For a half of football, Mike McCarthy was doing everything right. In a stark reversal from last year’s playoff matchup against the 49ers, the Cowboys came out ready to play and proved to be the more physical team. The Dallas defense stopped the 49ers’ potent offense for a loss or no gain on eight of their first 17 plays across their first three drives; two of those drives resulted in a punt, with the other producing a field goal largely due to favorable field position from an interception.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys didn’t go three-and-out once in the entire first half. They proved they could move it against the defense that everyone had been raving about, while their own defense was living up to the hype. The only thing going wrong for the Cowboys in that first half was Dak Prescott reverting to his interception-prone version, which gifted the 49ers two field goals and handed them a 9-6 halftime lead.
Still, the Cowboys had very clearly been the better team in that first half, and they didn’t even look similar to the team that got bullied early on in the game last year. McCarthy had succeeded in getting his team ready to play from the first whistle, and if they could sustain that energy for one more half then they’d get the win.
We all know that didn’t happen. The Cowboys hit a field goal to start the third quarter, tying things up, and their defense forced another three-and-out. The physicality had carried over, and Dallas had an opportunity to go take the lead and set the tone for the second half. Things started off strong, with Prescott hitting CeeDee Lamb for a deep bomb circus catch that set them up at midfield.
A few plays later, Dallas had fourth and five at the San Francisco 40. The offense stayed on the field as if they were going to go for it, which they absolutely should have done. They tried to get the defense to jump offsides, a common tactic these days, but it didn’t work. Instead of taking a timeout and going for it anyway, Dallas took the delay of game penalty in order to get better position for a punt.
---> DAL (9) @ SF (9) <---— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 23, 2023
DAL has 4th & 5 at the SF 40
Recommendation (STRONG): Go for it (+3 WP)
Actual play: (Shotgun) PENALTY on DAL, Delay of Game, 5 yards, enforced at SF 40 - No Play. pic.twitter.com/mN3HxTakFE
This ended up being the first of two crucial mistakes from McCarthy in the second half. The Cowboys knew they needed to be more physical to win - and McCarthy had them playing that way so far - and they knew they couldn’t leave anything up to chance. By punting here instead of staying aggressive and going for the lead, McCarthy undid all of the progress Dallas had been showing thus far.
Bryan Anger did a good job, as always, and pinned the 49ers inside their own 10-yard line. But this was also the point where the physical advantage shifted between the two teams, and the 49ers bullied Dan Quinn’s unit for a 10-play, 91-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown. Suddenly, the Cowboys were losing again.
That touchdown was followed by both teams trading field goals, with the 49ers’ field goal drive taking eight minutes off the clock, which put the 49ers’ lead at 19-12 and making it clear that Dallas needed to score a touchdown in order to tie things up. Field goals wouldn’t cut it anymore, especially with the Cowboys getting the ball back with three minutes left in the game.
Naturally, the Cowboys went three-and-out real quick, bringing up a fourth and 10 at their own 18-yard line. At this point, the Cowboys desperately needed to make a decision one way or another; if they were going to punt, it had to happen ASAP to give the 49ers the ball well before the two minute warning. Of course, the analytically sound decision was to go for it anyway.
---> DAL (12) @ SF (19) <---— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) January 23, 2023
DAL has 4th & 10 at the DAL 18
Recommendation (STRONG): Go for it (+2.1 WP)
Actual play: B.Anger punts 56 yards to SF 26, Center-M.Overton, fair catch by R.McCloud. pic.twitter.com/Uqytnyo9hI
Ultimately, McCarthy opted to punt the ball. That was mistake number one on this play. The second mistake was taking as long as he did to make up his mind. By the time the Cowboys punted it away and San Francisco fair caught it, there were just five seconds until the two minute warning, rendering the extra stoppage of time much less impactful.
Dallas ended up getting the ball back, but they had just seconds left with no timeouts and needing to go 94 yards to score. As much as everyone has discussed, and will continue to discuss, that strange final play, the game was over before that drive even started. Some of that is clearly on the players, who buckled under pressure on both offense and defense, but it’s just as much - if not more - on McCarthy and the coaching staff.
The Cowboys were clearly the more physical team right up until McCarthy’s first incorrect decision to punt. That’s when the 49ers offense started bullying the defense and moving all over the field. The sudden abandonment of an aggressive, leave-it-all-on-the-field approach from McCarthy seemingly sucked the life out of this team. It was a striking reversal from the McCarthy we all saw a week ago in Tampa Bay, and it came on the biggest stage of the year. That simply cannot happen if the team is expected to compete for a Super Bowl, and it’s a big reason why the Cowboys are now sitting at home.