- Associated Press - Monday, December 12, 2016

FRISCO, Texas (AP) - By the time rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys take the field for another Sunday night game, they’ll be facing a serious challenge either for the NFC East lead or the conference’s No. 1 seed.

Lose at home to Tampa Bay, and that franchise-record 11-game winning streak will be little more than a distant memory. That’s how quickly the script changed on a rough night for Prescott at the New York Giants, and another loss to the only team that has beaten Dallas this season.

The Giants hold the tiebreaker thanks to their sweep of the Cowboys (11-2) and can get within a game in the division if they beat Detroit and Dallas loses to the Buccaneers (8-5). If the Lions win, they’ll be a game back for the best record in the NFC with a visit to the Cowboys coming next.

“I think I’m anxious to see our team get back in there,” tight end Jason Witten said after a 10-7 loss to the Giants. “I know we are all jumping at the bit to bounce back, answer the bell, so to speak. I think the message is simple. It’s December, we’re 11-2, and we’ve got ourselves in a good position.”

Prescott is coming off the worst game of a mostly spectacular debut season, and one of the NFL’s best offenses on third downs has suddenly turned into one of the worst. The Cowboys are a combined 2 of 24 on third downs the past two games after converting just once in 15 tries at New York.

Dallas escaped with a 17-15 win despite the third-down struggles at Minnesota, when Prescott threw for a season-low 139 yards. The 23-year-old hasn’t hit the 200-yard mark in three games after getting there in each of the first 10.

The biggest concern is that Prescott doubled his season total in interceptions with two, including a forced throw into double coverage on a deep ball to Dez Bryant. Coach Jason Garrett’s answer didn’t change overnight when the topic turned to 10-year starter Tony Romo, now the backup because of Prescott’s scintillating start.

“You can make it as simple or complex as you want to make it,” Garrett said Monday. “It’s pretty simple for us. Dak’s going to play quarterback as we go forward.”

While Prescott failed his first December road test on a division rival’s cold field, he gets two chances in his climate-controlled stadium to keep the Cowboys in control of their path to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Beat Tampa Bay and Detroit, and another potentially bone-chilling trip, the regular-season finale at Philadelphia, won’t matter.

“He’s a tough guy, he’s a pro,” fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher, said of Prescott. “He is going to get in that film room, take notes. He is going to listen to what coach tells him to do and take it the field next week and be prepared next Sunday.”

Bryant had just one catch in each game against the Giants, and a fumble after the one at the Meadowlands ended Dallas’ last realistic chance to come back. The 2014 All-Pro had a wistful look after his critical mistake, not the scowl he showed so often on the sideline earlier in his career.

“When things don’t work, we still have the same mindset,” Bryant said. “We just keep on pushing and keep on pushing. We don’t think too big, and we don’t think too small. We just play our game.”

The Cowboys are playing with a smaller margin for error - for now.

NOTES: Garrett said the Cowboys planned to active RB Darren McFadden from the non-football injury list this week. The coach wouldn’t say what role his leading rusher from last season would have. … LB Jaylon Smith, the second-round pick taken after a serious knee injury in a bowl game at Notre Dame, will be placed on season-ending injured reserve, Garrett said. On the night he was drafted, it was considered unlikely Smith would play during his rookie season.

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For more NFL coverage: https://www.pro32.ap.org and https://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler


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