TAMPA — Dak Prescott strode through the double doors of the concrete antechamber, waiting patiently in the corner with his luggage.

He had just thrown for 403 yards and three touchdowns at Raymond James Stadium, his Cowboys falling 31-29 to the Buccaneers in a match more competitive than many expected.

Prescott had then exchanged a hug and words with Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, bidding the seven-time Super Bowl champion farewell with the bold proclamation that “We’ll see y’all again.”

Now, with his bleeding finger bandaged and his uniform swapped for the fresh white Cowboys T-shirt he’d wear on the charter home, Prescott awaited the conclusion of receiver Amari Cooper’s moments at the podium.

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Cooper did not glance back to discover his quarterback had arrived. The receiver instead forged on, sharing the message he gave his entire receiving corps earlier this week when he insisted: “We’re good. We’re not great.” Prescott had challenged Cooper in the huddle.

“(Prescott) said, ‘No, we’re not trying to be great—we’re trying to be the best,’” Cooper recalled after a 13-catch night. “ ‘Because there are great teams every year that don’t win it all.’ And that really stood out to me. So I’ve changed that. We’re not trying to be a good receiving corps, we’re not trying to be a good team, we’re not trying to be great either.

“We’re trying to be the best.”

The Cowboys were not the best on Thursday night as they scared the Buccaneers but fell short. A high-powered offense? Prescott found Cooper for 139 yards and second-year wideout CeeDee Lamb for 104 more, completing passes to eight targets in total. A defense that had blared about takeaways? Dallas stole four from the Buccaneers but also allowed Brady 10 plays of at least 15 yards, culminating with a 20-yard completion to tight end Rob Gronkowski and a 24-yard clutch delivery to receiver Chris Godwin in Tampa Bay’s game-winning drive.

The Cowboys flashed talent. They valued how they fought. And they led the defending Super Bowl champions on the road in the final 2 minutes of the game.

But those feats were not ultimately their goal.

“You could be great and come up short,” Prescott said. “I feel like that’s what tonight was. It was a great effort, but we came up short and we (want) to be the best.

“That’s the expectations we have, and we’re all going to hold each other to that.”

Lest one doubt Prescott’s determination to hold teammates accountable, the sixth-year Cowboys quarterback demonstrated in the NFL season opener that he had epitomized accountability in his offseason.

Prescott took the field Thursday after a 333-day, injury-mandated hiatus. He revealed no signs of the Oct. 11 compound fracture and dislocation of his ankle that prompted two surgeries nor the latissimus strain hampering his throwing shoulder that set him back four weeks in training camp. Instead, Prescott embraced the whopping 58 pass attempts – tying a career high – he heaved on a day when the Cowboys’ run game was no match for the Buccaneers’ front. The quarterback ran four times for 13 yards, taking off on one scramble immediately succeeding the lone sack he took. Prescott did not flinch as defenders swarmed nor as he took six hits, despite the lengthy stretch that had passed since he last was shoved or tackled. And he even hid from officials a bleeding hand that had lost skin, holding out hope trainers would bandage it before the refs sidelined him even a snap.

Prescott expressed gratitude for his health but also borderline nonchalance about the poise with which he completed 72% of passes under immense pressure and the precision with which he found his teammates in traffic.

Showing he’s healthy really doesn’t feel different than when he had said so?

“No, I don’t feel like I say things just to say them, so that’s just a credit to all the work I put in,” Prescott said. “When you invest that much work and rehab and prehab and everything that’s gone into the last 11 months for me to get back onto the field, you’re not surprised about the way I went out there, fought, ran the ball a couple times and did things I’d normally do 11 months ago.

“I feel like I’m a better player than I was when I left the field, and I told y’all that was the expectations I had for myself. I’ll continue to try to get better game in and game out.”

Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys carries the ball during the second quarter against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on September 09, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.

Prescott’s teammates shared his arrogance-free confidence, Cooper and running back Ezekiel Elliott among those who dismissed any notion that the quarterback’s performance impressed them.

“To say I’m impressed would mean that I didn’t expect him to do it,” said Cooper, who chooses his words as precisely as he runs his routes. “So, I wasn’t really impressed.”

Added head coach Mike McCarthy: “This is who he is.”

Prescott, meanwhile, sent a message to teammates and fans via his postgame remark to Brady. Whether back in Tampa surrounded by Super Bowl champion banners or at the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, Prescott envisions the chance to ruin the Bucs’ repeat bid in the playoffs.

“I told everyone we’d see them again,” Prescott said. “That’s just the confidence I have in this group. The expectations I have is this is a playoff team that’s going to make a big push this year. We’ll continue to get better and make a step from tonight. Find a way to get better tomorrow.

“I’m excited about this season.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

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Kay Adams