ARLINGTON, Texas – Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys thought they were going to get one more snap, one more chance to avoid another playoff setback.
Prescott's spike at the end of a wild final sequence came too late. Time had run out on this season, the 26th in a row for Jerry Jones' team ending well short of another Super Bowl.
“I thought everything was executed well — until it wasn’t,” Prescott said after the 23-17 wild-card loss at home to the San Francisco 49ers.
In the final minute Sunday, San Francisco had to punt after All-Pro Deebo Samuel’s run initially was ruled to have picked up a first down before a video review showed he was inches short. Then the 49ers’ All-Pro tackle, Trent Williams, was penalized for not being set on Jimmy Garoppolo’s successful sneak for the first down, and the 49ers instead had to kick.
Dallas got the ball at its 20 with 32 seconds remaining. Prescott completed three consecutive passes, with the receivers getting out of bounds each time, and there were 14 seconds left when he ran 17 yards to the 49ers 24. But the ball never got officially set for another play before time ran out, even though the quarterback did spike it.
“It's the right decision,” coach Mike McCarthy said of that running play. “We shouldn’t have any problem getting the ball spiked.”
Prescott, the $40 million-a-year quarterback, got tackled from behind and said he saw 4 seconds on the clock when lining up behind center Tyler Biadasz. But umpire Ramon George then bumped into the quarterback while moving the ball about a half a yard for the official spot.
“I tried to gather myself back and still thought I had time to get it down,” Prescott said. “In hindsight, I could say I should have went down sooner if I’d have known all of that was going to play out that way. I also think if I don’t get hit from behind, it’s clean and we’re clocking the ball with at minimum a second if not more, it not two or three on the clock.”
McCarthy said he's never seen a collision like that between an umpire and quarterback in an end-game situation, and thought from what he heard from a sideline official that the play was being reviewed and time would be added back to the clock. That never happened.
“The next thing I know, (officials) are running off the field,” he said.
The 49ers needed a frantic comeback a week ago to beat the Rams and make the postseason. Now, they move on, while NFC East champion Dallas is done early again.
“Tough to accept,” Prescott said. “Definitely tough to accept.”
So much went wrong for the Cowboys even before their comeback fell short. There was the pass that whizzed by the head of open receiver Cedrick Wilson, who apparently never saw the ball looking back into the sun shining through the huge glass doors on the west end of AT&T Stadium. There were 14 penalties, a few wiping out big gains.
There were no desperately needed do-overs, except for the punt that hit the huge video board looming high above the field.
These Cowboys are still a long way from where they were the last time they played San Francisco in the postseason — in three consecutive NFC championship games in the mid-1990s. Since winning the Super Bowl at the end of the 1995 season, when they beat Green Bay in the NFC title game, the Cowboys haven’t made it past the divisional round of the playoffs. They didn’t even get that far this time, in their 11th postseason appearance since those three Super Bowl titles over a four-season span early in Jones' ownership of the team.
When asked the last time he was this disappointed after a loss, Jones bluntly said he couldn't remember.
“I’m just disappointed that we were in that spot,” Jones said of the desperation finish. “The makeup of not only the personnel but our season, I didn’t think I was going to be standing here with you tonight visiting like this, for sure.”
Dallas was down 16-7 just before halftime, and facing third-and-20 from midfield, when Prescott threw toward Wilson. While it still would have been short of a first down, a completion would have at least given Greg Zuerlein the chance to attempt a long field goal.
The Cowboys were fourth-and-20 to start the second half — after consecutive false start penalties and a Prescott sack — when Mark Nzeocha got a personal foul for roughing the punter. Six plays later, punter Bryan Anger was back on the field and his towering kick ricocheted off the bottom of the massive board.
“This is very unusual,” reference Alex Kemp said when announcing what happened, adding that it “amounts to a do-over.”
Dallas needed more than that.
After getting the most penalties in the NFL during the regular season, the Cowboys tied their season high with 14, including defensive end Randy Gregory getting penalized for holding on a running play in the final two minutes.
Already down 10—0, Prescott hit CeeDee Lamb for a 32-yard gain into 49ers territory on Dallas' second possession. But that third-down completion was wiped out by a holding call, and they punted a play later.
Another long completion to Lamb late in the third quarter was erased because of an illegal shift. The Cowboys did recover from that to get a 51-yard field goal from Zuerlein and make it 23-10. They got their last touchdown on a 5-yard scramble by Prescott to capitalize on an interception by Anthony Brown.
That was the only turnover forced by the Cowboys, who led the NFL with 34 takeaways in the regular season.
The Cowboys had won their previous three wild-card playoff games, all at AT&T Stadium since it opened for the 2009 season. They had then gone on the road and lost divisional round games, the last three years ago.
But things went wrong even before this game began, with Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch’s name misspelled on the back of his No. 55 jersey when he came out for pregame warmups. The jersey had the “c” and “s” transposed in his last name, and he wore it throughout the game.
Another do-over that they didn't get.
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