Anatomy of Cowboys’ playoff loss to 49ers: Dak Prescott’s turnovers, Mike McCarthy’s choices amongst miscues

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The Dallas Cowboys‘ season came to a close 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 it to the conference title game, the longest streak since the NFL-AFL merger. They’ve now gone 27 years since making it to the NFC championship, a streak exceeded only 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 laid at the feet of the Cowboys themselves. They arguably played just as well as did the 49ers on Sunday, but they repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with crucial mistakes.

Prescott’s first interception

It started pretty early. On Dallas’ second possession of the game, Dak Prescott made an incredibly ill-advised throw to Michael Gallup on third-and-9, trying to pick up the first down. Gallup ran a comeback route to the sticks, but he was not open and Prescott threw him the ball anyway. Then Gallup let Deommodore Lenoir cut right in front of him and intercept the ball with basically zero resistance. 

Prescott’s second interception

That was not Dak’s only error of the game. Late in the first half, with the Cowboys driving to try to take a lead, he forced a pass intended for CeeDee Lamb into double coverage. Lamb was not nearly open, and on second-and-2, Prescott did not have to force the throw. But force it he did. It hit Jimmie Ward in the chest, then popped into the air before landing in the arms of Fred Warner. The 49ers turned the interception into three points of their own and took a 9-6 lead into halftime. 

Another missed extra point

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

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Dallas had signed Tristan Vizcaino to the practice squad this past week in the wake of Maher’s struggles against the Bucs, but elected not to elevate him to the active roster. Maher eventually connected on two field goals later in the game, but his inability to make relatively kicks undoubtedly affected Dallas’ strategy throughout the rest of the night. And yet, they still had a chance to win the game, if not for many more errors, unforced and otherwise.

Pollard’s injury, Zeke’s ineffectiveness

Tony Pollard unfortunately suffered a fractured fibula late in the first half, but nobody told the Cowboys they could only use Ezekiel Elliott after Pollard went out. Elliott had averaged 1.5 yards per carry over the past three weeks, and Dallas fed him 10 carries for just 26 yards against San Francisco. Malik Davis looked pretty good in limited regular-season opportunities, but was not given any carries despite Elliott’s ineffectiveness.

Questionable punt

Dallas also made crucial game-management errors. With the game tied 9-9 midway through the third quarter, the Cowboys faced fourth-and-5 from the San Francisco 40-yard line. Despite having converted on two fourth-down tries earlier in the game, Mike McCarthy elected to take a delay-of-game penalty and then punt the ball away on the next snap. It should come as no surprise to hear that San Francisco drove right down the field for the eventual 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 notice that at the tail end of that play, Trevon Diggs has a really good chance to make a play on the ball. It’s bouncing in the air and Kittle is trying to haul it in. If Diggs gets even a fingertip on it, the pass falls incomplete. Diggs instead went in for a huge hit on Kittle … and totally whiffed, allowing him to come down with the circus grab. 

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A few snaps later, a Brock Purdy pass intended for Brandon Aiyuk was tipped at the line of scrimmage, and the ball fell right into Diggs’ chest. With a chance to make a game-changing 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 stalled just outside the red zone. On fourth-and-8 from the 25-yard line, McCarthy sent Maher onto the field for a field goal attempt. He converted from 43 yards out, but given the way Dallas’ offense had played to that point in the game, the Cowboys probably needed to come 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 had been able to make it a more easily-convertable fourth-down opportunity, McCarthy might have been more willing to go for it.

Questionable late-game decision-making

After the Niners added a field goal to push the lead back to seven points, the Cowboys had a chance to drive for the game-tying score. Dak nearly ended the game himself with a short pass to Dalton Schultz that should have been picked off and taken to the house by Dre Greenlaw, only Greenlaw dropped the ball. Dak then threw inaccurately to Gallup deep down the field, even though Gallup had a step on Niners corner Charvarius Ward. Facing third-and-10 from their own 18-yard line, Prescott tried to step up through the pocket and make a play, but he was caught from behind by Samson Ebukam.

That set up fourth-and-10 from the Dallas 18-yard line, with the clock running and just over two minutes left to play. The Cowboys had all three of their timeouts remaining, so McCarthy sent the punt team onto the field, hoping that his defensive could get a stop and get the ball back. But Dallas took too long to snap the ball, meaning the 49ers only had to run one play before the two-minute warning. With that little time remaining, Dallas probably just needed to go for it on fourth down. Fourth-and-10 is obviously tough to convert, but they had a better chance of picking that up and driving for a score than they did of tying the game in the situation they got later on… 

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Dallas only got the ball back because Elijah Mitchell ran 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’s an extremely tall order. Not that it mattered, because the final drive itself was a comedy of errors.

Head-scratching final drive

Schultz had back-to-back disastrous plays, first failing to properly get out of bounds on a checkdown from Prescott, which kept the clock running and robbed the Cowboys of nearly 15 seconds that they desperately needed. Schultz also was lackadaisical with his footwork on another throw from Prescott, and only got one of his feet inbounds. That turned first-and-10 from the 39-yard line with six seconds remaining into third-and-10 from the 24-yard line with six seconds remaining. 

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

Really, given the way the Cowboys had repeatedly undermined themselves throughout the evening, the game could not have ended in any more fitting fashion.