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Cowboys fall behind 49ers early, lose Wild Card game 23-17 in wild finish

The season ends on a very bitter note for the Cowboys.

NFL: NFC Wild Card Playoff-San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys
Dak faced relentless pressure.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

High hopes were dashed as the Dallas Cowboys lost their Wild Card matchup with the San Francisco 49ers by a 23-17 score. The Cowboys were playing for the right to go play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the Bucs dominated the Philadelphia Eagles in the early game today. But they were not able to overcome a relentless pass rush and their own mistakes, and now have to face a long offseason wondering what could have been.

Things got off to a horrible start for Dallas. After winning the toss and deferring, they didn’t even slow the 49ers down on the opening drive. It only took seven plays for the visitors to march 75 yards, capping things off with an Elijah Mitchell touchdown run. Then the Cowboys offense went backwards on their first possession, losing 13 yards on a tackle for loss of Ezekiel Elliott and a ten-yard sack of Dak Prescott by Nick Bosa.

The game had an uneasy feeling that it could rapidly get out of hand. San Francisco looked like it was rolling again, and to make matters worse Micah Parsons went out after a hard blow. Then Dorance Armstrong just completely blew up a screen pass for a loss of eleven yards. The 49ers would have to settle for a 53-yard field goal by Robbie Gould.

As has happened in so many games, penalties against the Cowboys were hurting them. On the ensuing kickoff, a big Tony Pollard return was called back on a hold called on Luke Gifford. The Cowboys got one first down, but then Connor Williams was flagged to kill a first down. A missed throw from Cedrick Wilson on a hook and lateral stopped things and they had to punt. Bryan Anger got off a boomer to the San Francisco 22.

Fortunately, Parsons came back in. Unfortunately, the Cowboys kept drawing flags, this time the second offsides of the game called on Randy Gregory to gift the Niners a first down. They would get to the Cowboys 22, but facing a fourth and one, Kyle Shanahan elected to take the points with a 40-yard Gould kick.

It was now 13-0 with 9:40 left in the first half, and the Cowboys had done nothing. They had to get on track, or the hole would be too deep for them to dig out of. Elliott and Pollard started to find something on the ground, then Wilson took a short pass for 19 yards to the SF 25. Then on a third and six, Prescott dropped a perfect pass to Amari Cooper for a 20-yard touchdown, cutting the deficit to six points.

The 49ers would score on their fourth consecutive possession, but again the defense was able to hold them to another long field goal from Gould. That left the Cowboys with 3:03 and all their timeouts to try and eat into the San Francisco lead again.

They would fail, partly due to a hold called against La’el Collins. But on that play, Bosa was hit hard in the head by one of his teammates, and would later be ruled out for the game.

It was a rough first half for Dallas, who ended it trailing 16-7. The Niners gained 203 yards to 110 for Dallas. Their running game accounted for 70 of the yards for San Francisco, but due to some tackles for a loss they were only averaging 3.7 yards a carry, which was not the dominating performance the network analysts made it out to be at the half. The 19:16 to 10:44 edge they held in time of possession was more significant. It reflected the struggles the Cowboys were having on both sides of the line. They failed to sustain their own drives, and did not force a single punt by their opponent.

The Cowboys could have done themselves a lot of good with a drive to open the second half, but it looked like that was snuffed out after two consecutive false starts led to a fourth and fourteen. But then the 49ers, who had only been flagged once in the first half, made a big mistake and were called for roughing the kicker against Anger. That got the Cowboys a first down at their own 30. A couple of Elliott runs got them to the 42. The dodged a bullet on a deep ball that could have been intercepted, but were unable to convert.

Then one of the strange things about the design of AT&T Stadium (the other being building it so the sun shines in the ends of the stadium) happened and Anger bounced a punt off the big overhead screen. By rule, it was a do-over, something that seems ridiculous to even say. The second kick was fair caught at the seven-yard line.

it looked like the 49ers would come out strong, but they were the victim of a holding call that negated a first down. Then Parsons returned the favor a bit by mistiming things trying to get a jump. A couple of plays later, Jimmy Garoppolo would hit Jauan Jennings to get the ball out to the 25. But the defense finally forced a punt.

It didn’t do them any good. After getting a first down, a holding call pushed them back ten, then Prescott was sacked to make it second and 28. Then disaster struck as a bad throw under pressure was picked off by K’Waun Williams. All Garoppolo had to do was hand it off to Deebo Samuel, who dashed all the way into the end zone. It was now 23-7 with 5:50 left in the third quarter, and that hole was looking awfully deep.

Time was growing short, and the Cowboys were forced to go to the pass to try and catch up in a hurry. That meant that the San Francisco pass rush was able to pin their ears back and put relentless pressure on Prescott, who was not making many good throws when they came. They got nowhere on the next series and fourth and two at their own 23 was too much of a risk even for Mike McCarthy. Anger punted it to the 49ers nine-yard line. Shanahan probably should have just leaned on his running game to grind out yards and first downs while using up the clock, but he started calling passes. As a result Dallas got the ball back at their own 30 with a little time left in the third.

However, it became clear that Prescott was holding on to the ball too long to let his receivers get open for chunk plays, getting sacked and nearly loosing the ball. CeeDee Lamb then contributed to the rain of yellow laundry with an illegal shift, setting up a second and 25. It was looking increasingly hopeless, but Prescott ripped a pass to Wilson for 24, and Elliott got them a fresh set of downs as the third quarter ran down.

The Cowboys still faced a 16-point deficit with just a quarter left to play. They couldn’t move the ball and faced fourth and five, and needed something to happen. That came courtesy of a fake punt, with Anger hitting C.J. Goodwin for 16 yards. The next set of downs, however, went badly, starting with a delay of game as trying to get too cute with swapping personnel went wrong. Faced with a fourth and seven, they sent Greg Zuerlein out for a 51-yard field goal attempt. He got this one inside the uprights, and now Dallas trailed 23-10 with 11:53 to go, and needing to score two unanswered touchdowns to take the lead.

Then the thing the Cowboys have been living on all season showed up as Anthony Brown nabbed a bad pass from Garoppolo to set his offense up at the SF 28. Back-to-back passes to Cooper and then CeeDee Lamb, his first reception on a forward pass of the game, got them to the seven yard line. Fred Warner rolled an ankle on the next play. The Cowboys would face a third and goal from the five, and then we got a dose of vintage Prescott as he rolled left and saw nothing but green between him and the goal line. With Zuerlein making the extra point, it was suddenly a six point game - and with 8:02 left, Dallas was very much alive.

The Cowboys almost got the ball back, but an illegal hands to the face on Neville Gallimore kept the drive alive. It was just another in a series of foolish mistakes that show a real problem with focus for the team. There weren’t many in this game that were very questionable. Three plays later, though, Leighton Vander Esch made a great tackle to get them to fourth and one. Shanahan tried to get Dallas to come offsides, but instead a delay of game moved things back five. Then a false start moved it back even more. The resulting punt set the Cowboys up at their own 16.

Prescott would find Schultz, who has become his favorite target, for a 38-yard gain to the SF 46. But three misfires on passing plays would set up fourth and eleven. The 49ers would come with the house, and Dak would just miss a stumbling Cedrick Wilson deep in the red zone. It turned the ball over on downs. And the last chance was killed by the second defensive holding call of the game, on Randy Gregory. He had already been hit twice for offsides.

It was almost cruel how the final seconds ran off the clock, as a mistake on a fourth and inches led to a San Francisco punt. It gave the Cowboys the ball at their own 20 with 32 seconds left. And in a puzzling move, the final gasp was exhaled when Kellen Moore called a Prescott keeper up the middle, and he went just too far to get the ball set to clock it. It was the final mistake in a game for Dallas that was defined by them.

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