Here we are again. Heading into an offseason with an unfulfilled feeling that comes from the Dallas Cowboys dropping a playoff game that was easily winnable. Another failed opportunity to reach an NFC Conference Championship game, 27 years running.
The Cowboys have no one to blame but themselves for the loss. Time and time again, they made the kind of errors that contribute to a loss in a close game. This is no discredit to the San Francisco 49ers, they did the opposite of what the Cowboys did. They took advantage of a winnable game and closed the deal. That’s what the elite teams do.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, showed once again they are not elite. They are a very good team that is inconsistent. They have a habit of folding in the big games. They have a habit of making the little mistakes, and the big ones, that lose games.
There were smaller moments that were symbolic of the Cowboys futility. Trevon Diggs’ inability to hold on to an interception that would have changed the momentum. Donovan Wilson getting a holding penalty that nullified a third-down stop that would have led to a field goal instead of an eventual touchdown. Brett Maher missing another extra point. Dalton Schultz failing to drive forward on an out-of-bounds play on the final drive, and his failure to toe-tap later on that same drive.
But there were three big things that led to the Cowboys defeat. One of them was out of their control, the other two were just symptomatic of the Cowboys problems and inconsistency that has dogged this team for a while.
The first one is the one that was out of their control. When Tony Pollard went down to injury on a drive that was leading to a touchdown and what would have been a good lead at halftime, it was a major blow. It basically undercut their whole running game. The Cowboys certainly must recognize that Ezekiel Elliott can no longer be a featured back. They seemingly had come to this conclusion in the playoffs as Pollard had become the featured back. The Cowboys had to supplement the run game by getting the ball in the hands of CeeDee Lamb on jet sweeps and bubble screens.
The fact that Dallas had to do that should tell them all they need to know about what to do with Elliott’s contract this offseason. Zeke has been a warrior for this team and has given Dallas his all, but he is not the runner he used to be. The Cowboys have to let him go and spend that money elsewhere.
Pollard’s injury played into the next problem for Dallas, and this next problem was absolutely, hands-down the biggest problem for the Cowboys in the game. Dak Prescott was awful. One game after earning praise for his sublime performance against the Buccaneers, Prescott let his team down. Robbed of a running game, there was even more pressure heaped on Prescott. He didn’t respond.
Even before Pollard’s injury, Prescott was struggling. An early interception gifted the 49ers three points. Immediately after Pollard went down, Prescott killed a promising drive with another interception. If Prescott completes that drive, the Cowboys likely go into halftime with a 13-6 lead and they would get the ball to start the second half. That is a very promising situation in a game being dominated by defense. Instead, they went into halftime trailing 9-6.
It wasn’t just the interceptions for Prescott. He had bad throws and poor reads all game. On the interception after the Pollard play, he had Ezekiel Elliott relatively open in the flats for the first down, instead he forced the ball into traffic to Lamb. On a crucial third down in the second half, he forced a pass to Lamb again for an incompletion. If he would have looked about 10 yards to Lamb’s left, on the other seam route, he would have seen T.Y. Hilton wide open for a sure first down, and a very likely touchdown. Later in the game he had Michael Gallup open deep on a post pattern. Prescott led him to the outside, forcing him into a defender for an incompletion. It was that kind of game from Prescott, and he knows it.
For Prescott, who completed 23 of 37 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions on Sunday, the burden only grows.
“I’m disappointed in the way that I’ve played. Those guys in that locker room gave it all. Both sides of the ball. And put me in a position to go win the game. And I wasn’t able to do that,” he said. “And, yeah, I mean, I put it on my shoulders. When you play this position, when you play for this organization, you’ve got to accept that. That’s the reality of it. And as I said, it will make me better.”
“Two [interceptions] that I can’t have,” Prescott said. “You can’t have in the playoffs. You can’t have them when you’re trying to beat a team like that. Can’t have them on the road. Yeah, no excuses for that. Those are two that are 100 percent on me.”
Finally, there is Mike McCarthy. The Cowboys head coach has gotten a lot of credit this season, and deservedly so. He has held the team together through some injuries to once again win double-digit games and make the post-season. He’s also been pretty good about being aggressive with his decision-making, but he went conservative in a game that was screaming for him to do the opposite.
The Cowboys were suffering offensively. Pollard was out of the game before halftime, and Prescott was showing all the signs of having a bad game. In a game were defense in dominating, there is the philosophy that you rely on your defense to keep you in the game, so you don’t put them in bad situations in the context of field position. And McCarthy took that approach by punting three times where there was definitely the possibility of going for it.
Taking the approach that McCarthy did, you are betting on the offense to come alive at some point and get the game-winning drive. But that’s was a low percentage gamble given the way Prescott was playing and the absence of Pollard and his game-breaking abilities. Plus, you couldn't really trust Brett Maher.
With the Cowboys tied 9-9 in the second half, they faced a fourth and five at the 49ers 40-yard line. The Cowboys ended up punting. They also punted while trailing 9-6 on a fourth and five from their own 48-yard line. Then, trailing 19-12 with only 2:11 left on the clock, McCarthy punted again on a 4th and 10 from deep in their own territory. The analytics recommended, either strongly or moderately, going for it in these situations.
Individually, you can make the case for punting in these situations. But in this game, where you lost your best playmaker in Pollard, you have a quarterback who is operating way below the norm, and you have a kicker that you really can’t trust, punting all three times just felt like a conservative take in a game that required a bold aggressiveness.
Plenty of things went wrong for the Cowboys in this game. The Pollard injury and McCarthy’s conservative approach were certainly contributing factors. But there should be no doubt about where this game was lost, and that was on the arm of Dak Prescott. He knows it, too. Quarterbacks aren’t directly responsible for wins and losses, but they play an outsized role. The 49ers’ inexperienced quarterback Brock Purdy avoided the big mistakes. The Cowboys’ veteran quarterback did not. That means it’s time for the offseason once again.