We can marvel at how unlikely the Dallas Cowboys‘ 40-39 comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons was in Week 2, but what’s really fascinating is how it was even possible. I’m not talking about just the onside-kick recovery. I’m talking about how that sequence of events ever came about.
Down by 15 points with just under five minutes to play, Dak Prescott hit Dalton Schultz for a 10-yard touchdown pass. The Cowboys now trailed by nine points, pending either the extra point or a 2-point attempt. Convention says to stay in the game as long as possible — kick the extra point to make it a one-possession game. But the smart thing to do is to go for two. It’s like peering into the future.
Think of it this way: If a team is down by 15 with time dwindling, the most plausible path to victory — by far — is to tie the score with one 7-point score and one 8-point score, while holding the opponent scoreless. Convention says to take the 7-point score early, then hope to convert a 2-point play on the second score. Kicking the extra point first keeps the team’s hopes alive and delays virtual elimination from contention for as long as possible.
But wouldn’t it be a shame if a team came back from down 15 points and scored two touchdowns to get within a final two-point conversion — only to fail? What if that team could look into the future and know whether the conversion attempt succeeds, and then play the rest of the game with that knowledge in hand? That’s exactly what the Cowboys did on Sunday.
And yes, they failed. Here’s what coach Mike McCarthy said about the play. Either way, though, McCarthy & Co. made the decision based on knowledge. The Cowboys knew, at the very least, that they needed to score two touchdowns and convert a 2-point conversion to tie. So instead of delaying the decision on the inevitable 2-point attempt, it was better to know what they needed to try to win the game.
Because the 2-point attempt’s result was already known, Dallas had the knowledge that it would need more than another touchdown. It pulled within 2 points of Atlanta with a touchdown drive just inside the two-minute warning. Prescott and the offense scored fast, taking only 1:08 to reach the end zone — and this is key — leaving enough time for an onside kick and subsequent field goal drive to win the game, none of which would have occurred if the Cowboys were not aware they needed two scores rather than just one.
In short, they were no worse off going for two on the first touchdown rather than a second. And the knowledge of how that try would turn out was like looking into a crystal ball, giving them the opportunity to react by playing for two scores rather than one.
Since 2001 there have been 12 2-point attempts from teams down nine points in the fourth quarter. (It’s amazing there were any at all given the criticism and misunderstanding directed at McCarthy.) Two of those were with far too little time to matter. Of the remaining 10, three succeeded in scoring the 2-point conversion.
Nine of the 10 teams lost their game. The only winner was Dallas on Sunday. It’s rare that a coach knows to do this. It’s even rarer that it all came together for a win.