There's no point in attempting to sugarcoat a pile of manure, but the Dallas Cowboys will at least give it a shot with justifications they deem fruitful. The team was wholly unprepared for their must-win game regular season finale against the New York Giants, in both execution and attitude. The defense opened the game by getting surgically dissected and , and nothing from the offense in the first half is worth writing about -- be it the sailed passes/near interceptions by a spooked Andy Dalton or the offensive line's inability to stop wind if they were given a wall to do it with.
But, to make matters worse, the coaching staff joined in the Festivity of Futility en route to an implosion when the Cowboys could least afford it. Yes, blame Dalton for the bad passes and gut-wrenching interception that ended the season, but the INT might never happen if not for one decision in particular by head coach Mike McCarthy.
Granted, a victory in this game would end up not mattering thanks to the Philadelphia Eagles refusing to defeat the Washington Football Team, but the Cowboys didn't know this in real time.
Having cut the Giants lead to just a point -- despite all of their mistakes -- the Cowboys needed a stop with eight minutes remaining in regulation. Donovan Wilson, who intercepted a pass from quarterback Daniel Jones earlier, shot himself out of a cannon and sacked Jones for a 10-yard loss to force third-and-16, which is where things got weird for Dallas. The sack pushed the Giants out of field goal range, but Jones reeled back on third down and found wideout Dante Pettis for a 10-yard gain to regain position for kicker Graham Gano. Only, it was arguable that Pettis caught the ball and, given what was on the line, it justified McCarthy tossing the red flag to challenge the play.
He didn't, though, and explained why to media after the game.
"The catch, it was obviously down in our area and the way the receiver turned to me and the information, we just felt it was too close," McCarthy said, via the team's website. "We just felt it was kind of a bang-bang type situation. The fact of the matter, we were in a tight game and the three timeouts was obviously of high value there. We just didn't there was enough information to overturn it."
Gano immediately booted a 50-yard kick that stretched the Giants lead to four points, putting pressure on Dalton to suddenly become the hero he hadn't yet proven in the game that he was prepared to be, also taking the game off of the foot of Greg Zuerlein -- who was perfect on the day (4/4) and would've had a chance to tie the game on the next drive.
What happened next was a mix of good, bad and awful: Dalton extending the Cowboys final drive twice with his legs, then being sacked at the Giants seven-yard line for a 10-yard loss by defensive end Leonard Williams (who finished with three sacks and five QB hits), then rookie first-round pick CeeDee Lamb dropping a quality pass across the middle that would've given Dallas the lead, and Dalton capping it all off with the aforementioned game-sealing interception.
And that third timeout McCarthy was hoping would matter, didn't, because it wound up being used with 56 seconds remaining to pause the inevitable victory knee by Jones.
McCarthy did some good things for the Cowboys in a severely handicapped 2020 season, including mounting the troops to a three-game win streak to become viable in Week 17, but the lack of preparedness by the club and decisions like the non-challenge combine with a previous one to not go for two points after scoring their only touchdown of the game -- which would've put the Cowboys within a field goal of the Giants in the middle of the third quarter -- guaranteed a good chunk of the blame for the failures in 2020 would land squarely in his lap.
"Not at that point in the game," McCarthy said of the decision to wave off the two-point conversion. "It was too early in the game to go for two in my opinion there."
It would turn out to be the last opportunity they'll get until 2021.