Perhaps the Cowboys didn’t deserve for their season to end with that much agony, but the loss did seem fitting. After three quarters of lifeless offensive play and self-sabotage, Dallas had a chance to pull off a 16-point fourth-quarter comeback. Instead, more errors led to time running out in a bizarre ending worthy of a team that battled poor discipline all season long. The Cowboys lost to the 49ers 23-17 in Sunday’s wild-card matchup, starting the clock on another offseason full of questions surrounding Mike McCarthy’s tenure.
Late-game tears nearly proved to be premature. Dallas’s defense forced a San Francisco punt with under a minute left. Dak Prescott drove the Cowboys into Niners territory with 14 seconds left when Kyle Shanahan’s side called timeout. Out of the break, Prescott stunningly burst up the middle for a 17-yard carry before sliding at San Francisco’s 24.
Holding no timeouts and as the clock ran with 10 seconds left, the Dallas offense scrambled to get set, spike the ball, and give Prescott one last throw to the end zone. But because they were rushing, Prescott spiked the ball after the clock had expired.
“This is going to sting for a really long time,” McCarthy told reporters.
The Cowboys were fortunate to finish Sunday’s contest with a chance. In the postseason, specific matchups can swing games, and some of my colleagues tabbed 49ers-Cowboys as the best wild-card game because of the chess match between San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan and Dallas’s Dan Quinn. As The Ringer’s Steven Ruiz beautifully detailed last week, Shanahan is a central player in what’s become a diverse offensive landscape. Quinn’s defense has been among the best in generating big plays of its own. For a majority of the game, Shanahan’s side won the battle. The Niners built a 16-7 halftime lead—and that margin should have been bigger. The Niners increased it to a 23-7 lead in the third quarter when Deebo Samuel scored on a 26-yard run on the first play after a Prescott interception.
The problem for Dallas on Sunday was that its offense, which sputtered throughout the second half of the season, never found a rhythm. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s unit is as multidimensional as they come, but it had no answers for San Francisco’s pass rush, which generated five sacks and 14 QB hits. Even after Nick Bosa left the game with a concussion, defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans’s group suffocated Prescott in the pocket and constricted Dallas’s running game (21 team carries for 77 yards; 3.7 yards per carry). The game was won and lost in the trenches.
Much credit is owed to the 49ers, but just as much blame can be placed on the Cowboys for their sloppy play. Dallas committed 14 penalties for 89 yards, including nine on offense. Too often the Cowboys offense undercut its own progress, which was the trend for the unit during the year. According to RBSDM.com, the Cowboys ranked sixth in offensive EPA per play (0.101) from weeks 1 through 10, but from weeks 11 through 17 (we’re excluding the beatdown of the Eagles’ backups in Week 18), the Cowboys offense was tied for 15th (minus-0.004) in that metric. At times in this contest the Cowboys’ own stadium was against them; a Bryan Anger punt hit the giant Jumbotron and Cedrick Wilson Jr. missed a catch because of the sun streaming through AT&T Stadium’s windows.
But the Cowboys’ mismanagement kept spoiling any opportunity they had to complete their comeback. Trailing 23-10 early in the fourth quarter, Dallas executed a fake-punt pass to convert a fourth-and-5. Then a bizarre pre-snap shuffling resulted in a delay-of-game penalty. Three plays later, the Cowboys had to settle for a 51-yard field goal.
McCarthy is not the play-caller, but he is the head coach. Fourteen penalties in a postseason game, at home, is a mark against him. And Moore is largely responsible for the Cowboys’ listless offensive performance. Quinn’s defense might have struggled early, but it kept the game within reach. Ultimately, Sunday’s defeat was a microcosm of both the bigger issues that haunted Dallas during the season and the bigger concerns that will loom over the next few months.
Dallas will be forced to make some changes this offseason. Moore and Quinn could both leave for head-coaching opportunities. There are several key free agents whose futures will need to be evaluated. And the big, overarching question remaining for Dallas will hang over the offseason: How do the Cowboys get over the proverbial hump?
“The hump is advancing in the playoffs,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters. “There’s been some good quarterbacks that haven’t advanced in the playoffs. I’m just sick [that] we’re one of them. Really sick. I’m surprised and sick.”
Dallas had the makings of a Super Bowl contender. When the Cowboys, boasting one of the league’s most impressive offenses along with a trove of defensive playmakers, started 6-1, many began to see what Jones had envisioned before the season started. That summer optimism is now all but exhausted. This season, the Cowboys made the playoffs for the first time since 2018. But the franchise hasn’t advanced beyond the divisional round since 1995. McCarthy, a onetime Super Bowl head coach, was brought in to help Dallas get closer to its Super Bowl goals. In two seasons, the club has fallen well short.
“We definitely underachieved, and it sucks,” Prescott told reporters. “Point blank.”