TAMPA, Fla. — Jerry Jones found Dak Prescott before kickoff.
The Dallas Cowboys team owner knew his quarterback had thrown a league-high 15 interceptions this season, seven games elapsing since his last turnover-free performance.
Prescott had discussed risk vs. reward decision-making during the week, as he prepared for his fourth-ever playoff game and easily the highest-stakes game of his career.
The chance to snap a 30-year road playoff victory drought. The chance to finally withstand the infamous Tom Brady comeback.
The Cowboys’ philosophy was clear: Take what the defense gives us. Play smart. Don’t insist on every-play heroics.
But also? Jones didn’t build the Cowboys into the most valuable franchise in sports, per Forbes, by playing it safe. So he didn’t want Prescott to press — but he did want his quarterback to trust.
“I talked to him before the game, and all I said was: ‘Absolutely, do not not take risks,’” Jones said at 12:21 a.m. ET Tuesday, ebullient from his team’s 31-14 wild-card victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “ ‘Be aggressive.’
“There was no question before this game Dak was going to have to win it for us … to step out here and go and be the difference. He did. He was. It served notice to everybody — including his teammates, including himself.”
Because in the biggest game of Dak Prescott’s career, he also played at his best.
Dak Prescott's ‘statement game’
The first two drives summoned Cowboys fans’ nightmares. Two three-and-outs. Three incompletions to start the game.
Could Prescott rise to the occasion under the bright lights?
“I told the offense in the huddle: ‘Hey, we get one first down, this thing’s going to roll,’” Prescott said afterward. “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 before long, he wouldn’t just rebound to a 25-of-33 night for 305 yards. 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 to play in the first quarter, Prescott dropped back and nailed an airborne tight end Dalton Schultz in traffic for a 22-yard touchdown. A quarter later, riding the momentum of Cowboys safety Jayron Kearse’s end-zone interception of Brady, Prescott faked a handoff to fellow 2016 draft classmate Ezekiel Elliott before rolling to the left and racing in his third career postseason score by ground.
“The play-call fooled the defense,” Prescott said of the run-pass option. “I could’ve thrown it to Schultz. He had already had one, so I kept it.”
Dak Prescott TD with his arms ✅
Dak Prescott TD with his legs ✅pic.twitter.com/BIc8kvR3Gp
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 17, 2023
Before halftime, Dallas would score yet again — this time, courtesy of Prescott’s legs and his franchise-tagged tight end.
The Cowboys had marched 85 yards in 3 minutes, Prescott keeping the drive alive with a diving 11-yard scramble on third-and-6. So when his pocket began to collapse, Prescott again rolled out to his left. He neared the sideline when he squared 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 throughout the week. This was the situational football that coaches had drilled consistently all season and even more, per players in the postgame locker room, during their bonus day of preparation leading up to the Monday night contest.
Prescott stayed poised as Buccaneers defenders swarmed. Schultz kept the play alive, giving Prescott a subtle finger point toward the zone in which he planned to exploit the coverage. This confirmed: They were reading the defense the same. The Cowboys took an 18-0 lead into halftime, despite kicker Brett Maher’s uncharacteristic misses of by then three, and eventually four, extra-point attempts.
ESPN’s cameras caught an angry Prescott slamming his helmet into the sideline and grass and seemingly exclaiming “go for f***ing 2.”
Prescott said he spoke personally with Maher afterward, telling his kicker to “let that go.”
“I’m ‘Money’ Maher’s biggest fan,” Prescott said. “We’re going to need him. I just played like s*** a week ago. That happens. When you believe in each other, believe in what we’re capable of doing, knowing what that guy’s done, the resilience he’s shown throughout his career, personally no doubt he’ll come back next week, be perfect and help us win.”
If Prescott could rebound, why can’t Maher?
The Cowboys kept their collective foot on the pedal in the second half, Prescott finding receiver Michael Gallup streaking across the back edge of the end zone, just in time to secure a touchdown Next Gen Stats tracked as 0.5 yards from the back of the end zone.
And to cap it off — yes, there was still one more Prescott touchdown drive Monday — the Cowboys quarterback found a wide-open CeeDee Lamb in the fourth quarter, facing fourth-and-4 from the 18-yard line.
The cushion was sufficient to ward off even a playoff wizard like Brady.
And while Prescott reiterated postgame that “this wasn’t some Dak vs. Tom Brady matchup,” the seventh-year pro showed the clutch composure that his counterpart long has.
“The heartbeat of the team,” Elliott said.
“Dak showed that he’s a warrior,” Lamb said. “He’s a baller. And he came out slinging 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 neared its end, a conversation unfurled in the visiting owners box of Raymond James Stadium.
Cowboys Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin approached Jones to contextualize the swirling emotions a victory like this would bring.
Irvin remembered the 86 yards he contributed to the Cowboys’ last playoff road win, one day short of 30 years earlier against the San Francisco 49ers, and the 114 yards and two touchdowns Irvin hauled in just three weeks later as the Cowboys won their first of three Super Bowl titles in four seasons.
Irvin equated the thrill of victory to a dog smelling fresh meat.
“You put the dog in the hunt and you put it in there,” Jones recalled, “then once they’ve tasted that, they come on back. So that’s what you’ve done here, and these guys will never be the same.
“This was an elevating experience.”
The Cowboys’ win Monday night was an elevating experience because of all the historical and recent evidence that suggested they weren’t primed for triumph. But to Jones, this win didn’t only send a message relevant in the past and the present. It also bore great significance, the team owner and general manager believed, for the Cowboys’ immediate future.
“There is no exaggeration to think that this experience for our team made it much better,” Jones said. “This win is invaluable to everyone knowing: It can happen to you.”
And that “it” — a Cowboys win, a Cowboys postseason run, maybe even the magical season the Cowboys have waited 27 years to recapture — can happen, Jones said, because of this quarterback.
Prescott faltered in last year’s wild-card game, a “scar” he says he’ll wear for the rest of his career. He missed five games this season with a thumb fracture, and then returned to alternate between completing the most advanced throws of his career and tossing its most baffling interceptions.
Prescott heard the noise, accepted that the risky style he’d become comfortable with wasn’t necessarily wrong but did need a more acute counterbalance of reward to warrant embracing.
And then, with confidence and precision and his arms and legs, Prescott led his team to victory against the NFL’s all-time playoff victor.
“All that is a nice badge,” Jones said. “He was well aware of the criticism, whether he had a lot to do with it or not, us not winning playoff games for the last umpteenth years. Still, it was there. I think he just took it on, right in the face of it, Brady and all of it, and just said: 'I’m going to show you.'”
Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET in Santa Clara against the 49ers, Prescott will aim to show that again.
Count Jones among those believing.
“In the right setting, with the right circumstances,” Jones said in a quiet moment, nearly half an hour after Prescott had rolled his luggage out of the stadium and onto team buses headed home for Dallas, “he showed me he’s maybe the top — certainly the NFC — quarterback.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein