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With weight of the Dallas Cowboys on his shoulders, will Dak Prescott meet Super Bowl expectations?

The mission of the $160-million man is to carry the hopes of an owner and fan base hungry for a title.

Dak Prescott knows the assignment.

The Cowboys quarterback agreed to it when he signed the largest contract in franchise history.

The mission of the $160 million man is to carry the expectations of an owner and a fan base hungry for a Super Bowl title.

Prescott has a sense of calmness, but he needs broad shoulders to lift the Cowboys on a deep playoff run. The journey starts Sunday against San Francisco in an NFC wild-card game.

“Dak’s got pressure to be good and to get this team to the Super Bowl,” said former NFL coach Steve Mariucci, who now is an analyst for NFL Network. “Gosh, they haven’t been there since ‘95 so there’s a lot of weight on his shoulders. There’s high expectations on that team but especially that position.”

You could say it’s unfair to place the pressure of a Super Bowl run on one man, but that’s the deal for every Cowboys quarterback.

It started in the late 1960s when Don Meredith couldn’t get the Cowboys an NFL championship, losing to the Green Bay Packers in the 1966 and 1967 seasons.

Roger Staubach had to fight off Craig Morton for the starting quarterback job in the early 1970s, but once he claimed the gig he also needed to prove he could win a title. Staubach led the Cowboys to their first title in Super Bowl VI and won another before handing the torch to Danny White.

White went to three consecutive NFC Championship Games but couldn’t reach the big stage. The expectations of fulfilling Staubach’s legacy, despite an outstanding career, went unmet.

Troy Aikman took over the role and delivered. He won three Super Bowl titles as the Cowboys became the team of the 1990s.

It’s taken years for the Cowboys to find another quarterback worthy of pushing the franchise to deep playoff runs.

Tony Romo became the full-time starter in 2006, but he’s remembered more for the fumbled snap on a late field goal attempt in an NFC wild-card game at Seattle and getting knocked out in the divisional round when the Cowboys were the No. 1 seed in 2007. Romo also was the quarterback for the “Dez Caught It” game in 2014, when the Cowboys lost to the Packers in an NFC divisional playoff after an apparent late fourth-quarter catch by Dez Bryant was overturned on a replay challenge, incidentally initiated by now-Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy.

Now it’s Prescott’s chance to push the Cowboys to the big stage.

How he handles the pressures will tell everything.

“Well, how you handle it is winning,” said Norv Turner, the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator during two of Aikman’s title runs. “I know the thoughts. I was there, we won a lot of games. So it takes care of a lot of those, those issues. But your expectations are so high that if you do lose a game along the way, it puts you more in a microscope.”

In six NFL seasons, Prescott is 1-2 in the postseason, but his teams have failed to reach the playoffs the past two seasons. Last season, Prescott suffered a fractured ankle in a Week 5 victory over the New York Giants and entered the offseason without a long-term deal.

The Cowboys and Prescott reached a deal in March on a four-year, $160 million contract, which also paid him an NFL-high $75 million for the 2021 season. From that moment, expectations have been sky high because of the contract coupled with owner Jerry Jones’ expectations after paying it.

Prescott started 2021 off fast, leading the Cowboys to a 5-1 start. He injured his calf on the last throw in an overtime victory at New England, then everything changed. Once in the MVP conversation, Prescott was now being questioned for a midseason slump and if he was truly healthy.

Prescott dismissed the slump talk, going on a three-game stretch (Weeks 14-16) in which he completed 67.8% of his passes, with six touchdowns and two interceptions.

He played without many of his playmakers because of injury or illness, including Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup and Tyron Smith. Starting running back Ezekiel Elliott has dealt with a nicked-up knee since October, and change-of-pace back Tony Pollard will participate in the playoffs with a torn plantar fascia.

But Prescott is not one to make excuses. He continued to push the replacement starters, hopeful for success. He’s not a player to hide from the expectations.

“I mean I do what I normally do,” he said. “I don’t necessarily know why people have labeled the word pressure as such a bad thing, honestly.

“I think it creates high expectations and high standards and they usually create high results, so for me it’s just about being who I am, staying true to that, knowing who I am, preparing the same way that I have, and that I do trust in the people around me, trust in my play-callers and my preparation. Then just going out there and playing the game that I love without any hesitation.”

The contract raises the stakes for Prescott. You don’t pay a player more than anyone else in franchise history just to reach the divisional round of the postseason.

The NFL is a team game, but having a quarterback morph to elite status can change everything. You don’t think Aaron Rodgers is a difference-maker for the Packers? Patrick Mahomes? Tom Brady?

These are quarterbacks with Super Bowl rings who are in the tournament. Prescott has lost to Mahomes and Brady this season. To win a ring he might have to play them again at some point in the postseason.

“As the leader of this team as the quarterback, I understand my obligations. It’s as simple as that,” Prescott said. “People can put as much pressure as they want on it. I hold myself to high standards and high expectations, and I plan to go out there and fulfill everything that I want.”

Find more Cowboys coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

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