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ARLINGTON, Texas – Before Sunday’s wildcard game, everyone was talking about the San Francisco 49ers being a difficult match for the Dallas Cowboys, and everything that was said came true.
Although they won NFC East by a record of 12-5, all of the Cowboys’ warts were on display Sunday, and their season ended with whining and confusion.
49ers 23, Cowboys 17.
The Cowboys saw the possibility of a game at the last second disappear after they were unable to snatch the ball after quarterback Dak Prescott’s game of 17 yards. The referee was unable to put the ball into play in time for the Cowboys to come out of a potential final snap.
“It’s the end of the game,” referee Alex Kemp said.
It was as strange as it was wild and it was a loss that served.
The NFL’s highest scoring offense was kept in check. The Cowboys got 7 yards on eight games in the first quarter. Dak Prescott was confused for much of the game, especially in the second half, as San Francisco did not have its best pass-rusher, Nick Bosa, due to a concussion. CeeDee Lamb, the Cowboys’ leading receiver in the regular season with 79 catches for 1,102 yards, had no catch until the fourth quarter. The running game was no better with Ezekiel Elliott, who came into the game with two 100-yard outings in three playoff competitions, finishing with 31 yards on 12 balls.
The Cowboys, the NFL’s leader in takeaways (34) in the regular season, got an interception in the fourth quarter, which gave them some life, but in the end, their comeback was doomed as the offense could not finish the job. The Cowboys were bullied by the San Francisco running game (38 carries, 169 yards), the second most yards and carries the Cowboys allowed this season. San Francisco running back Elijah Mitchell had 96 yards and Deebo Samuel had 72 from his receiving spot. Just as improved as the Cowboys were defensive in 2021, big games were still an issue. They allowed six games of 16 yards or more, running or passing. The league leader in interceptions, Dallas’ Trevon Diggs, was hit 37 yards by receiver Brandon Aiyuk on a drive that ended in a Niners field goal.
The NFL’s most penalized team was marked 14 times in 89 yards. Right guard Connor Williams had his 11th team penalty of the season and a false start. In the third quarter, he allowed a firing of Prescott. At the next game, Prescott was intercepted and Samuel effectively put the match away with a 26-yard run to the San Francisco lead to 23-7. With 4:31 left, Neville Gallimore rejected a stop from third down with an illegal use of hand penalty. Later, Randy Gregory was called to defensive holding, the second in as many run by Dallas.
A season that started with so much promise – the Cowboys were 6-1 after a Halloween win over the Minnesota Vikings without Prescott – ended like any other season since 1995: without a Super Bowl and with several questions about whether the Cowboys are close to win a title.
QB breakdown: Dak Prescott said he loves the pressure. With 2:42 left, Prescott was 84 yards away from a clear touchdown. After a 38-yard finish to Dalton Schultz, who was the longest in the tight-end career, he was 46 yards away from a clear touchdown. But then Prescott was fired on first down. His second down-pass to Lamb was dropped. His third-down flip was just out of Elliott’s reach. His fourth-down lift to Cedrick Wilson was just outside Wilson’s fingertips. Before the fourth down, Prescott was 6-of-6 against defensive blitz from the Niners’ defensive backs. He ran out of luck on this fourth attempt and he literally ran out of time on the last drive.
No home advantage: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones loves AT&T Stadium and all its prestige. One thing Jones has been reluctant to change is the sunlight coming through the western end zone. He has not allowed curtains to be used in late afternoon games, and that hurt the Cowboys Sunday. Facing third-and-19, Prescott Wilson had open midfield at the San Francisco 38, a finish that would have set up at least one field goal attempt to reduce the lead to 16-10. Instead, with the sun in his eyes, Wilson appeared and the ball fell incompletely, leading to a punt. Though it was not so crucial for a moment, AT&T Stadium’s intricacies came into play when Bryan Angers punt hit the midfield in the third quarter. Sunday marked the first wildcard loss for the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium (3-1).