates, including himself.”

Because in the biggest game of Dak Prescott’s career, he also played his best.

Dak Prescott’s ‘statement game’

Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones begged his franchise quarterback to trust in himself and his team.  That's exactly what Dak Prescott did in a 31-14 victory over Tampa Bay in Monday's wild card game.  (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones begged his franchise quarterback to trust in himself and his team. That’s exactly what Dak Prescott did in a 31-14 victory over Tampa Bay in Monday’s wild card game. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The first two rides evoked Cowboys fans’ nightmares. Two three-and-out. Three incompletions to start the game.

Could Prescott handle the occasion under the bright lights?

“I told the attacker in the group, ‘Hey, we’re going to get one down first, this thing is going to roll,'” Prescott said afterwards. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

Prescott completed his next 11 pass attempts to set a Cowboys postseason record for most consecutive attempts without an incompletion.

And it wasn’t long before he wasn’t just going to return 305 yards to a 25-of-33 night. Prescott would also throw four touchdowns to three different targets while rushing for a fifth score on one of his seven carries.

With 6:28 left to play in the first quarter, Prescott dropped back and nailed a tight airborne Dalton Schultz into traffic for a 22-yard touchdown. Fifteen minutes later, riding on the momentum of Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse’s interception of Brady in the end zone, Prescott made a handoff to fellow 2016 classmate Ezekiel Elliott before rolling left and racing across the ground in his third postseason- score in his career.

“The play call fooled the defense,” Prescott said of the run-pass option. “I could have thrown it at Schultz. He already had one, so I kept it.”

Before the break, Dallas would score again – this time thanks to both legs from Prescott and his franchise labeled tight end.

The Cowboys had marched 85 yards in 3 minutes, Prescott kept the drive alive with an 11-yard nosedive on third and six. So when his pocket started to collapse, Prescott rolled to his left again. He was approaching the sideline as he turned his body toward Schultz and threaded a needle for the remaining 11 yards.

This was the scramble drill that head coach Mike McCarthy had so adamantly encouraged all week. This was the situational football that coaches had practiced consistently all season and even more, per player in the locker room after the game, during their bonus day of prep leading up to the Monday night game.

Prescott remained calm as the Buccaneers defensemen poured in. Schultz kept the piece alive and gave Prescott a subtle finger to the zone where he intended to exploit the coverage. This confirmed: they read the defense the same. The Cowboys took an 18–0 halftime lead, despite kicker Brett Maher’s uncharacteristic misses of three and eventually four extra-point attempts by then.

ESPN’s cameras caught an angry Prescott slamming his helmet against the sideline and grass, seemingly exclaiming “go for f***ing two.”

Prescott said he spoke to Maher personally afterwards and told his kicker to “let that go”.

“I’m ‘Money’ Maher’s biggest fan,” Prescott said. ‘We’ll need him. I just played like an asshole a week ago. It happens. If you believe in each other, believe in what we can do, know what that man has done, the resilience he has shown throughout his career, personally he will undoubtedly come back next week, be perfect and help us win.

If Prescott could recover, why couldn’t Maher?

The Cowboys kept their joint foot on the pedal in the second half, Prescott found receiver Michael Gallup firing over the back edge of the end zone just in time to secure a touchdown Next generation statistics tracked as 0.5 meters from the back of the end zone.

And to top it off – yes, there was another Prescott touchdown drive on Monday – the Cowboys quarterback found a wide open CeeDee Lamb in the fourth quarter, facing fourth and fourth from the 18-yard line.

The kissing was enough to fend off even a playoff wizard like Brady.

And while Prescott reiterated after the game that “this wasn’t a match between Dak and Tom Brady,” the seventh-year pro displayed the collected composure his long-time counterpart has.

“The heartbeat of the team,” said Elliott.

“Dak has shown himself to be a warrior,” Lamb said. ‘He’s a baller. And he came out swinging it.

“I felt like it was a statement game for him.”

Jerry Jones: Can Dak be the best QB in NFC?

As a game the Cowboys won more resoundingly than any other wild card victor this weekend drew to a close, a conversation unfolded in the visitors’ box at Raymond James Stadium.

Cowboys Hall of Fame recipient Michael Irvin approached Jones to contextualize the swirling emotions a win like this would bring.

Irvin recalled the 86 yards he contributed to the Cowboys’ last playoff victory, one day less than 30 years earlier against the San Francisco 49ers, and the 114 yards and two touchdowns Irvin racked up just three weeks later as the Cowboys their first of three Super Bowl titles in four seasons.

Irvin compared the excitement of victory to a dog smelling fresh meat.

“You put the dog out for a hunt and you put it in,” Jones recalled, “and once they’ve tasted that, they’ll come back.” So that’s what you did here, and these guys will never be the same.

“This was an uplifting experience.”

Behind Dak Prescott's great play, the Cowboys defeated Tom Brady for the first time on Monday.  (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)

Behind Dak Prescott’s great play, the Cowboys defeated Tom Brady for the first time on Monday. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)

The Cowboys’ victory on Monday night was an uplifting experience because of all the historical and recent evidence suggesting they were not ready for triumph. But for Jones, this win wasn’t just a message relevant in the past and present. It also had great significance, the team owner and general manager believed, for the Cowboys’ near future.

“It’s no exaggeration to think that this experience has made it that much better for our team,” said Jones. “This win is invaluable to anyone who knows: it can happen you.”

And that “it” — a Cowboys win, a Cowboys postseason run, maybe even the magic season the Cowboys waited 27 years to recapture — can happen, Jones said, because of this quarterback.

Prescott faltered in the wild card game last year, a ‘scar’ he says he will carry for the rest of his career. He missed five games this season with a broken thumb, then returned to alternate between completing the most advanced pitches of his career and throwing the most mind-boggling interceptions.

Hearing the noise, Prescott accepted that the risky style he’d been comfortable with wasn’t necessary error but needed a more acute counterbalance of reward to justify embracement.

And then, with confidence and precision and his arms and legs, Prescott led his team to victory against the NFL’s all-time playoff winner.

“That’s all a nice badge,” Jones said. “He was well aware of the criticism, whether he had much to do with it or not, that we haven’t won playoff games for so many years. Yet it was there. I think he just took it upon himself, right in the face of it, Brady and all, and just said, I’m going to show you.

Sunday at 6:30 PM ET in Santa Clara against the 49ers, Prescott will try to show that again.

Count Jones among those who believe.

“In the right setting, with the right conditions,” Jones said quietly almost half an hour after Prescott rolled his luggage out of the stadium and onto team buses bound for Dallas, “he showed me that he might is the best – especially the NFC – quarterback.”

Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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