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The Vent: Cowboys fittingly go out with a whimper in Week 17 at New York

Though Washington rendered it a moot point later in the evening, the Dallas Cowboys flopped with a playoffs spot on the line on Sunday in New York.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton (14) is sacked by New York Giants defensive end Leonard Williams (99) during an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

There was no more fitting way for the Dallas Cowboys’ 2020 season to end than via a turnover. During a year where the offense gave the ball away too much for any kind of consistent winning, the final giveaway was an interception in the end zone that sealed the Cowboys’ fate in a season-ending 23-19 loss to the New York Giants.

The Andy Dalton interception was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it was hardly the only mistake in an error-filled contest from the Cowboys. In a game where Mike McCarthy’s group needed to be at their best, they fell back into their mid-season tendencies as they concluded the season at 6-10.

There was shoddy defense, an overwhelmed offensive line, terrible penalties, and questionable coaching decisions that cost the Cowboys their chance for a win and, in that moment, the sloppy performance cost them a chance at the NFC East championship.

The Giants came into the game with offensive issues under coordinator and former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. In fact, New York had failed to score a touchdown in the first half of their previous four games before Week 17. 

The Giants didn’t face any such problems in this one. New York scored a touchdown on their first possession and wound up scoring two more on their way to putting up 20 points in the first 30 minutes. 

Dallas’ defense had enough trouble stopping the Giants in the first half, but they also hurt themselves with undisciplined play. There were two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, one of which kept a Giants drive alive for a score and two more penalties on another scoring drive for New York. It was the worst half of football that the Cowboys had played in four weeks and it came at the wrong time.

The offense wasn’t much better to start the game. An offensive line that consisted of mostly backups had grown together to perform better during their winning streak, but they collapsed when facing a tough Giants front. 

The group gave up six sacks and never provided enough protection for Dalton to find open receivers. Dallas’ trio of talented wideouts, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup, combined for just 131 yards receiving because Dalton wasn’t afforded the opportunity to throw the ball down the field.

There also weren’t many holes to run through, either. The running backs managed just 57 yards on 19 carries and the team’s leading rusher was Dalton, who was scrambling to escape trouble for most of the game. Ezekiel Elliott– who came into the game needing 63 yards to reach the 1,000 yard milestone for the fourth time in his career– ran for just 42 yards on 14 carries.

Yet, despite all the uneven play for most of the game, the Cowboys still had a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter. After being down 20-9 at halftime, Dallas clawed their way back in the second half. 

Safety Donovan Wilson helped kickstart the comeback with an interception and the Cowboys cashed in with an Elliott score for the only touchdown by either team in the second half. Wilson wasn’t done making plays, though, as his sack of quarterback Daniel Jones pushed New York out of field goal range with the Giants clinging to a one-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. 

That sack set up the play that McCarthy and his staff will want to erase from everyone’s collective memory. On 3rd & 16, Jones’ pass to receiver Dante Pettis for 10 yards was ruled complete, but the ball appeared to hit the ground. If the Cowboys had challenged the call, they likely would’ve won the challenge and the call probably would’ve been reversed.

We all know what happened from there. McCarthy didn’t throw the challenge flag and Giants’ kicker Graham Gano drilled a 50-yard field goal to make it so that the Cowboys could only win via a touchdown. Those three points turned out to be huge. 

It was a baffling decision for McCarthy to not challenge the play as he weighed potentially losing one of three timeouts as more detrimental than giving the Giants a realistic crack at three more points in a contest where the Cowboys only ended up scoring one touchdown all afternoon.

All the good will that McCarthy had stored up from having his team not quit on the season, from having his team fight for the NFC East title until the very last week, even when the odds were against them, all that went out the window with his refusal to challenge that catch. 

That might seem harsh, but it’s the lasting impression that McCarthy will leave on the 2020 season. 

Ultimately the decision didn’t end up mattering one way or the other as the Washington Football Team defeated the Philadelphia Eagles later in the day to win the NFC East, but the Cowboys didn’t know what the outcome of that game would be at the time so, until he leads Dallas to a win in a big game, the decisions in this contest will loom large over the McCarthy head coaching era.

In the end, however, the decision wasn’t the reason that Dallas lost. The Cowboys played a sloppy football game throughout, with dumb penalties, and a costly turnover. As always, one play didn’t determine the outcome even if it’s the one that everyone will remember. 

Dallas exited the season with the same poor play that had too often marred the 2020 team. In a way, it was a fitting end.

How do you feel about the Dallas Cowboys after the 2020 season? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.