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Five plays that shaped the Cowboys’ season-ending loss to the Giants

Well, the playoffs are officially not happening for the Cowboys.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Cowboys entered Week 17 with a shot at the playoffs, but it didn’t come to fruition. After a slow start, the Cowboys were unable to complete the comeback and ended up with a 23-19 loss to the Giants. It snapped their three-game win streak and also extinguished any longshot hopes of making the playoffs.

It was a game filled with self-inflicted wounds, as Andy Dalton looked off for the whole first half and the defense kept inventing new ways to give the Giants first downs. Mike McCarthy even made a few questionable coaching decisions, all of which loomed large when the final whistle blew. Here are the five most crucial plays from the game.

Mike McCarthy doesn’t go for two, opts for extra point

Give some credit to this Cowboys coaching staff (before we tear into them in a bit) for their halftime adjustments. After struggling on both offense and defense, the Cowboys came out in the third quarter and found ways to move the ball, while their defense only allowed a field goal in the entire second half (more on that soon).

But when the Cowboys scored a touchdown on their second drive of the third quarter, it seemed like a rather obvious moment to go for two. A successful two-point conversion would have made the score 20-17, with Dallas needing just a field goal to tie it up. Instead, Mike McCarthy sent out the kick team for the extra point, and the Cowboys trailed by four instead of three.

After the Dallas defense forced another punt on the ensuing drive, the Cowboys got a field goal on their next offensive series, which would have knotted up the game had McCarthy gone for two and gotten it. This was a very curious decision from the head coach, who has been pretty good about knowing when to go for two this season.

Andy Dalton’s hand gets stepped on by 300 pound defensive tackle

After a really rough first half, the Red Rifle came alive in the second half and was starting to look like the guy who torched the Eagles just last week. After leading the Cowboys to a touchdown early in the third quarter, he had the offense driving again.

Facing a second and ten on the Giants 24-yard line, Dalton was forced to scramble with no receivers getting open. He ended up making a huge gain of 13 yards to bring the ball to the New York 11-yard line before sliding. During the slide, however, Dalton’s left hand got inadvertently stepped on by big Leonard Williams, cutting it open and forcing the quarterback to put a glove on his hand for the remainder of the game.

While it wasn’t on Dalton’s throwing hand, and the quarterback refused to blame his play on the injury after the game, there’s no doubt this was a turning point. For starters, Dalton had to hand the ball off to Ezekiel Elliott with his right hand because he couldn’t grip the ball with his left hand. Dalton’s rhythm also appeared to be off after this, and the pain from his hand certainly didn’t help.

Mike McCarthy doesn’t challenge Dante Pettis’ questionable catch

With the Cowboys down by one point (remember that decision not to go for two?) about halfway through the fourth quarter, the Giants were getting close to the endzone. A big sack from Donovan Wilson backed them up to third-and-16 on the Dallas 42.

That’s when Daniel Jones threw to a diving Dante Pettis, who hauled in the catch while going down, although he was six yards short. Still, it put the Giants in field goal range. Yet the replay showed what looked to be a bobble as Pettis went down, and the Fox broadcast crew expected McCarthy to throw the challenge flag. But he didn’t, and the Giants kicked a field goal to extend their lead to 23-19.

The general consensus is that McCarthy would have won that challenge, giving the Giants a fourth-and-16 and likely having to punt the ball. Given that the Cowboys moved the ball down to the Giants’ seven-yard line on the next drive, they easily could have kicked a game-winning field goal had the challenge flag been thrown. Instead, New York forced Dallas to score a touchdown in order to win. And that led to....

Andy Dalton throws a bad interception in the endzone

It’s hard to be overly critical of Dalton in this game. He played some really good football after not expecting to play much at all when he signed with the Cowboys this offseason, and overcame a bad first half to get the Cowboys back in it. He even had an incredible 11-yard scamper on an option keeper to convert a fourth-and-short on what ended up being the Cowboys’ final drive.

But unfortunately that big play was overshadowed by what Dalton did just six plays later. After getting to the seven-yard line, the offense was backed up to third-and-goal from the 17-yard line. It was obvious that Dallas would have to go for it on fourth down if they couldn’t score. However, after being flushed out to his left, Dalton threw up a prayer into the endzone for Dalton Schultz and it was predictably picked off.

The throw would have made slightly more sense if it were fourth down, but on third down and with at least one more play left in their pockets, this decision was just a really bad one. It was an unfortunate ending to what was a nice little story for the Red Rifle, but ultimately served as a stark reminder that the Cowboys need Dak Prescott back in the fold next year.

Wayne Gallman’s wild fumble recovery seals the deal

The interception in the endzone seemed like the nail in the coffin for the Cowboys, since the Giants offense took the field with just over a minute left in the game. However, Dallas had all three timeouts and could have theoretically gotten the ball back via a punt.

As it happened, they nearly got it back via fumble recovery. After Wayne Gallman effortlessly broke several tackles on second-and-five to break into the open field, he inexplicably fumbled the ball and a huge scrum ensued. That resulted in one referee ruling that Dallas recovered the ball while another ruled that Gallman himself had gotten the ball back. After a huddle, the refs officially ruled Gallman had recovered his own fumble, and the replay upheld that call.

It was a very confusing sequence of plays, and a Dallas recovery would have given Dalton and the offense one final shot at winning the game with just 40 yards to go for a game-winning touchdown. But it just wasn’t in the cards, and New York was able to take a knee and run out the clock.

Bye bye playoffs, hello draft season!