FRISCO, Texas -- In life, sometimes you need to hit rock bottom before reaching the mountaintop. The Dallas Cowboys have gone through that journey during the 2023 season, getting pummeled 42-10 at the San Francisco 49ers on "Sunday Night Football" while quarterback Dak Prescott threw a season-high three interceptions and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb totaled just 49 yards in Week 5.
Fast forward to the present moment, and the 9-3 Cowboys have won six of their last seven games, with the lone loss coming in a narrow 28-23 defeat at the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 9. Entering their first "Sunday Night Football" matchup since that 49ers game and facing the other 2022 NFC Championship Game participant in the 10-2 Eagles, Prescott is now the co-NFL MVP betting favorite (+300) along with 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, with the Cowboys now averaging a league-leading 32.3 points per game. The shift began when and demanded he be more involved.
"Yeah, y'all panicked," Prescott said Thursday. "We didn't. Honestly. I appreciate the hell out of that guy [Lamb]. Everything he does. He's a professional. What I appreciate most about is really just him saying, you know who he is and what expects from himself and really that conversation that he had with me and with [head coach] Mike [McCarthy] of really just saying, 'I think I can change this game. I think I'm a big-time playmaker and all I'm asking for is a little bit more opportunity to show it.'"
Lamb has showcased his ability and then some. His 90 catches are the most in Cowboys history through the first 12 games of a season, and his 1,182 receiving yards have him on pace to break Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Irvin's single-season, franchise receiving yards record of 1,603 set in 1995.
CeeDee Lamb stats in 2023 season
|Passer Rating When Targeted
* Among 46 players with at least 70 targets this season
Prescott's connection with Lamb, particularly on deep balls, has made the 24-year-old, two-time Pro Bowl receiver the most productive receiver, not named Tyreek Hill, in the entire NFL on an individual route this season. His 318 receiving yards on go routes or vertical routes are the third-most in the league on an individual route, trailing only Hill, who is on pace to be the first player in NFL history with 2,000 receiving yards in a single season.
"The guy's a playmaker, he's fast," Prescott said when talking about what makes Lamb so effective going deep. "You've got to stretch the field, and I think we do that, show that we're going to do to that, it allows everything to come off of that. That's a credit to Mike [McCarthy] and just way we want to attack people. We're going to attack you and you've got to respect that and you do, that opens up the whole playbook."
Most yards on individual routes entering Week 14
2023 season, per Next Gen Stats
Cowboys offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer broke down a few more of the intricacies of how the Dallas receivers are coached to attack on go routes and why Lamb is so explosive on that route. It's about being efficient off the line of scrimmage and using a defensive back's technique and leverage against them.
"Number one, it starts with the release," Schottenheimer said Thursday. "We talk about jumping out of our shoes. Everything in this system comes off the vertical or the go-ball. That starts with jumping out of your shoes. What's that mean? It means versus off [coverage] or press [coverage], we don't want them [our receivers] dancing at the line of scrimmage. We don't want them firing their feet. We want them to go. Once you do that, you should at least capture the leverage, and there's the point where the receiver needs to stack the defensive back."
What's stacking a defensive back? Something Lamb does better than almost anyone in the league: getting out in front of his defender and maintaining his positioning as being one step ahead.
"So the defensive back when you're running over, he's taught to lean into the window and try to shorten the space of the [throwing] window, and CeeDee has a very natural ability to stack and get on top or at least hold off the DB," Schottenheimer said. "That coincides with Dak's ability to throw the ball with good air because he trusts CeeDee. He knows CeeDee is going to be able to make the play on the ball, contested or not. Fifty-fifty ball or not, which allows him [Prescott] to do a really good job of holding the safety [with his eyes]. Safeties in this league, they play deep. Most of them can run really well. It's a number of things, but I think there's a part of it that goes back to the me-to-you factor. They've been throwing go balls together for a long time, and that's important."
Lamb's biggest focus when it comes to running go routes is simple: do it over and over again to strike fear into the opposing defense.
"Just want them to see it," Lamb said. "I'm a threat with the ball in my hands, but definitely the deep ball. Just getting those up and down and letting the defensive coordinator and defensive backs know that we can go behind you. I feel like along with that every route underneath that is open."
Prescott's play has opened in a massive way since Week 6, after the 49ers defeat, as he leads the NFL in passing yards per game (310.4), passing touchdowns (21), passer rating (121.5) and expected points added per play (0.34). Reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes averaged 0.25 expected points added/play during his 2022 campaign.
Dak Prescott since Week 6
"It's the level of productivity, and I think the consistency of it," McCarthy said Monday when asked how he would define an NFL MVP. "To be able to go out there week in and week out and put your team in position through production and performance to win the game. He's [Prescott] obviously done that at an extremely high level here these last six weeks."
The numbers back McCarthy's claim up as Prescott is one of only six players in NFL history to put up a seven-game stretch like he has in a single season with three of the previous five walking away with league MVP honors at the end of the year.
70% Comp Pct, 300 Pass YPG, 3 Pass TD/Game in 7-Game Span
Single season, NFL history
One of the critical areas in which Prescott has taken a major leap in his first season with McCarthy calling plays is his ball security. He became the first player in NFL history to lead or co-lead the NFL in interceptions (15, tied with Texans quarterback Davis Mills in 2022) after missing five or more games last season. This season, his 1.3% turnover-worthy play rate is the lowest in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus as Prescott leads the NFL in touchdown-to-interception ratio (26.6). That percentage is much closer to his career interception rate of 1.9%, tied for the eighth-lowest in NFL history with Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson, than his 3.8% interception rate from 2022.
Dak Prescott stats in 2023 season
|NFL QB RANK
|Expected Points Added/Play
"It's just the discipline, the connection with his teammates, understanding the offense," McCarthy said when asked why Prescott has improved with his ball security in 2023. "He has total command. It's something we frequently speak about, he needs to own the offense, starting with the cadence, the huddle command, the schematic communication, the process during the week and obviously, it always comes down to how you perform. He has that personality, he has that understanding. I clearly feel strongly where he is and frankly excited about where these guys can go off of him. It starts with him, his command and his ownership."
The Cowboys have taken command of their home turf at AT&T Stadium, winning their last 14 home games, good for the second-longest streak in team history as well as the longest active one in the NFL today. With a win, the Cowboys could take over first place in the NFC East, critical as winning the division ensures a home game in a team's first postseason contest. Prescott's, Lamb's and the offense's ability to cash in drives near the red zone will ultimately have a critical impact on the winner of their rematch with the Eagles.
Dallas failed to score on three fourth-quarter drives that got inside the Philadelphia 30-yard line, something the Cowboys need to change to come out on top in Round 2. Lamb totaled a career-high 191 receiving yards in the loss, but he did not find the end zone. In the four games since, he has scored a touchdown each week, and Prescott's 26 touchdowns passes in 2023 are now the most in football. The Eagles secondary is susceptible given the unit has allowed 27 passing touchdowns, the second-most in the NFL ahead of only the Washington Commanders' 30. Philadelphia only allowed 22 a year ago during its NFC Championship-winning season.
"Yeah, huge," Prescott said when asked how critical winning on Sunday is as far as how it sets up their pursuit of the ultimate goal, a Super Bowl title. "Obviously it puts us in place for the division. Once again, I don't know how that shakes out to be honest with you. I just know we've got to get this game. There's multiple games left. So, we'll focus on that as we get there, but then also, in the sense of trying to get home field, understanding our success through the past couple of years and how great it would be to play the postseason here at home. It's huge. It's definitely a big game."