Dak Prescott must outplay litany of big-time QBs for Cowboys to thrive

Riddick predicts a 9-7 Cowboys season (3:13)

Louis Riddick and Jerome Bettis analyze each game on the Cowboys schedule and don't foresee the 13-win success of 2016. (3:13)

FRISCO, Texas -- The game, more than anything else, is about the quarterback these days.

We saw that last season when Dak Prescott replaced an injured Tony Romo and was eventually named Rookie of the Year after leading the Dallas Cowboys to a 13-3 record. Just as we saw it in 2015, when the Cowboys used four quarterbacks -- none of them played well -- and went 4-12.

The Cowboys finished with the NFC's best record in 2016 because Prescott consistently played well against the league's top quarterbacks. He must do it again, especially late in the schedule, for Dallas to post double-digit wins in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1995 and '96.

When Prescott had a better single-game passer rating than the opposing quarterback last season, the Cowboys went 10-0. They were 3-2 when he didn't.

During the regular season, Prescott played better than and beat Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, Baltimore's Joe Flacco, Minnesota's Sam Bradford, Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston and Detroit's Matt Stafford.

Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls, and Rodgers and Flacco each have one.

Not too bad for a rookie.

After the NFL released the 2017 schedule Thursday night, we know Prescott must play his best football in the second half of the season because that's when the Cowboys will face some of the league's best quarterbacks.

Good quarterback play determines so much of a team's success that you can tell a lot about a team's playoff hopes just by looking at how many good quarterbacks it'll face in a season. Prescott opens up against Eli Manning of the New York Giants, but doesn't get another upper-echelon quarterback until Week 5 when Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers travel to Dallas.

In the last eight games, though, Prescott will face Washington's Kirk Cousins twice, Kansas City's Alex Smith, reigning league MVP Matt Ryan of Atlanta, the Los Angeles Chargers' Philip Rivers, Manning, Oakland's Derek Carr and Seattle's Russell Wilson.

The pressure will be on Prescott to play well for a sustained period of time if the Cowboys are going to be an elite team again.

In December, when playoff positions are secured and games become more important, Prescott will face Manning, Carr and Wilson as Dallas finishes with three of four games on the road.

So Prescott can't have a so-called sophomore slump this year if Dallas is going to make the playoffs again. Tony Romo has moved to the CBS broadcast booth, so there's no one to take over if Prescott struggles.

The Cowboys decided Prescott was their ride-or-die quarterback last November, when they chose him over a healthy Romo.

The comparisons with Romo will start in the preseason and will continue until the season ends. Prescott passed for 3,667 yards with 23 touchdowns, four interceptions and an average per attempt of 7.99 yards, fourth in the league.

Still, some think he's a one-year wonder like former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. Others believe he'll be unable to sustain his play, as happened with 2012 Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III.

Those who believe that didn't pay attention to how the Cowboys used Prescott last season. They let Ezekiel Elliott and the running game protect Prescott and create favorable passing situations. They used run fakes and half-field reads with easy throws to the tight ends until Prescott became comfortable enough for the playbook to expand.

There was nothing fluky about Prescott's performance, but that doesn't mean he'll lead Dallas to 13 wins again. Hey, they've done that only four times in the franchise's 56 seasons.

On 11 occasions last season, Prescott had a passer rating of more than 100.0; the Cowboys went 9-2 in those games. After the Cowboys fell behind 21-3 against the Packers in the NFC divisional round, Prescott rallied Dallas to a 31-31 tie with 35 seconds left.

One incredible throw by Rodgers and an even better catch by Jared Cook set up the Packers' game-winning field goal.

It was the only game the Cowboys lost when Prescott had a better passer rating than the opposing quarterback.