Dak Prescott vs. Patrick Mahomes: That’s the top billing for Sunday’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox), where two of the NFL’s three $40 million quarterbacks meet for the first time in their careers.
“If I was a fan, this is a game I’d watch on Sunday, especially with both quarterbacks,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said.
Both teams are viewed as threats to make deep playoff runs and both quarterbacks enter the game coming off that’s-more-like-it performances in Week 10.
A week after throwing for just 166 yards during a 13-7 win against the Green Bay Packers — the fewest in a game he started and finished — Mahomes threw for 406 yards and five touchdown passes with no interceptions in a 41-14 win against the Las Vegas Raiders. Mahomes committed no turnovers for the second straight week after having 12 through the first eight games of the season.
“I’m aware of the numbers as far as the turnovers, takeaways, but I think just like anything in our game, the last game, he’s AFC offensive player of the week,” McCarthy said of Mahomes. “I think that shows you not only what he’s capable of, he’s played at that level for a long time already. He’s established himself in the league as an MVP quarterback so that’s the quarterback we’re preparing for.”
A week after completing just 48.7% of his passes during a loss to the Denver Broncos, Prescott had what McCarthy said might have been his best game of the season, throwing for 296 yards with two touchdown passes while rushing for another in a 43-3 win over the Atlanta Falcons.
“He’s not just a good quarterback,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said of Prescott. “He’s a good athletic quarterback. I think he’s a smart quarterback … and he can make you look bad. He can do all of the things that you need to do as a quarterback to be successful. I’m trying to find a weakness.”
With plenty of anticipation ahead of Sunday’s game, ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer take a look at the struggles each quarterback has had to overcome as well as the traits that make each special.
Mahomes: Mahomes is one of two voices in the Chiefs’ locker room that everyone listens to, with safety Tyrann Mathieu being the other. Last year the Chiefs made Mahomes the NFL’s highest-paid player with a 10-year, $450 million contract extension, and his leadership skills were not an insignificant factor in their decision to do so.
“One of the things we’ve seen in Patrick in his young NFL career is what a tremendous leader he is and how well he works with different groups of people,” Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt said.
Mahomes recently led the locker room effort to welcome wide receiver Josh Gordon, who had been suspended six times since the 2013 season (five for some form of substance abuse) and was returning to the NFL after a two-season absence.
“We’ll bring him into this family we’ve built with him in this locker room and try to get the best out of him, obviously on the field, but off the field as well,” Mahomes said. “We want him to succeed in life more than just on the field, so we’ll do the best we can in any way possible.”
Prescott: It’s well known how the Cowboys feel about Prescott. His leadership is his strongest quality. He gets guys to believe in him and believe in themselves. He does it through his work before practice, at practice and after practice.
“I thought off the field what Dak does so well is the relationships he has with every single person in that locker room and in that building,” White said last week. “That’s just kind of how he operates and that’s what I noticed firsthand and when I first got there to Dallas. Whether it’s obviously [Ezekiel Elliott] or starting receivers or the practice squad backup corner, he’s got a relationship with everybody and I try to emulate that, as well.”
Mahomes: He was excellent at the risk-reward balance in his first three seasons as a starter. His touchdown to interception ratio of almost 5-to-1 is evidence.
That changed this season. His 10 interceptions led the NFL through Week 8. Some were the result of bad luck but some were the result of Mahomes trying too hard to make a play.
The situation came to a head Week 9 against the Packers. With the Chiefs struggling to get any sizable gain, Mahomes bypassed an open tight end Travis Kelce in the middle of the field to try a deep shot to wide receiver Mecole Hardman. The pass wasn’t an interception but it was incomplete and a display of how Mahomes was having trouble taming his instincts to go for a big play at a time when a 15-yard gain would have been a victory.
Mahomes has talked multiple times this season about reviewing his decision-making process and making changes, but only recently have the results been showing. Mahomes hasn’t thrown an interception in two games, marking his longest such streak this season.
Prescott: He has been careful with the ball since arriving as a fourth-round pick in 2016. He had just four interceptions as a rookie and is on pace this season to have nine interceptions in 17 games. But it does not come at the expense of getting the ball down the field.
Prescott is averaging 8.2 yards per attempt, which would be the second-most of his career, and is completing 70.3% of his passes, which would be a career best. In eight starts, Prescott has 34 completions of at least 20 yards.
“With our design of plays I would put us in the more of an aggressive category,” McCarthy said. “We’re not a dink-and-dunk offense. The point I’m making with his completion percentage, I think it shows you the type of player he is and just the kind of year he is having. I think his decision-making as a whole has been excellent. The interception ratio is a little higher than you like … but I think he’s very smart with the football.”
Mahomes: He has a big arm and has proven it over and over. He heaved a touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill in a 2018 preseason game that travelled 69 yards in the air. He once threw a ball out of Arrowhead Stadium from the playing field while working out during the offseason. He has talked of having a throw-off with Buffalo’s Josh Allen, another strong-armed quarterback.
But Mahomes has found other ways of putting his strong arm to good use. He’s completed many throws while on the run and having to throw across his body. He uses a variety of arm slots to complete passes, including side-armed to avoid a pass-rusher who was in the traditional passing lane. He’s completed a couple of passes left-handed after switching the ball from his right hand to avoid a pass-rusher.
It’s difficult to imagine a quarterback more confident in his ability to make any necessary throw than Mahomes, and that confidence stems from the strength of his passing arm.
Prescott: When folks talk about Prescott, arm strength is usually not among the first qualities that is listed, but he has a strong arm and can make all of the necessary throws. In baseball parlance, he has a plus arm.
“Strong,” CeeDee Lamb said.
How strong? “He’s jammed a couple of fingers, for sure,” Lamb said of catching Prescott’s passes. “It’s not pleasant. You’ve got to get back up and run it. Is he going to hit the same finger? You never know. His arm strength is phenomenal.”
Where Prescott might differ from Mahomes is his strength comes from his mechanics. His throws come from the ground up. He has worked with former NFL quarterback Jon Beck and 3DQB for almost his entire career and their focus has been on getting his legs and hips in sync with the upper body. Prescott’s pregame warmup has become famous.
Louis Riddick shares his thoughts on what the Chiefs need to do defensively to neutralize the Cowboys.
Mahomes: He dealt with the first prolonged slump of his NFL career earlier this season. During a three-week stretch, Mahomes had a QBR of 23.7 with a long pass of just 25 yards. He forced a number of throws that went for interceptions.
A shoddy Kansas City defense (ranked 26th, allowing 373.2 yards per game) created additional pressure on the Chiefs’ offense and Mahomes. Opponents were scheming with a determined effort they hadn’t shown before to eliminate the deep ball.
Last week’s win over the Raiders was the breakthrough. The Chiefs had three passes of 30 yards or more. While the big play was back, Hill noted the big receiving game by running back Darrel Williams (9 catches for 101 yards) and said it was the shorter throws that made the offense work.
“Teams are [trying] to take the deep shots away from us and Pat has learned how to take what’s given to him, [like] checkdowns,” Hill said.
Prescott: A year ago at this time, Prescott was less than two months removed from surgery to repair a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle, hoping there would be no infection that could impact his rehab.
He was cleared for the offseason program but during the first week of training camp, he suffered a strained right latissimus that took him off the field for 10 practices and all of the preseason games. No matter, he still threw for 403 yards in the season opener against the reigning champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
On Oct. 17, he suffered a right calf strain that kept him out of the Cowboys’ Halloween meeting against the Minnesota Vikings. His return to action against Denver did not go well, but he looked like himself last week against the Falcons, completing 77% of his passes.
“I think it just came from practice and everything that I wanted to get back to working on, just getting tuned back in to my footwork, using my hips, just getting everything that therefore I knew the ball would be popping out of my hands,” Prescott said. “So there wasn’t necessarily a throw in the game but I know in pregame I felt good and I felt good about where I was and my body being synched in and I was able to get out there and get back to the player I believe I am.”
QB on QB
Mahomes: He said Prescott is one of the quarterbacks he watches on video and tries to take some parts of Prescott’s game and incorporate them into his own.
Mahomes, who grew up in Texas rooting for the Cowboys, won’t be a fan of the team on Sunday, but said he is a fan of Prescott’s.
“First off, he’s a tremendous leader,” Mahomes said. “You can see that even if you’re just watching as a fan. He’s been a starter in the league for a long time now. He’s athletic. You can see that by the way he played in college and he can make a lot of big-time throws. So they have a great offense over there and a great team over there so it will be a great challenge for us to go up against them this week.”
Prescott: What stands out to Prescott about Mahomes isn’t what you would think.
“His competitiveness. He never believes he’s out of the game, thinks he can make every throw,” Prescott said. “That’s huge at that position just to have that confidence. I think it goes a long way in bleeding to your other teammates. Those guys feeding off that as well. It’s huge. And he’s a big-time playmaker. He’s a great player. MVP, obviously, Super Bowl MVP. Special talent.”
He’s tried to learn from Mahomes over the years.
“[I] try to take some from all the great quarterbacks games,” Prescott said. “He’s somebody that when you’re on the move and all the passes he does, I think everyone tries to incorporate that.”
Even the no-look stuff?
“Have I tried it? Maybe a time or two,” he said. “A lot of times I catch my receivers off-guard with it, so I’m not that big of a fan of it.”