For two quarters, it looked like the Dallas Cowboys had no business winning a football game Monday night.
Their offense was still sputtering and being suffocated by an Arizona Cardinals defense brimming with athleticism. At halftime, the Cardinals had a mammoth lead in time of possession after holding the ball for 20:19. They had thumped the Cowboys in every way, most laughably in offensive yardage, with the Cardinals and suddenly youthful-looking quarterback Carson Palmer gaining 152 yards and the Cowboys stuck at just 57 yards.
The Cowboys had two three-and-outs to begin the game and didn't record a first down until the 8:20 mark of the second quarter. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott couldn't answer Palmer's brilliance and went into halftime with 25 passing yards. The final sign of certain doom was running back Ezekiel Elliott's gaining 30 yards on one carry and one yard over his other seven first-half carries.
This would usually be when the darkness spirals further, and we wonder where the Cowboys' once-bruising offense has gone and why they're starting so slow. But stunningly, the narrative shifted, and instead we get to marvel at Prescott's heroics during a 28-17 win that restored faith in the Cowboys offense after some early-season misfires.
Go ahead and pick your favorite Prescott highlight from Monday night. He generously provided a few of them. But this one seems like a fine choice:
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
Dak Prescott. Surgical with the precision passing 🔥🎯 (via @NFL) https://t.co/9LCPoiA2V52017-9-26 03:00:03
Soak that in with several viewings, because on that play Prescott was more football artist than quarterback.
What he executed doesn't seem like it should be possible, or at least as easy as the 24-year-old made it look with his comfort outside of the pocket. But there he was, squirting free from pressure, sprinting to his right and catapulting an off-balance throw on one leg 37 yards downfield, where it was fought for and hauled in by wide receiver Brice Butler.
On that one third-quarter throw alone, Prescott had more passing yards than he did during a first half that could have taken away all of his confidence. But the quarterback who's far more mature than both his age and playing experience indicate was persistent. The result was 21 second-half points, after only seven over the first two quarters, and a critical early-season road win.
There was a greater victory, too, especially after the Cowboys failed to score 20 points during their first two games of the season.
In 2016, Dallas' offense was a juggernaut and averaged the fifth-most points per game (26.3) while powered by two impressive rookies. But early in 2017, that offensive dominance was absent, as shown during a Week 2 drubbing. The Cowboys lost 42-17 to the Denver Broncos, a game when Prescott averaged only 4.8 yards per pass attempt and was uncharacteristically careless with his two interceptions.
The Cowboys went from that to a first half filled with nothingness against the Cardinals. It doesn't take long for every alarm in the state of Texas to be blaring at max volume, and sleeping Monday night would have been impossible in the Lone Star State had the Cowboys' offensive slumber kept going for another half.
But it didn't because Prescott and Butler had a laser-guided connection. Prescott threw for 183 yards with two touchdowns and also added a 10-yard rushing TD. And 90 of those passing yards came on two pinpoint throws to Butler.
The routine between the two of them was simple enough, and flawless. Prescott rolled to his right and heaved a deep dart. The throws didn't seem like they could possibly end well because of the sheer physics involved.
On both, he bolted toward the sideline and was unable to get his body behind the throw. The launches downfield were from his arm, and his arm only. Then, on the other end, Butler secured a highly contested catch.
He did that once for a touchdown, and then a second time on an acrobatic 53-yard grab:
That catch led to an eight-yard touchdown run by Elliott, who also rose from his long September nap.
Elliott ran for just eight yards on nine carries in Week 2. Coming in it was fair to wonder, would that week would be forgotten quickly? Or a sign of struggles to come after shuffling along the offensive line in front of him throughout the offseason?
Like Prescott, Elliott made the Broncos game a memory when he blasted off for two chunk gains of 20-plus yards. His signature violent running style returned, as did the one-cut power that led to the game-icing fourth-quarter touchdown.
It all felt familiar. For a brief moment, it seemed like 2016 didn't end, and two young stars were soaring again. Toss in a dominant pass rush with six sacks (three from defensive end Demarcus Lawrence), which didn't feel familiar at all, and the Cowboys showed they might have the pieces to claw for another division title.
Murkiness and uncertainty lie ahead, with Elliott's suspension potentially looming. That challenge awaits, but for now the Cowboys have answered a key question.
And the answer is, yes, they still have an offense to fear, along with a rising young quarterback who completes throws many others wouldn't dare try.