Even though they won the NFC East with a 12-5 record, all of the Cowboys' warts were on display Sunday and their season ended with a whimper and confusion.
The Cowboys saw the possibility of a last-second play go away after they were unable to snap the ball following quarterback Dak Prescott's scramble for 17 yards. The umpire was unable to set the ball for play in time for the Cowboys to get off a potential final snap.
"That's the end of the game," referee Alex Kemp said.
"This is going to sting for a long time," coach Mike McCarthy said afterward.
It was as weird as it was wild, and it was a loss that was deserving.
The NFL's highest-scoring offense was held in check. The Cowboys gained 7 yards on eight first-quarter plays. Dak Prescott was flustered for a good portion of the game, especially in the second half when San Francisco did not have its best pass-rusher, Nick Bosa, because of a concussion. CeeDee Lamb, the Cowboys' leading receiver in the regular season with 79 catches for 1,102 yards, did not have a catch until the fourth quarter. The run game was no better with Ezekiel Elliott, who entered the game with two 100-yard outings in three playoff contests, finishing with 31 yards on 12 carries.
The Cowboys, the NFL's leader in takeaways (34) during the regular season, got an interception in the fourth quarter, giving them some life, but ultimately their comeback was doomed when the offense could not finish the job. The Cowboys were bullied by the San Francisco run game (38 carries, 169 yards), the second-most yards and carries the Cowboys allowed this season. San Francisco running back Elijah Mitchell had 96 yards and Deebo Samuel had 72 from his receiver spot. As improved as the Cowboys were defensively in 2021, big plays were still an issue. They allowed six plays of 16 yards or more, run or pass. The league leader in interceptions, Dallas' Trevon Diggs, was beat for 37 yards by receiver Brandon Aiyuk on a drive that ended in a Niners field goal.
The NFL's most penalized team was flagged 14 times for 89 yards. Right guard Connor Williams had his 11th holding penalty of the season and a false start. In the third quarter, he allowed a sack of Prescott. On the next play, Prescott was intercepted and Samuel effectively put the game away with a 26-yard run to up the San Francisco lead to 23-7. With 4:31 to play, Neville Gallimore negated a third-down stop with an illegal use of hands penalty. Later, Randy Gregory was called for defensive holding, the second in as many drives by Dallas.
A season that started with so much promise -- the Cowboys were 6-1 after a Halloween night win against the Minnesota Vikings without Prescott -- ended like every other season since 1995: without a Super Bowl and with more questions as to whether the Cowboys are close to winning a title.
"Tough to accept. Definitely tough to accept," Prescott said. "The men in that locker room, what we've created, the brotherhood that we have, everything that we've worked for, knowing we had a chance. In all my years don't know if I've had a better chance or a better full team than this. So, yeah, it's hard to accept."
QB breakdown: Dak Prescott said he loves the pressure. With 2:42 to play, Prescott was 84 yards away from a go-ahead touchdown. After a 38-yard completion to Dalton Schultz, which was the longest of the tight end's career, he was 46 yards away from a go-ahead touchdown. But then Prescott was sacked on first down. His second-down pass to Lamb was dropped. His third-down flip was just out of Elliott's reach. His fourth-down heave to Cedrick Wilson was just off Wilson's fingertips. Before the fourth-down play, Prescott was 6-of-6 against defensive blitzes by the Niners' defensive backs. He ran out of luck on this fourth down and he literally ran out of time on the final drive.
No home-field advantage: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones loves AT&T Stadium and all its prestige. One thing Jones has been reluctant to change is the sunlight coming through the west end zone. He has not allowed for curtains to be used in late afternoon games, and it hurt the Cowboys on Sunday. Facing third-and-19, Prescott had Wilson open in the middle of the field at the San Francisco 38, a completion that would have set up at least a field goal attempt to cut the lead to 16-10. Instead, with the sun in his eyes, Wilson ducked and the ball fell incomplete, leading to a punt. While not as pivotal a moment, AT&T Stadium's intricacies came into play when Bryan Anger's third-quarter punt hit the center-hung scoreboard. Sunday marked the first wild-card loss for the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium (3-1).