DALLAS — Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, the Dallas Cowboys will not be advancing to the NFC Championship game. That’s a familiar refrain that’s been echoed at the end of every season for the past 27 years.
This time, it was a 19-12 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round that did the Cowboys in, marking the second consecutive year that Dallas saw their season ended by their playoff rivals to the west.
As was the case last season and in many Januarys gone by, it didn’t have to be this way. The Cowboys were in the game on Sunday, with the defense holding the vaunted 49ers’ offense in check, and the offense able to move the ball. The Cowboys were protecting the quarterback and there was a feeling that it was all there for the taking.
Then came the mistakes. Every one of them crushed Dallas’ chances at ending one of the league’s longest droughts. One after another, the errors began, and after such a stellar outing in the wild-card round that produced hope, the same old Cowboys emerged in the round that has vexed them for decades.
The score was 6-6 when things began to spiral. Up until that point, the only issues for the Cowboys were an interception by Dak Prescott when the quarterback and wide receiver Michael Gallup weren’t on the same page, a blocked extra point, and an injury to offensive spark plug Tony Pollard. Otherwise, the team had performed well as the underdog and had a chance to take a lead before halftime.
On the next play after Pollard’s injury, however, on a 2nd & 2 from the SF 18-yard line, Prescott made an inexcusable decision that has plagued him all season.
Prescott threw into double coverage to a receiver that wasn’t open, and the ball bounced into 49ers linebacker Fred Warner’s hands. The pick cost the Cowboys points, and eventually led to a go-ahead field goal for San Francisco before halftime.
With less than two minutes to go before the half, all the momentum had swung away from Dallas. The interception wasn’t the only big mistake in the game, but it was the one that felt like it cost the Cowboys the game.
Considering the circumstances, it was one of the worst throws of Prescott’s career and it should haunt him all offseason. There was no need to force the ball into tight coverage with points already likely on the table for Dallas and with the ball to start the third quarter.
Instead, Prescott’s mind-boggling trend of interceptions late in second quarters came back to hurt the Cowboys again in the one game they couldn’t afford it.
After being on fire in the wild-card round, Prescott ultimately had a miserable game against the 49ers despite his offensive line holding up well against the vaunted San Francisco front. Prescott just missed too many throws in a performance that Dallas couldn't survive. And, with it, his playoff legacy took another hit.
However, aside from the quarterback, there were other plays that could have been made to help the Cowboys walk out a winner. This doesn’t all fall on Dak. Every game has a few plays that affect the outcome, and Dallas didn’t make any of them in a game that was decided by one score.
The blatant hold by safety Donovan Wilson when the Cowboys had otherwise gotten a sack to force a field goal attempt was a crushing blunder. Instead of three points, the 49ers extended the drive and scored the definitive touchdown.
Meanwhile, cornerback Trevon Diggs, who has perhaps the best hands in the league at the position, dropped a sure interception that hit him right in the hands. That was on the same drive as the Wilson penalty that changed the trajectory of the game.
There was also a puzzling mistake by kick returner KaVonate Turpin, who had broken free for a likely game-tying touchdown, only to run right into the San Francisco kicker as the last man to beat. Instead of the TD, it was a 44-yard return by the Pro Bowl rookie returner.
The Cowboys managed to get a field goal out of the excellent field position, but it should have been much more.
In a game where they needed to play some of their best football, the Cowboys blew it again. The win was there for the taking. The Cowboys held the 49ers to 19 points and lost. The performers and roles may change, the deficient units may swap, the coaches may be different, the players come and go, but it’s the same story you’ve heard told many times before.
Each individual Cowboys team shouldn’t be judged by the sins of the franchise's past. And yet, each year’s edition just continues to inherit those sins and play them out over and over again. The same mistakes that have cropped up over the last 27 years sprouted again in the divisional loss to the 49ers.
Ultimately the Cowboys just cannot get out of their own way. The self-inflicted wounds continue to show up at the worst times. Dallas is still a big play or two away in the biggest games from repenting for almost three decades worth of disasters at the worst possible times.
Do you feel like a 12-5 season with a wild-card game win was a successful year for the Cowboys? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.