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5 plays that shaped the Cowboys’ season-ending playoff loss to the 49ers

And just like that, a once-promising Cowboys’ season is over.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Everyone was saying all week that the 49ers were a bad matchup for the Cowboys. That their run game was uniquely designed to exploit this overachieving defense. But the Cowboys talked all week about how they wouldn’t be bullied in their own house.

Well, that’s exactly what happened. The 49ers marched down the field with ease on the opening drive and scored a touchdown, and the Cowboys went three-and-out. Things never got better from there, even if Dallas made it close in the end. As is often the case in playoff games like this, there was a handful of plays that were huge in determining the outcome. The absurdity of the final two minutes - a booth review changing the spot of the ball, a 49ers false start, that QB draw play - all deserve their own separate columns. But these five plays were a big reason why all of that insanity even took place to begin with.

Cedrick Wilson can’t see the ball coming to him and Cowboys miss shot at a field goal

The 49ers got off to a hot start, jumping out to a 13-0 lead by the time the Cowboys scored their first touchdown of the day. Another field goal from San Francisco made it 16-7, but the Cowboys got the ball with three minutes left in the half. A score here would set them up to take the lead on their next drive, and Dallas got the ball to start the second half.

The offense, which seemed to be finding a rhythm in this game, started moving the ball well until - surprise - a penalty killed it all. A hold on La’el Collins backed them up, and on third and 20 Prescott tried to hit Cedrick Wilson on a curl route. Wilson was open, but his curl route in the middle of the field had him staring into the sun due to the strange way AT&T Stadium is constructed.

The pass fell incomplete, as it was obvious Wilson couldn’t even see the ball. Had he caught it, Dallas would have at least had a shot at attempting a field goal, and a 16-10 halftime deficit would put them a touchdown away from taking the lead. Instead, the Cowboys had to punt, and we’re left wondering if we should blame Jerry Jones for building a stadium that goes east and west or Kellen Moore for asking his receiver to run a route that has him looking directly into the sun. Why not both?

Dak Prescott and Cedrick Wilson can’t connect on a deep shot to start the third quarter

Not getting a score before the end of the first half was big. It took away their chance at a double-dip to take the lead, but also made that opening drive of the third quarter that much more important. They were down two scores, and desperately needed to score here.

Consecutive false starts seemed to kill the drive before it ever got started, but the 49ers ran into punter Bryan Anger, giving Dallas a second chance. Getting to about midfield and looking at second and 7, Dak Prescott took a shot deep in the middle of the field to Wilson.

The ball ended up being a little off, and Tony Romo wondered on the broadcast if there was miscommunication between the quarterback and receiver; that’s been a common theme all year for this offense. The play would have at least set Dallas up in field goal position, but instead it was another third and long. Unsurprisingly, that resulted in a punt.

Delay of game after a fake punt puts Cowboys behind the chains on a critical drive

For all of the grief that special teams coordinator John Fassel got leading up to this week, his unit played by far the best ball for the Cowboys in this one. That included Bryan Anger’s surprise pass to C.J. Goodwin to pick up 16 yards and a first down on fourth and five early in the fourth quarter.

Then Mike McCarthy and Fassel tried to pull off the trickeration that caused McCarthy to burn a timeout just three weeks ago against the Cardinals. The punt team stayed on the field and hurried up to the line, but Kyle Shanahan didn’t call a timeout. Then Dallas brought out their offense to run a play, but it took too long to get everything set.

It looked as if Prescott snapped the ball right as the play clock hit zero, which usually results in no penalty given the NFL’s antiquated method for judging delay of game penalties. But in a rare occasion, the flag was thrown this time and Dallas got a delay of game penalty. That made it impossible for the Cowboys’ struggling offense to convert a first down, and they ended up settling for a field goal. Greg Zuerlein, who was perfect on the day, banged it through for three points but this drive could have been much more if they got the ball snapped in time.

Cedrick Wilson trips on a huge fourth down attempt

I almost feel bad listing Cedrick Wilson on here three times. He’s arguably been Dallas’ most consistent receiver this year despite having to fill in for Michael Gallup in two different extended periods of time. But he was involved on several huge plays in this game. This may have been the biggest one.

Down 23-17 with just under two minutes left in the game, the Cowboys faced fourth and 11 at the 49ers’ 47-yard line. They had to go for it here. In a recurring theme all day, Prescott got flushed out of the pocket before he heaved up a prayer to an open Wilson that would have put them in the red zone.

However, as Wilson was trying to backpedal and turn to get into position for the floating ball, he got tripped up on his own feet and fell down. If he manages to stay upright, it’s likely a big catch for a first down. However, in a moment that pretty much epitomized the Cowboys of the last 25 years or so, they quite literally tripped over themselves to blow a shot at winning.

Randy Gregory’s defensive holding penalty gives up first down, kills the clock

Even after Wilson’s gut-punch of an incomplete pass, all hope was not lost. The Cowboys still had all three timeouts, and they could get the ball back with at least 90 seconds, if not more, with three consecutive stops against the 49ers. Things started off well, with Osa Odighizuwa stopping Elijah Mitchell for a one-yard gain on first down.

The 49ers’ second down play didn’t go well either, as Jayron Kearse stopped a Deebo Samuel outside run for no gain. The issue, however, was that Randy Gregory got called for defensive holding, the second time a Dallas defender was called for the unusual penalty in this game.

If not for the penalty, Dallas could have used their second timeout and made the 49ers attempt to convert a third and nine with a minute and 38 seconds left. A stop there, followed by burning their final timeout, would have given the ball back to Prescott and company with time to work with. Instead, Gregory’s penalty resulted in a first down. The Cowboys still got the ball back, sure, but with just 32 seconds remaining. They could have had a whole extra minute to work with if not for this penalty.