The Cowboys tied an NFL playoff record with 14 penalties in their Sunday night loss to the underdog 49ers, and San Francisco tried its hardest to give the game right back to Dallas, thanks in large part to late-game errors by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. But nothing encapsulated the sloppiness of the wild-card showdown quite like the game's final play, which saw the Cowboys literally run out of time on a comeback attempt that ended at the 49ers' 25-yard line.
What, exactly, happened on the final play of the game? And who is to blame? Let's dive in.
The situation: Down six, the Cowboys got the ball back with 32 seconds on the clock (after the 49ers false-started on a fourth-and-one inside Dallas territory and decided to punt). The Cowboys quickly moved into scoring range after successive passes -- a 20-yard hook-and-ladder to Cedrick Wilson and CeeDee Lamb, a 10-yarder to Tony Pollard and a nine-yarder to Dalton Schultz. This set up a second-and-one at San Francisco's 41-yard line with 14 seconds left.
The final play: With 14 seconds left and no timeouts, the Cowboys called a QB draw, and Dak Prescott raced through the middle for a 17-yard gain to San Francisco's 24-yard line. Suddenly, Dallas was just outside the red zone, but the clock kept running.
The controversy: After the run, Prescott and the Cowboys hurried to the line in an attempt to spike the ball and stop the clock for one final play from San Francisco's 24. But the referee, who is in charge of setting the ball for every snap, accidentally ran into Dak on the way to the line, only officially spotting the ball with one second on the clock. By the time Prescott actually called for and received the snap to spike the ball, the game clock had expired. Officials confirmed time had run out a moment later, declaring the end of the game. And, by the way, it was a looong run for the ref.
So ... whose fault is it, really, that Dallas lost the game on such a bizarre, clock-burning finish? The most general (and true) answer is: the Dallas Cowboys. For all the gifts the 49ers offered them down the stretch, Dallas still opened the game poorly and had an undisciplined performance at home. Speaking of undisciplined, the Cowboys are also technically at fault for the final-play blunder.
Besides the fact they actually called a QB draw (!) with 14 seconds left and zero timeouts at their disposal, rather than trying a Hail Mary or even short pass to avoid a running clock, the Cowboys needed to get the ball to the official before taking their next snap, as is common procedure in hurry-up situations. Instead, Prescott gave the ball to his center and attempted to get under center, then collided with the incoming ref, who then had to reset the ball himself. In other words, had Prescott simply gotten the ball to the ref, there's a better chance the Cowboys wouldn't have taken more time to get it snapped.
Did the official slow things down by coming in at the last second, literally sprinting from his previous spot to keep up with Prescott and the Cowboys after the surprise QB draw? Perhaps, but then you're back to square one: why did the Cowboys run a QB draw in the first place? The rules are the rules, and Dallas -- through both its play call and post-play actions -- lost the game.