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What we learned: Cowboys have work to do to reach their full potential

The Dallas Cowboys have shown that they’re good enough to be among the league’s best teams, but they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the playoffs.

DALLAS — Another season has ended for the Dallas Cowboys with them falling short of their ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl. Although that’s the biggest prize, fans likely would have been content with winning a divisional round game for a shot at the NFC Championship, just to show that the team is turning a corner.

A divisional round win didn’t happen for a 27th consecutive season and now the 2023 season feels like a million miles away. Before delving into what the team needs to do to make another run at ending their futility, here’s what we learned about the Cowboys in their latest divisional playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers:

Dak Prescott needed help

The Cowboys have themselves a franchise quarterback in Prescott, one who has shown that he is capable of being a great player. However, he’s not Superman, and he needs help around him.

That’s not a knock on Prescott; all QBs need playmakers to avoid having it all fall on their shoulders. The organization simply didn’t put enough pieces around Prescott to help him win this game. Last offseason, the Cowboys made curious decisions at wide receiver and none of them alleviated Prescott’s burden.

None of this absolves Prescott from a poor performance in the loss, but it was evident that he needs better weapons in the passing game to excel.

Prescott is good enough to win games and get Dallas into the playoffs, but he needs some help to elevate this team to where they want to go. That’s the reality.

CeeDee Lamb can’t do it alone

It was painfully obvious all season how much the offense lacked a good second receiving option after the third-year wide receiver. Lamb was a star this year and was the only viable receiving threat on the field for the Cowboys against the 49ers.

San Francisco’s defense was geared up to stop Lamb, bracketed him when they had the chance and he still caught 10 passes for 117 yards. The rest of the receivers and tight ends for Dallas had just 13 catches for 89 yards.

That’s not good enough against one of the league’s top defenses. There were opportunities for Prescott to make some plays to other WRs, but it was clear that the QB lacked faith in some of his other options, especially once outlet running back Tony Pollard missed the entire second half with an injury.

Lamb ascended to become one of the NFL’s best receivers this season and he showed his worth in the loss. Like Prescott, necessary help would have only elevated his play.

Two extra days were a factor

It’s not to say that the Cowboys would have won if the league hadn’t put their wild-card game on a Monday night to give the 49ers two extra days rest, but Dallas looked like they ran out of gas after such a distortion to the schedule. The 49ers dominated the fourth quarter and looked like the much fresher team when it mattered most.

The rest wouldn’t have stopped Prescott from making a few poor decisions or made up for some of the shortcomings shown by the Cowboys, and it wasn’t the overriding factor that determined the loss. However, it was part of the story in this game.

San Francisco rushed for 49 of their 113 yards in the fourth quarter when the Cowboys had trouble getting off the field. Dallas’ defense was worn down late in the game and having less time for preparation – and two fewer days of recuperation – was evident.

How the NFL does their playoff schedule to maximize television slots at the cost of some competitive integrity is all the more reason to strive for the conference’s top seed to earn a first round bye and bypass possible disadvantages.

Cowboys fail the football IQ test

The Cowboys do a fine job of drafting and finding players to fit their systems. They pump out Pro Bowlers and All-Pros routinely. It’s difficult to have the talent that they do without an excellent scouting department.

However, the team lacks the football IQ to make the right plays at key times. Prescott’s decision to throw late over the middle near the end of the first half is a perfect example of not knowing the situation. Points were big there and the Cowboys absolutely could not afford to give the 49ers the ball back to end the half. Any turnover would be a colossal mistake, and it turned out to be one.

Meanwhile, Pro Bowl kick returner KaVontae Turpin’s mistake on a possible return score was another problem, as was Dalton Schultz’s baffling sideline decisions on back-to-back plays on the team’s final drive. Before that drive, coach Mike McCarthy’s decision to punt was dubious even before the punt team wasted precious time right before the two-minute warning.

The Cowboys have good players, they are just missing the guys who instinctively know the right thing to do. It’s a team with stars, and leaders, on both sides of the ball. Yet Dallas is missing those players – and perhaps the coaches – who win by making the right decision at the right time.

Do you think the Cowboys will ever reach the Super Bowl with Dak Prescott as their quarterback? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.

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