ARLINGTON, Texas — Unable to come up with a block, the Atlanta Falcons could only watch Sunday afternoon as they lost on a game-ending field goal.
They might not have been in that situation if their hands team hadn't just watched the trickling onside kick that put the Dallas Cowboys in position to pull off a 40-39 win — after being down by 20 points in the first quarter.
With three Atlanta players surrounding him and curiously watching the slow-rolling ball, Dallas cornerback C.J. Goodwin pounced on it just as it got to the 10 yards needed for the Cowboys to recover when they still trailed in the final two minutes.
"We've just got to learn that we've got to attack that ball and things like," said veteran Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who was on the field but not one of the players in the immediate vicinity of the ball.
Greg Zuerlein's winning 46-yard field goal came six plays after his onside kick — a snail compared to the high bouncers that usually come in those situations. He did not use a tee, another unusual tactic.
"We've got to go capture it when the moment comes. ... From where I saw, it was a slow roller and one that we should make the aggressive move to go get it," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.
Except receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, safety Sharrod Neasman and tight end Hayden Hurst appeared to be waiting for the ball to go 10 yards — though they could have gone after it any time before then. And that was after Goodwin ran around Jaeden Graham, another tight end.
"The front three are usually blocking as the high bouncers go to the second side, so the front line, generally on an onside kick, they're looking to get a block first, then the high hop goes to the next player," Quinn said. "So when that instance happens and it's not one that's a high hopper you transfer in and you go to your ball. ... They definitely know the rule."
Asked if any coaching changes could be upcoming, Quinn responded "no," later adding that it's a situation that the Falcons work on often.
"To lose one today when we do spend a good bit of time on, that certainly hurt," he said.
The Falcons are 0-2 for the first time in six seasons after their largest blown lead since giving up a 28-3 advantage against New England in the Super Bowl four seasons ago, about four hours away in Houston. It was only the fourth time they have lost after leading a game by at least 20 points.
Dallas had three lost fumbles, including one each by quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, and a failed fake punt in the first quarter as the Falcons jumped ahead 20-0. It was only the second time since 2008 the Cowboys had three lost fumbles in a game.
To make this one even tougher for the Falcons, they became the first NFL team since turnovers were first tracked in 1933 to lose when scoring 39 points and having no turnovers. Other teams to do that had been 440-0.
"A great kick and credit to them for executing in that situation. I think the message — there's nothing you can say today," said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who was 24-of-36 passing for 273 yards and four touchdowns. "This one stings and it sucks. ... We've got a lot of football to play. We've got to change the outcome of this, and the only way to do that is to work."
The Falcons were still up 15 in the fourth quarter before Prescott became the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for more than 400 yards and rush for three touchdowns in the same game, with the third score getting Dallas (1-1) within two.
After the kickoff recovery, receiver CeeDee Lamb's 24-yard catch got the Cowboys in field-goal position, and they ran down the clock before "Greg the Leg" touched off a wild celebration for the players and the socially distanced 21,708 fans who booed the Cowboys off the field with Atlanta up 29-10 at halftime. The crowd was 27% of AT&T Stadium's 80,000-seat capacity.
"I don't know if I've been in many games like this thing," Prescott said. "But to be able to get the win, and in front of those fans that were there, stayed the whole game, they didn't give up on us. That was a huge difference."
It was the home debut for Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy. Instead of lamenting what would have just his second 0-2 start — his only one was his first season in Green Bay in 2006 — McCarthy celebrated at the venue that hosted his Super Bowl win with the Packers a decade ago.
In his final two appearances in the $1.2 billion retractable-roof stadium with the Packers, McCarthy watched as Aaron Rodgers beat the Cowboys twice in the final seconds, including a divisional playoff game when Prescott was a rookie.
"I had one on the other sideline, but not like this," McCarthy said. "We dug ourselves such a big hole in the first quarter. We're early in the process of our football team finding out about each other each and every day."
Here's something Falcons fans might not want to know about their franchise: In the past nine seasons, Atlanta now has two of the three instances in which a team lost after leading by at least 15 points with less than eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
"It's tough to put a loss like that in place," Quinn said. "I told the team there has to be a lesson in the pain of that loss. We'll work into that as we put in preparation for next week, but definitely that one stings."
The successful onside kick for Dallas came after two failed fake punts and another gamble that didn't work when McCarthy went for the 2-point conversion before the final touchdown the Cowboys would have needed to get even.
Playing without both of his starting tackles, Prescott was 34-of-47 for 450 yards and a touchdown with one sack. His first two touchdowns got Dallas within five in the third quarter. Ryan responded by converting a third down with a 22-yard pass to Hayden Hurst, who had a 42-yard touchdown on another first-quarter blunder from Dallas, a blown coverage.
After a 19-yard completion to Jones on fourth-and-2, Russell Gage scored on an 8-yard catch for a 36-24 lead. The Falcons pushed their lead to 39-24 on Younghoe Koo's fourth field goal with just less than eight minutes left.
"We're definitely a better finishing team than we showed today," Jones said. "We're still positive, a very positive team. We're not going to let it define who we are. We've just got to keep getting better."