By ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Pro Football Writer
Those Dallas fans who didn’t make an early beeline for the exits when the heavily favored Cowboys were getting crushed by the Broncos on Sunday were rewarded when Dak Prescott stuck around with them until the bitter end.
Prescott engineered two touchdown drives, capped by a pair of 2-point conversions, in the final four minutes of Dallas’ 30-16 loss.
Although mostly meaningless in the moment, these TDs against a bevy of backups may yet prove pivotal for a 6-2 Cowboys team with bona fide Super Bowl aspirations thanks to Prescott’s outstanding bounce-back from a broken ankle in 2020.
Prescott bristled when asked about not coming out of the game in his return from a strained right calf.
“I don’t think it ever crossed my mind,” Prescott said, adding that he would have refused had he been told to punch out early.
“We needed to show our fight, our resiliency,” Prescott said. “That’s something that’s won us a lot of games.”
No one could blame Prescott for wanting to play every precious minute after his 2020 season ended with a broken right ankle against the Giants in Week 5.
With a four-year, $160 million deal in hand, Prescott returned in 2021 with an improved supporting cast and has thrown for 18 touchdowns with five interceptions while completing a career-best 69.4% of his passes and engineering a pair of game-winning drives.
The strained calf that would sideline him one game came when Prescott threw the winning TD pass to CeeDee Lamb in overtime for a 35-29 victory against New England last month.
Another quarterback in the midst of a big rebound is Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow. The 2019 Heisman Trophy winner and 2020 top draft pick is every bit as good as he was before he tore the ACL and MCL ligaments in his left knee at Washington Nov. 22. In some respects, he’s even better, as he, too, returned to an improved roster.
Burrow has thrown for almost 2,500 yards with 20 touchdowns while bumping his completion rate to 68.2 percent and his yards per completion to 12.8. The Bengals, who were 2-7-1 with Burrow under center last year, are 5-4 and in t he thick of the tough AFC North race.
“I don’t really think I see a big difference, because we really feel like he was playing good football there at the end of his time last year,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “I think he only difference is he has nine more games of experience.”
Well, here’s one big contrast: Burrow has been reunited with former LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, the fifth pick in the ‘21 draft. Chase has 44 catches for 835 yards and seven TDs as the ex-Tigers spearhead Cincinnati’s resurgence.
Another QB who’s snapped back nicely is Carson Wentz, who’s thrown for 17 TDs with just three interceptions for the Colts (4-5) a year after throwing for 16 TDs and a league-high 15 interceptions in Philadelphia.
Wentz’s health has been a topic for most of his career and that hasn’t changed in Indianapolis, where he missed much of training camp with a foot injury and sprained both ankles in September.
If they can keep it up, it’s a good bet either Burrow or Prescott will win the 2021 NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award, and not just because QBs have won the honor 13 times in the past 19 years and no running back has won it since 2001.
Linebackers Von Miller (ankle) and Joey Bosa (knee), wide receiver Courtland Sutton (knee) and running back Joe Mixon (foot) have had solid seasons coming back from injuries in 2020.
Several other stars have had setbacks, step-backs or stumbles in 2021:
GIANTS RUNNING BACK RB SAQUON BARKLEY
The 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year, who shredded his right knee at Chicago in Week 2 last year, sprained an ankle against Dallas last month and has missed four games so far. He’s rushed for just 195 yards and two touchdowns this season.
CAROLINA RUNNING BACK CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY
After scoring 19 TDs in 2019, when he was the third NFL player with 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season, McCaffrey has piled up injuries. He missed 13 games in ’20 with ankle, shoulder and thigh ailments and five games in ’21 with a torn hamstring. He has just one TD run this year.
CAROLINA QUARTERBACK SAM DARNOLD
The third overall pick of the 2018 draft missed four games in 2020 with a sprained right shoulder. Traded to the Panthers, he led Carolina to a 3-0 start before losing five of six and fracturing his right shoulder. That prompted the Panthers to bring back their former No. 1 pick Cam Newton on Thursday.
EX-CLEVELAND WIDE RECEIVER ODELL BECKHAM JR.
OBJ missed the playoff run after tearing his left ACL in Week 7 last year. He caught just 34 passes for 232 yards in six games this year before the Browns closed the book on his 2½ seasons in Cleveland where he was a distraction and disappointment. He agreed to a deal Thursday with the Rams.
SAN FRANCISCO QUARTERBACK JIMMY GAROPPOLO
The 49ers kept Garoppolo and his high salary even after moving up to take Trey Lance third overall to be their QB of the future. They believed they had the roster to get back to the Super Bowl with a healthy Garoppolo. But he’s missed time with a calf injury and has just eight TD passes in ’21.
SAINTS QUARTERBACK JAMEIS WINSTON
The 2015 No. 1 overall pick was off to a solid start as Drew Brees’ successor in New Orleans when Bucs LB Devin White’s horse-collar tackle resulted in Winston suffering a season-ending knee injury. He had 14 TD passes, three interceptions and a 5-2 record in 2021.
AP Sports Writer Mitch Stacy in Cincinnati contributed.
Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter at https://twitter.com/arniestapleton and his work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/arniestapleton
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