We all knew that it was going to be a battle for the Dallas Cowboys to head to the bay area and play the San Francisco 49ers. And a battle it was. While there weren’t a lot of points in this one, it was a back-and-forth contest that once again came down to the wire. Here are 10 thoughts on this disappointing season-ending loss for the Cowboys.
1. THE DEFENSE DID ALL THEY COULD
The Cowboys' defense was incredible to start the season, but they did start to show some warts as the season progressed. It was enough to give many of us pause about how they would handle a Kyle Shanahan 49ers offense. Well, they answered the call.
For most of the game, the defense kept the 49ers' offense from moving the ball. They would occasionally give up a play, but the great majority of the time, the defense was swarming and all over the 49ers. It was a tremendous performance. Yes, the levy did break when San Francisco scored their one and only touchdown in the fourth quarter, but you couldn’t ask for a better effort from this group.
2. DAK DIDN’T HAVE IT
It has been rough down the stretch for the Cowboys' star quarterback. After leading the league in interceptions (despite missing five games), the uncertainty of what we could see from Dak Prescott in the playoffs made some uneasy. But then last week in Tampa, Dak had one of the best games of his career, making us hopeful that a Dak run was coming.
Prescott was off in this one. He had some high throws, he had some overthrows, but the most costly were his two interceptions. Both were instances where Prescott just didn’t see the coverage and it allowed the 49ers’ defenders to jump the route. On a day when they need a great showing from Dak, it just wasn’t there.
3. LOSING POLLARD HURT
The Cowboys were delivered a huge blow late in the first half when a 49ers defender fell on Tony Pollard’s ankle causing the team’s top running back to leave the game. They only have a limited number of explosive playmakers, and just like that they were without one of them. In a game that ultimately ended up being so close, not having that extra juice that Pollard brings to the offense certainly proved costly.
Pollard’s injury was followed by Prescott’s second interception and that two-play sequence felt like it sucked the life out of the Cowboys’ offense.
4. NO GROUND ATTACK
Ever since the Cowboys lost their right tackle Terence Steele, the Cowboys' running game has taken a serious hit. And again on Sunday, it was a struggle for them to run the ball. Not counting the rushing yards from Prescott, the Cowboys rushed the ball 18 times for 54 yards for an average of three yards per carry. Even with some nice jumbo packages that included backup lineman Aviante Collins, the Cowboys just couldn’t get the ground attack going.
Fans should brace themselves for the likelihood that this was the last time we were going to see Ezekiel Elliott and Pollard on the field together as the team has some tough offseason decisions ahead of them.
5. IT’S ALL ON LAMB
While they lost Pollard and the running game was ineffective, the Cowboys made a concerted effort to get the ball into the hands of their only other explosive player, CeeDee Lamb. The Cowboys All-Pro wide receiver finished the game with 10 catches for 117 yards, including a 46-yard bomb where he made a great ball-tracking catch. Lamb has turned into a big playmaker for this Cowboys offense and if they were to go down, it was good to see that they went down trying to get everything they can from Lamb.
6. THE KICKING CONUNDRUM
It didn’t take long for Cowboys fans to feel uneasy about the Brett Maher situation as his first attempt was blocked. And, from what was explained in the replay, it didn’t look like it was going through the uprights anyway. That led to the Cowboys passing on a couple of field goal opportunities and going for it on fourth down. This included a 4th-and-4 at the 49ers' 35-yard line. The Cowboys converted on the play thanks to a Prescott nine-yard scramble, but the drive stalled two plays later on Dak’s second pick.
To Maher’s credit, he did come through in the second half with a 25-yard chip shot and a 43-yard field goal.
7. THE LEVY BREAKS
The Cowboys weren’t able to capitalize on the big passing play to Lamb, but at least it flipped the field. After a Cowboys punt, the 49ers started at their own nine-yard line. Unfortunately, San Francisco put together their best drive of the game. Starting with an incredible catch from George Kittle, everything started going right for the 49ers. Trevon Diggs had a deflected ball go right through his hands, Johnathan Hankins got flagged for defensive holding, and Donovan Wilson decided to up and tackle Kittle on what otherwise would have been a third-down stop. It was a collection of errors that resulted in San Fran scoring their only touchdown and going up 16-9 in the fourth quarter.
8. TURPIN WAS SO CLOSE!
Right after the 49ers' touchdown, the Cowboys were so close to answering with a touchdown of their own when kick returner KaVontae Turpin got loose in the open field. It looked like he was going to be off to the races, but for some reason turned inside instead of bouncing outside. He ended up just doing another one of his dolphin spins right into the body of 49ers kicker Robbie Gould and then fell to the ground. What?
There have been a handful of moments where Turpin was close to taking one to the house, but he always seems to run into somebody (in some cases his own man) that spoils his chances.
9. THE FLAGS ARE BACK
The Cowboys were one of the worst teams in the league in committing penalties after the first 12 weeks of the season. Then, they went on a stretch where they went five-straight games with four or fewer penalties. They had two last week against Tampa Bay.
Unfortunately, the flags came back on Sunday as Dallas was flagged for seven penalties in this game. The rookie Tyler Smith was the culprit early with both a holding penalty and a false start. They got a senseless late hit out-of-bounds penalty as well as costly defensive holding flags. They picked a bad time to get sloppy.
10. 27 YEARS AND COUNTING
Like a broken record, the Cowboys again can’t advance past the divisional round of the playoffs. A feat they haven’t achieved since 1995, many thought this year was going to be different. But it doesn’t matter, Mike McCarthy, Jason Garrett, Wade Phillips, Bill Parcells, or whomever, the Cowboys' luck always runs out before they can reach the conference championship.
It always makes us feel better to say the team will be back next year, but who really knows if that’s true? A new offseason with new faces in different places promises nothing to the Cowboys team in the future. Only time will tell if this Cowboys team will move forward, go backward, or continue their same nearly three-decade stretch of adequacy.