ARLINGTON, Texas -- Things didn't go as planned for the Dallas Cowboys in their goal of staving off an upset on NFL Super Wild Card Weekend, losing 23-17 in a throwback matchup against the San Francisco 49ers. Despite its early troubles Dallas still had a chance at the end of the game, but a wild sequence concluded with time running out on Dak Prescott and the Cowboys. It was a game predicted to be a back-alley brawl and that's precisely what it became and, whether you want to factor in the officiating or not, it was the 49ers who made just enough plays to advance, while the Cowboys couldn't stop shooting themselves in the foot.
There wasn't anything close to "The Catch" witnessed by Dwight Clark in yesteryear, but there was a chance the Cowboys could've delivered their own version of it, if not for a spike attempt gone awry. And that was the final mistake on an afternoon that saw them make a list of them en route to marching into the offseason prematurely, having played one of their worst games of the year at the wrong possible time.
And for San Francisco, well, they'll see you in Green Bay.
Why the Niners won
The 49ers dissected the Cowboys with surgical precision en route to scoring on the opening possession of the game, and all Prescott and Co. could muster in reply was a three-and-out. It was yet another promising possession for Jimmy Garoppolo and his offense thereafter, but they were held to just a field goal in a game that got away from the Cowboys early.
In the third quarter, the 49ers used a blistering effort that involved a sack, an interception and then a highlight touchdown by Deebo Samuel to make it a 23-7 contest, and the Cowboys could only muster a punt after being pummeled by that three-play sequence, and that was the state of affairs heading into the fourth quarter, with the Cowboys having also been penalized 10 times to that point to the 49ers tally of just three -- nearly every infraction helping to tank any potential momentum they might've gained over the first three quarters. The added penalties against the Cowboys helped the 49ers get into position to strike the knockout blow but, the aforementioned three-piece sequence notwithstanding, they couldn't do it; but it turned out they didn't need to.
All they had to do was manage the game efficiently and not give the Cowboys too many opportunities to do anything other than get in their own way, something Dallas did time and again. Some late-game infractions against the Niners nearly cost them big, but didn't, and that's all that really matters in a survive-and-advance scenario. Jimmy Garoppolo wasn't great, but he was good enough, and he got great efforts from his supporting cast to land the upset in Dallas.
It wasn't the prettiest win, but it didn't have to be. All it had to be was anything but a loss, and they achieved that mission.
Why the Cowboys lost
A penalty-laden first quarter (which ultimately devolved into a penalty-laden four quarters) combined with poor execution -- including an ill-advised and disappointing attempt at a trick play turned fumble out of bounds -- to push the Cowboys as the first quarter came to an end. It was once again Dallas' defense showing up in bend-but-don't-break fashion, allowing a big third-down conversion catch by Brandon Aiyuk but keeping them to another field goal, hoping their offensive counterparts would wake up and score.
They'd see their prayer answered, when Prescott walked the 49ers defense down on a nine-play drive that moved 67 yards in the second quarter to find pay dirt on a dime of a touchdown pass to Amari Cooper. Another field goal by Robbie Gould extended the lead a bit for the 49ers before the Cowboys saw a drive killed by the sun, literally, and it was still a close one entering halftime, but it didn't stay that way for long; and despite Nick Bosa leaving the game with a concussion/head injury and not returning.
They'd get quite a bit of momentum back following a field goal by Greg Zuerlein that preceded an interception by cornerback Anthony Brown, and the defense was rewarded with a rushing touchdown by Prescott to shrink the lead to only six points with eight minutes remaining in regulation. It went to the wire from there, with both teams suffering critical penalties that continually turned the tide against them and, despite every bit of the mess laid forth by the Cowboys over the course of the game, they were still position to potentially stun the 49ers with a touchdown to steal the win in the waning moments.
Instead, they couldn't get their attempt at a spike down before the clock hit all zeroes on their once-promising season -- a perfectly sad ending to an afternoon that was mostly the same.
A sack is good, but a sack followed by an interception to wildly turn the tide is even better if you're the 49ers.
Play of the game
The reward for the one-two punch above? Samuel landing a third, and it was a doozy the Cowboys never got up from.
Pain in Dallas
"I mean, sh-t. It hurts. All of us hurting."-- Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott
The Cowboys are heading into the offseason, while the Niners try to topple the top-seeded Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Round.