ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys had already answered their worst showing of the season when the star quarterback took off on a fourth-down scramble near the goal line.
The powerful punctuating touchdown finished a blowout of Atlanta on Sunday.
Prescott also threw for two TDs, Ezekiel Elliott scored twice and Nahshon Wright recovered a blocked punt in the end zone a week after touching one kept Dallas from getting the ball as the Cowboys rolled to a 43-3 win.
“Last week just wasn't us,” said Prescott, who ran through linebacker Mykal Walker at the goal line on his 4-yard TD even though he already had the first down. “Everybody in our locker room knows that. It left a bad taste in our mouth. I think it's a taste we needed in a sense to understand how tough this game is.”
Plenty of things that went wrong for the Cowboys in last week's blowout loss to Denver that ended a six-game winning streak went right to help the NFC East leaders get back on track.
Offensive execution was among them, starting when coach Mike McCarthy tried to send a message by taking the ball to start the game instead of deferring after Dallas won the coin toss.
The Cowboys (7-2) looked much more like the NFL's No. 1 offense with Prescott throwing the first of two TD passes to CeeDee Lamb on the opening drive and Elliott finishing two others kept alive by fourth-down conversions, all before halftime.
“We had to go out there and set the tone,” said Elliott, who was otherwise quiet with 41 yards on 14 carries. “You know we wanted the ball, we wanted to hit them in the mouth first, we wanted to go score first, and that’s what we did.”
The first half ended with a sequence that led to the highest-scoring quarter in franchise history (29 points in the second) and Dallas' biggest halftime lead (36-3) since 1971.
Dorance Armstrong's one-armed block of Dustin Colquitt's punt was recovered by Wright in the end zone with 37 seconds remaining in the first half. A week earlier again Denver, Wright touched a blocked punt past the line of scrimmage without securing the loose ball, and the Broncos recovered to retain possession.
Atlanta (4-5) had 12 men on the field for the extra point, so the Cowboys went for the 2-point conversion from the 1. Elliott added another plunge across the goal line.
Matt Ryan led the Falcons to the Dallas 20 in just four plays on their first possession before settling for a field goal. Ryan didn't get that deep into Cowboys territory again, threw two interceptions — including Trevon Diggs' NFL-leading eighth — and was pulled before the end of the third quarter with Atlanta down 43-3.
Prescott was 24 of 31 for 296 yards with a fourth-down rushing TD before sitting in the fourth quarter, while Ryan finished with a 21.4 rating. He was 9 of 21 for 117 yards with the Falcons coming off a 27-25 win over New Orleans that was their third victory in four games.
“I think you understand it just counts once,” Ryan said. “As ugly as it is, we get 17 of these opportunities. I think we're better than we played today. We just need to play up to the standard that we're capable of doing.”
Elliott's first touchdown was a 1-yarder five plays after Prescott's 21-yard pass to Lamb on fourth-and-5. The two-time rushing champ's 2-yard score came the play after Prescott scrambled on fourth-and-3 and found Michael Gallup along the sideline for 23 yards in the first game for Gallup (calf strain) since the opener.
The Falcons were moving again the second time they had the ball before facing a fourth-and-7. Atlanta passed on a 50-yard field goal try, and Dallas cornerback Jourdan Lewis had the second of consecutive pass breakups.
A little more than a quarter later, the Falcons were down 28-3.
“We wanted to be aggressive coming in here,” coach Arthur Smith said. “I know it was fourth-and-7, but looking at it at that point of the game, we knew what kind of offense we were playing on the other side, so I made a decision to be aggressive. Obviously, hindsight’s 20-20.”
Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was on the same field with the Falcons for the first time since they fired him as coach after an 0-5 start last season. He took breaks from his pregame workout routine in the stadium to talk to members of the Atlanta staff while also greeting Ryan and owner Arthur Blank.
The Cowboys held the Falcons to season worsts in first downs (11) and third-down conversions (1 of 11). With 214 yards, Atlanta had just 1 more than its season low.
“Credit to him and credit to their defense,” said Ryan, who was sacked twice. “I thought he did a great job of putting those guys in position to be successful and their guys made plays.”
NFL DEBUT AT 31
Cowboys kicker Lirim Hajrullahu made his NFL debut at age 31 with Greg Zuerlein on the COVID-19 list. Coach Mike McCarthy was worried about the former CFL kicker getting touchbacks with dangerous return man Cordarrelle Patterson lurking. But Hajrullahu put all six of his kickoffs in the end zone and made all five PATS.
Falcons: a short week with New England visiting Atlanta on Thursday.
Cowboys: a trip to two-time defending AFC champion Kansas City next Sunday.
More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL