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Somehow, against all reason, against all logic, the Cowboys were still breathing. They were walking on buckled knees. They were breathing through bloodied noses. And they had spent most of the past 59-plus minutes trying to invent new levels of self-sabotage.
Yet here they were. There were 14 seconds left. They were losing by six points. They were at the 49ers’ 41-yard line. If you didn’t have access to a scoreboard you would have thought the Niners were up by six touchdowns, not six points. But this is the playoffs. Stuff happens.
Now this. Now Dak Prescott took a snap, with the pleas of 90,000 voices ringing in his ears, and surely he would take one or two more shots at the sideline, then try a Hail Mary. Why not? It was the Cowboys, after all, who’d invented the Hail Mary play on playoff afternoon in Bloomington, Minn, in 1975, Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson.
That segment of America who doesn’t root for America’s Team was bracing for that.
But then we were reminded: these Cowboys aren’t your father’s Cowboys. They aren’t your grandfather’s Cowboys. When the playoffs roll around they shrivel and shrink. When the money’s on the table they let the other guys grab it.
With the season still alive, Prescott made a run for it.
It was jarring. It was stunning. It made zero sense. He gained 17 yards but by the end of the play the final seconds of the clock were bleeding away. The Cowboys tried to line up. They tried to beat the clock. They didn’t. The clock reached 0:00. The cauldron of sound that had been AT&T Stadium a second earlier became morgue still.
The scoreboard screamed the remarkable news: 49ers 23, Cowboys 17.
“I thought everything was executed well — until it wasn’t,” Prescott said later, trying to explain away the inexplicable.
“It’s the right decision, we shouldn’t have any problem getting the ball spiked,” said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, one final inspiredly insipid observation on a day when he was as thoroughly outcoached by San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan as the law allows.
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Of course it wasn’t just a poor decision but impossible to defend. For the Cowboys, all across an empty quarter century, it always seems to be about next year. Since they won their last Super Bowl in January 1996 the Cowboys have won four playoff games. This year was going to be different. This year, in various stages of the season, they had the league’s most explosive offense and its most lethal defense.
For some weeks, Prescott looked like an MVP candidate.
But Sunday, one more time, with the only stakes that matter piled high on the table, the Cowboys were thrashed by one of their ancient foes. The Niners seized an early 13-0 lead and looked like they would cruise to Green Bay next week. It didn’t turn out that easy. But the statement was resounding.
“The first one is always the hardest one,” McCarthy said in a hilarious ode to the obvious. “We were a little jittery to start the game. Once we settled in, it was a heck of a contest.”
That will be little consolation to the members of the Cowboys’ massive fan base, and will be less consolation to owner Jerry Jones.
“I’m just disappointed that we were in that spot,” Jones said later, another wholly unsatisfying season full in the books. “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.”
(And, look: we know about unambiguous failures around here, football-wise, especially if you happen to support the Giants. What’s the old expression? The enemy of my enemy is my friend? Sunday Giants fans became especially chummy with the Buccaneers and the Niners, temporary allies who helped clear the playoffs of the NFC East. Hey, it’s something.)
And still the Cowboys had a shot. There was a terrible interception by Jimmy Garoppolo. There was an overturned spot, and a brutal 49ers penalty, and the Cowboys got the ball one more time, one more chance. But this wasn’t Roger Staubach in Minnesota in 1975. It was a different quarterback, a different time, a different mojo.
“Tough to accept,” Prescott said. “Definitely tough to accept.”
The clock, and the season had run out on the Cowboys, once America’s Team, now perpetually Next Year’s Team.