Anatomy of Cowboys’ playoff loss to 49ers: Dak Prescott’s turnover, Mike McCarthy’s decisions under the wrong picks

The Dallas Cowboys’ season came to an end on Sunday night with a 19-12 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round. The loss made this their 12th consecutive playoff berth without making the conference title gamethe longest stripe since the NFL-AFL merger. It’s now 27 years since they clinched the NFC Championship, a streak only surpassed by the Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions, and division rival Washington Commanders.

As was so often the case when they came up short in previous postseasons, much of the blame for this loss can be placed at the feet of the Cowboys themselves. They probably played as well as the 49ers on Sunday, but repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with crucial errors.

Prescott’s first interception

It started quite early. On Dallas’ second possession, Dak Prescott made an incredibly ill-advised throw to Michael Gallup on third-nine, trying to bring down the first. Gallup ran a comeback route to the sticks, but he wasn’t open and Prescott threw the ball to him anyway. Then Gallup had Deommodore Lenoir cut straight ahead and intercepted the ball with essentially zero resistance.

Prescott’s second interception

That wasn’t Dak’s only spelling mistake. Late in the first half, as the Cowboys were driving to try and get a lead, he forced a pass intended for CeeDee Lamb into double coverage. Lamb was nowhere near open and on second and second Prescott didn’t have to force the throw. But he forced it. It hit Jimmie Ward in the chest, then shot into the air and landed in Fred Warner’s arms. The 49ers converted the interception into three runs of their own to take a 9–6 halftime lead.

Another missed extra point

The reason the Cowboys only had six points instead of seven at that point was because for the fifth time in two weeks, kicker Brett Maher missed an extra point. He missed four last week against the Buccaneers, then had his lone effort Sunday night blocked by the 49ers.

Dallas had brought Tristan Vizcaino to the practice squad last week in the wake of Maher’s fight against the Bucs, but chose not to put him on the active roster. Maher eventually made two field goals later in the game, but his inability to make relatively easy punts no doubt affected Dallas’ strategy throughout the remainder of the evening. And yet they still had a shot at winning the game if not for many more fouls, unforced and otherwise.

Pollard’s injury, Zeke’s ineffectiveness

Unfortunately, Tony Pollard suffered a broken fibula late in the first half, but no one told the Cowboys that they couldn’t use Ezekiel Elliott until after Pollard left. Elliott had averaged 1.5 yards per carry for the past three weeks, and Dallas gave him 10 carries for just 26 yards against San Francisco. Malik Davis looked pretty good in limited opportunities in the regular season, but was not given a chance despite Elliott’s ineffectiveness.

Doubtful point

Dallas also made crucial game management mistakes. With the game tied 9–9 midway through the third quarter, the Cowboys faced fourth and fifth from the San Francisco 40-yard line. Despite converting two fourth down attempts earlier in the game, Mike McCarthy chose to take a game delay penalty and then kick the ball away on the next snap. It should come as no surprise to learn that San Francisco drove down the field for the game-winning touchdown on the ensuing possession.

Diggs’ missed opportunities

The biggest play of that 10-play, 91-yard drive was an absolutely outrageous catch by 49ers tight end George Kittle.

You’ll find Trevon Diggs has a really good chance of playing the ball at the end of that play. It bounces in the air and Kittle tries to reel it in. If Diggs even gets a fingertip on it, the pass falls incomplete. Diggs instead went in for a massive hit on Kittle… and sniffed all over, allowing him to come down with the circus grapple.

A few snaps later, a pass from Brock Purdy intended for Brandon Aiyuk was tipped at the line of scrimmage and the ball went straight into Diggs’ chest. With a chance to make a game-breaking interception, Diggs dropped the ball. Dallas then committed penalties on back-to-back snaps, and two plays later, Christian McCaffrey plunged into the end zone for a touchdown.

Questionable field goal

In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys drove the ball deep into 49ers territory, but stopped just outside the red zone. On fourth and eighth from the 25-yard line, McCarthy sent Maher downfield for a field goal attempt. He converted from 43 yards out, but given how the Dallas offense had played up to that point in the game, the Cowboys probably had to get away from that drive with a touchdown. The team’s third down play was a short pass from Prescott to Lamb, but Prescott was way off with the throw. If they could have made it an easier reversible fourth chance, McCarthy might have been more willing to go for it.

Questionable late game decision making

After the Niners added a field goal to cut the lead to seven points, the Cowboys had a chance to drive for the tying run. Dak almost ended the game himself with a short pass to Dalton Schultz that should have been picked up by Dre Greenlaw and taken to the house, only Greenlaw dropped the ball. Dak then threw inaccurately to Gallup deep in the field, even though Gallup had a step on Niners corner Charvarius Ward. Facing third-and-ten from their own 18-yard line, Prescott attempted to step through the pocket and make a play, but was caught from behind by Samson Ebukam.

That set up fourth-and-tenth from the Dallas 18-yard line, with the clock running and just over two minutes left in the game. The Cowboys had all three timeouts left, so McCarthy sent the punt team onto the field, hoping his defense would be able to stall and get the ball back. But Dallas took too long to snap the ball, meaning the 49ers only had to play once before the two-minute warning. With that short time remaining, Dallas probably just had to go for it in fourth. Fourth and tenth are obviously hard to convert, but they had a better chance of picking that up and riding for a score than of tying the game in the situation they got later…

Dallas only got the ball back because Elijah Mitchell went out of bounds on what should have been the game-sealing run. Let’s start there. But even then, the Cowboys got the ball back on their own 6-yard line, with 45 seconds left and no timeouts. To give themselves a chance to tie or win the game, they would have had to drive 94 yards against the NFL’s best defense. That is an extremely large assignment. Not that it mattered, as the last ride itself was a comedy of errors.

Head-breaking final ride

Schultz had back-to-back disastrous plays, first failing to get well out of bounds on a Prescott checkdown, leaving the clock running and robbing the Cowboys of nearly 15 seconds they desperately needed. Schultz was also lax with his footwork on another throw from Prescott, getting in only one of his feet. That turned first-and-10 from the 39-yard line with six seconds left to third-and-10 from the 24-yard line with six seconds left.

And that part… well, it was an epic disaster.

Really, given the way the Cowboys had undermined themselves repeatedly throughout the evening, the game couldn’t have ended more appropriately.

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