ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --In a seesaw affair that turned into a frantic sprint by afternoon's end – with 99 total points on the scoreboard, 1,039 yards of total offense, 12 touchdowns and just a single punt – the decisive play of Sunday's thrilling showdown between the Broncos and Cowboys ultimately came down to the toe of a kicker.
Fortunately for the Broncos, Matt Prater's heroics in the clutch are alive and well.
Prater hit a 28-yard field goal as time expired to provide the definitive score in Denver's 51-48 win over the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium – and while Prater is certainly no stranger to game-winning kicks, his late-game heroics hadn't been required in nearly 22 months.
Prater kicked four game-winning field goals in 2011, which tied for the second-best single season mark in NFL history. His 59-yard field goal to force overtime and 51-yard game-winning field goal in overtime of Denver's 13-10 win over the Bears on Dec. 11, 2011 still resound in Broncos lore.
In the time since he made those kicks, however, Prater's services hadn't been needed in the clutch – in large part due to a 15-game streak of Broncos regular season victories of 7 points or more, a streak that came to an end against the Cowboys.
But when the Broncos called on him on Sunday, Prater was pure, hitting all three of his field goal attempts – all in the second half – including the game winner.
"I go in expecting to make them all," Prater said after the game. "I always have confidence in Britton (Colquitt) and Aaron (Brewer) doing their jobs, because we've all got to work together to be successful. It makes it a lot easier for me, having them."
While Prater's final kick of the day will surely be the enduring one, his other two field goals – and his six extra points – were all equally as important to the final outcome. Prater's 48-yard kick late in the third quarter gave the Broncos a 38-27 lead. When the Cowboys dramatically swung the momentum and seized a 41-38 lead early in the fourth quarter, Prater's 50-yard response with 9:37 remaining calmly knotted the score again, as did his extra point with 2:39 to play, tying the game at 48.
"I like just winning," he said. "Whether or not we're up by a few scores going into the fourth quarter, they're all important kicks. But those ones you especially want to come through on."
And it's performances like Sunday that provide reminders of why Prater's teammates believe in him so much with the game on the line – even when it's been almost two years.
"We've got a lot of faith," wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said. "He's our starting kicker, so that's what he does. That's what he does every day. Got to have all faith in him."
Thomas Erupts, Welker Continues to Score
Tight end Julius Thomas certainly picked the right game for the most prolific performance of his young career.
Thomas set career highs by hauling in nine receptions for 122 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Cowboys, and his 8-yard catch with 1:45 remaining moved the Broncos to the Dallas 2-yard line, allowing Denver to convert a critical third down on the next play and effectively run out the clock before Prater's field goal.
While this is Thomas' first season as a starter, the third-year pro has erupted for 359 yards and six touchdowns – the most by a Broncos tight end since Shannon Sharpe's eight scores in 2003. And against the Cowboys, Head Coach John Fox noted that Thomas helped pose a mismatch against the Dallas defense that Manning utilized to open up the middle of the field.
"I think our staff and players do a great job with play design and whatnot," Fox said. "Some of those are just relative to what kind of coverage they're playing. Zone, man, split safety, middle of the field closed. Those types of reads. Peyton does a great job of deciphering who should be open on those route concepts and he did a great job."
Thomas' teammate, wide receiver Wes Welker, also remained red hot.
Welker's 2-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter was his seventh of the season – he's now caught one in all five of his regular season games in a Broncos uniform.
"Everybody is going to be an option on every single play – running back tight end, wide receivers and everybody just making plays and doing their job," Welker said. "That's really what it comes down to at the end of games, everybody' just doing their job to the best of their ability."
Broncos Fans Turn Out in Texas
While the deafening roar of AT&T Stadium was yet another factor that Denver had to navigate, the Broncos were surprised to hear a large contingent of their own fans out in full voice.
"Everybody is against you, although I'll say there was a lot of orange in that stadium," Fox said. "I was a little bit surprised by that but that's a tribute to our fans and how we travel."
Manning noted that, even with the support of Broncos fans, the environment at the stadium made for a stern challenge.
"It's a heck of a stadium. I will say that. Certainly, a lot of Broncos fans there, but it was loud, a tough place to play," Manning said. "Cowboys fans were rocking, especially early in the game when they were up 14-0. And then there at the end when they took the lead. It's a tough place to play."
Picking up the win in the hostile environment – even with Broncos fans doing their best to make it feel like home – was the ultimate takeaway for Fox and his team.
"It's tough to win in this league on the road. Very tough," Fox said. "We've gotten to 2-0 on the road and we count our blessings."