ARLINGTON, Texas — There is something about AT&T Stadium that agrees with Mike McCarthy.
He won Super Bowl XLV there with the Green Bay Packers and was 4-0 entering his first home opener as the Dallas Cowboys‘ head coach on Sunday. He improved to 5-0 after the Cowboys’ 40-39 victory against the Atlanta Falcons that even he could not believe.
“I had one on the other sideline, but it’s not like this,” McCarthy said when asked if he had been part of a game like Sunday’s.
Perhaps McCarthy was referring to the 2014 NFC Championship Game loss to the Seattle Seahawks when the Packers were up 12 with four minutes to play and lost after failing to secure an onside kick.
On Sunday, McCarthy’s Cowboys recovered an onside kick with 1:46 to play and won on Greg Zuerlein‘s 46-yard field goal as time expired to overcome being down 20-0 in the first quarter, a 29-10 halftime disadvantage and a 15-point deficit with less than five minutes to play.
According to research by ESPN Stats & Information, teams were 1,875-6 when leading by 15 or more points in the final five minutes of regulation over the past 20 seasons. The previous team to overcome such a deficit was the New Orleans Saints against Washington in 2017.
Make that 1,875-7.
“We dug ourselves such a big hole in the first quarter and I just think the way the guys rallied and just kept going,” McCarthy said. “Especially since it’s a young season, we’re early in the process of our football team finding out about each other each and every day. So, it’s a big chunk of confidence that we’ll carry forward. I’m very proud of the team. I’m very proud of everybody. I can’t say enough about the way our players kept playing.”
It tied for the second-biggest comeback in team history. Three times the Cowboys have overcome 21-point holes, with the most recent coming in 2014.
For McCarthy, it was also the second-biggest comeback of his coaching career. In 2013, his Packers trailed the Cowboys by 23 at AT&T Stadium and won 37-36. Twice they overcame 20-point holes. In Week 13 in 2015, they beat the Detroit Lions, and in the 2018 season opener they came back against the Chicago Bears.
In a locker room running back Ezekiel Elliott described as “crazy,” and linebacker Jaylon Smith called “ecstatic,” McCarthy was given the game ball for his first win as the Cowboys’ coach. “That’s a helluva first win, especially at home,” tight end Dalton Schultz said. “I think it gives us a lot of momentum going forward.”
A loss could have been crushing. After losing the season opener to the Los Angeles Rams, McCarthy acknowledged the “honeymoon was over” but also said he felt the Cowboys were closer to winning than people had thought.
The first quarter told the opposite story. The Cowboys lost three of their four fumbles — one by quarterback Dak Prescott, two by Elliott and one by Schultz — to go down 20-0. The defense allowed scores on six consecutive first-half possessions, and the special teams contributed with a failed fake punt when Chris Jones‘ pass to C.J. Goodwin fell short.
The Cowboys closed to within five points in the third quarter, but the defense wilted again, allowing Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to throw his fourth touchdown pass. McCarthy then chose to gamble again on fourth down, giving the go-ahead for a fake punt that saw Darian Thompson stopped short of a first down.
The Falcons (0-2) responded with a field goal to up the lead to 39-24 with 7:57 to play. Even when Prescott hit Schultz for a touchdown pass with 4:57 to play, McCarthy raised eyebrows by going for the 2-point conversion that failed.
That required two scores and a defensive stop.
“The decision to go for two there is simple mathematics where you’d rather know if it’s a two-score game at the earliest time instead of taking all the way it down to the end and playing for two points at the end,” McCarthy said. “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve been involved in this particular situation. To go for two there is just to make it clear with a little over four minutes left if we were going to be in a one-score game or a two-score game was the thinking.”
The defense held, Prescott added his third rushing touchdown — a record for a Cowboys quarterback — and then came the play McCarthy absolutely needed: the recovery of an onside kick.
Zuerlein’s spinning squibber seemed to confound the Falcons’ hands team so much that it allowed Goodwin to jump on the loose ball after 10 yards.
“I have never used it before in a game,” Zuerlein said, “but we practiced it early in the year just because you have to have something.”
Prescott, who threw for 450 yards, hit rookie wide receiver CeeDee Lamb for 24 yards to the Atlanta 30 and the Cowboys used three more plays to set up Zuerlein for the winner.
“It’s an incredible game to be a part of,” Prescott said. “I think more than anything it showed our faith and resiliency.”
For McCarthy, it was career win No. 126 and his fifth in a row at AT&T Stadium.
“Let’s keep that going,” he said. “It’s a great place.”