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5 plays that shaped the Cowboys’ disappointing loss to the 49ers

These five plays were emblematic of the Cowboys struggles against the 49ers.

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Well, the Cowboys can now make it two straight seasons they’ve been eliminated from the playoffs by the 49ers. After looking like the better team through much of the first half, Dallas seemingly faded down the stretch and found themselves needing to do too much with too little time.

In many ways, this game unfolded just like last year’s matchup, making it all the more frustrating. There were plenty of big moments throughout this game, but these five plays loomed large when the clock hit zero.

Tony Pollard gets hurt, is out for the game

Believe it or not, the Cowboys absolutely looked like the better team for much of that first half. The offense was moving the ball well, and the defense was stifling the 49ers. Hope was beginning to become very real.

San Francisco had just tied the game 6-6, and Dallas had a chance for points before halftime. After Dak Prescott scrambled for a first down down on a big fourth down, he threw a routine pass to Tony Pollard. The shifty running back picked up eight yards on first down.

However, Pollard’s ankle was rolled up on, and he had to come out of the game. Shortly thereafter, Pollard was carted to the locker room and ruled out. The Cowboys offense didn’t score a touchdown from there on, and noticeably lacked much of any explosion going forward.

Dak Prescott’s second interception lets 49ers take the lead right before halftime

Losing Pollard was bad enough, but in typical Cowboys tradition, they added insult to injury. Pollard’s catch had set up second and two at the 49ers 18-yard line. A touchdown would’ve been huge, with the Cowboys getting the ball to start the third quarter, but they were at least in field goal range.

Naturally, this is when Prescott threw his second interception of the day. He fired a shot to CeeDee Lamb, but it was jumped by Jimmie Ward. Prescott put so much on it that it bounced off of Ward, but linebacker Fred Warner was right there to pick it off and return the ball for 16 yards.

The 49ers then engineered an eight-play drive to kick a field goal right before halftime, giving them the lead. Dallas had maneuvered itself into position to potentially go up 13-6, but just like that they were down 9-6 and had lost their best running back for the night. When it rains, it pours.

Dak Prescott doesn’t see wide open T.Y. Hilton on third down

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Dak Prescott had an awful game. It may not have been as bad - or even close - to his Week 18 performance, but Prescott served up a stinker in the biggest game of the year.

That was evident on his third drive of the second half. Dallas had tied it up 9-9, and a three-and-out from San Francisco gave the Cowboys an opportunity to take the lead. A big play from CeeDee Lamb got them to midfield, and on third and five, Prescott looked for another big play to Lamb down the seam. However, it fell incomplete due to smothering coverage from linebacker Fred Warner.

The issue, though, is that T.Y. Hilton had come wide open on a seam route of his own. Had Prescott seen him, it would’ve been an easy first down and probably a touchdown. They were in the same area of the field, too, so it’s not as if Prescott would be hard-pressed to notice the wide open receiver. Instead, the Cowboys punted.

Trevon Diggs drops interception deep in Dallas territory

Immediately after the Cowboys punted, the 49ers ripped off a 10-play, 91-yard touchdown drive to retake the lead. It was the first time the Dallas defense actually looked bad, and they were bullied the full length of the field. But it very nearly ended a different way.

On second and eight from the Dallas 20, Brock Purdy threw a short pass to Brandon Aiyuk. It never got to him because Anthony Barr jumped up and tipped the ball right into the hands of Trevon Diggs. Somehow, though, Diggs failed to secure the ball, and it fell incomplete.

On the very next play, a sack got erased by a defensive holding call before another one erased a run stuff on the ensuing play. After those consecutive penalties, the 49ers took two more plays to score a touchdown. But it all could’ve been avoided if Diggs does the thing he’s best at.

Dalton Schultz makes two crucial mistakes on final drive

At the end of the day, the Cowboys’ best players just didn’t step up when they needed to. Prescott played poorly, Diggs dropped an easy pick, and Dalton Schultz - one of the most high IQ players on the team - had two mental errors on the Cowboys’ final drive of the game.

The first was when Schultz allowed himself to be pushed backwards going out of bounds, thus keeping the clock running and eating up 19 seconds before the next play could be run. Two plays later, Schultz made a sideline catch near midfield but failed to drag his second foot, thus rendering it an incompletion.

Schultz needed a big year, playing this season on the franchise tag, and the Cowboys turned to him in crunch time. Twice he made crucial mistakes that cost them both time and yards. It’s the little things that separate good teams from great teams, and it’s been a long time since the Cowboys succeeded at the little things. Sunday night was no different.

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