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Cowboys Hash Marks: Dallas drives a spike through fans' hearts

After a promising season, the Dallas Cowboys once again fell flat in the most frustrating ways under the withering lights of playoff football.

DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys fizzled in the 2021 NFC wild-card as the San Francisco 49ers achieved the first upset of the postseason by the final score of 23-17 on Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium.

The entire game came down to one poorly executed spike at San Francisco's 24-yard line as the clock ticked to zero. However, there were other factors that went into the Cowboys' season-ending defeat. Here are four takeaways from the wild-card:

1. San Francisco was the "bad matchup" — What made the 49ers the "bad matchup" was the fact they were healthy. San Francisco struggled with availability of key players, particularly quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, all season.

Once they had their complete roster to take into the playoffs, they proved what a juggernaut they can be. The 49ers generated 169 yards rushing at 4.4 yards per carry, and they stifled Dallas' offense to just 307 total yards.

The Cowboys offense did benefit from defensive end Nick Bosa and linebacker Fred Warner leaving the game with injuries. When the Cowboys got a diminished version of San Francisco's defense, they took advantage with 10 fourth quarter points. Ultimately, the 49ers' ball control offense and pass rush bottled up the Cowboys.

2. Nerves of tinfoil — Although the 49ers missed the playoffs with a 6-10 mark last year, mostly due to injuries, the '21 incarnation is not too dissimilar from the '19 squad that qualified for Super Bowl LIV. The moment didn't seem too big for the 49ers and they looked calm.

The Cowboys played like a team that doesn't have much postseason experience, and the reality is their core players don't. This was Prescott's fourth career playoff game, and the last one came following in 2018 season. Randy Gregory, who committed two neutral zone infractions, was in his third.

The problem with the post-Triplet Cowboys is they have lacked adequate postseason experience. The '90s Cowboys tasted two playoff games two years after the 1-15 finish in 1989, and they kept stacking playoff qualifications and postseason games.

Consider that when Troy Aikman finished his sixth season — just as Dak Prescott has — he had played in nine playoff games, including two Super Bowls. Like his predecessor, Tony Romo, Prescott is underdeveloped in this formational area. If the Cowboys qualify for the playoffs like it's an olympiad, there is no hope to improve upon this issue.

3. Heart of lion — Rookie linebacker Micah Parsons was still dealing with lingering effects from COVID-19 against the 49ers, as he was seen multiple times sucking wind, taking oxygen on the sidelines. Nevertheless, Parsons played up to his All-Pro status with 10 combined tackles and a tackle for loss.

Even though he was clearly not 100%, Parsons managed to battle through the discomfort. The Cowboys need to foster this mentality and build their culture around Parsons' attitude, discipline, and commitment. The former Penn State product is displaying many of the same traits that Prescott did earlier in his career.

4. Spike strip — The concept of Prescott's quarterback draw to pick up a few cheap yards before a closer Hail Mary attempt made sense, but it seemed rushed and not clearly thought out.

The clock was stopped after tight end Dalton Schultz caught a 9-yard pass and rushed out of bounds at the San Francisco 41-yard line. In fact, the 49ers called a timeout. Dallas had plenty of time to make sure to get enough yardage and not cost themselves a few precious seconds.

Prescott continuing to the San Francisco 24-yard line is what doomed Dallas more so than the botched spike wherein umpire Ramon George collided with Prescott and center Tyler Biadasz.

After the game, coach Mike McCarthy posed the question: would it be better to try a Hail Mary from the 50-yard line or five verticals from the 20? Similarly, would it be better to try a Hail Mary from the 30-yard line or have the season end ignominiously after a botched spike?

Do you think the Cowboys wasted a golden opportunity with their wild-card loss? Share your thoughts with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.