Santa Clara, California. – Throughout the season, the Dallas Cowboys were buoyed by a great defense and had to live with whichever version of their quarterback, Dak Prescott, showed up on game days.
He can quickly overwhelm defenses, as he did against the Buccaneers in the wild-card round, when he threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns. Or Prescott could fumble and make bad decisions, such as 128 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception in the regular-season finale against the Commanders.
The Cowboys got the latter version of Prescott on Sunday in a 19-12 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in the divisional round of the playoffs. The game featured a dominant defensive performance and the 49ers turned Prescott into two costly first-half interceptions.
Turnovers have been an issue for Prescott all season. Despite missing five games with a thumb injury, Prescott finished the regular season with a league-leading 15. After Sunday’s defeat, he vowed that it would be “ridiculous”, the highest in his seven-year career. The number will never be higher again.
“It hurts. I’m disappointed in my game, disappointed for the guys in the locker room,” Prescott said after passing for 206 yards, finishing with a touchdown and two interceptions.
While Prescott and the Cowboys offense struggled, many of their mistakes were forced by great plays by the 49ers’ defense. The Cowboys got their second possession of the game when Prescott tried to find Michael Gallup and it was picked off by Deomodore Lenoir. The throw came when Gallup stopped running into his lane with Lenoir standing at his side. As Lenoir Prescott saw the throw, it shocked him and his “hyena senses” kicked in, he said. The turnover led to a Robbie Gould field goal that gave the 49ers a 3-0 lead.
Dallas retaliated The touchdown was capped by Prescott’s 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dalton Schultz. Then the fumbles continued for Cowboys kicker Brett Maher.
Maher set an NFL record in the Cowboys’ win over the Buccaneers by missing four extra-point attempts. Usually, too many missed kicks can mean the end of a kicker’s tenure with a team. Despite adding another kicker to the roster ahead of Sunday’s game, the Cowboys stuck with Maher, who missed just three extra points during the regular season.
As Maher prepared to kick the extra point after Dallas’ only touchdown of the game, Cowboys fans stopped rocking their blue and white t-shirts and seemed to catch their collective breath. The kick was blocked by Samson Ebugam at the defensive end of the 49ers. Black made it 6-3 on a field goal to keep the Cowboys in the lead. In the second half, Maher made two of his field goal attempts, the only points Dallas scored the rest of the way.
Another key turnover came on an interception by linebacker Fred Warner in the second quarter. With multiple stars and Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa at defensive end, Warner may be the most important. Throughout the game, Warner did everything: stop runners in the backfield; running stride for stride with CeeDee Lamb, the Cowboys’ top receiver, pass deflection; and protecting interception. Warner was a major factor in the Cowboys’ offensive struggles in the second half, in which they had only one drive that lasted more than six plays.
Leading 16-12 late in the fourth quarter, it looked like the 49ers were going to put the game away. They ran nearly eight minutes off the clock, but the Cowboys defense held them to a field goal. Two incomplete passes and a sack followed on Dallas’ next possession. The Cowboys got the ball once again with 45 seconds left, but were pinned at their own 6-yard line. On the final play of the game, the Cowboys used a strange offense that broke Ezekiel Elliott’s pass to Prescott. The play ended quickly, immediately tackling the receiver before starting a chain of desperation laterals.
“Yeah, very strange, I don’t know if they planned to be transparent in that situation, but it didn’t work out very well,” Warner said.
Warner and the 49ers’ defense have been vulnerable in the weeks leading up to this game, allowing 34 points to the Raiders’ backup quarterback in Week 17 and giving up 23 to the Seahawks in the wild-card round. Those were games that defensive coordinator DiMeco Ryans previously said fell below the team’s standards.
On Sunday, Warner said the 49ers’ defense lived up to its potential.
“For the most part it felt like us, man,” Warner said. “We know we have to play big-time football in the playoffs to have a chance to win this next game.”
For the 49ers, it was the first game in which rookie quarterback Brock Birdie, the last pick in the 2022 draft, was upset. The Cowboys’ pass rush pressured Birdie, who was sacked twice in a row. He missed several throws, some of which should have been interceptions had they not been dropped. Purdy said after the game that his play annoyed him.
“There are times in the game where, man, I want to be better. I want to capitalize on third downs and finish when we get into the red zone,” said Purdy, who finished with 214 passing yards and no touchdowns. “But at the same time, man, it’s The NFL, it’s not easy to do on your own, so for me, it’s like man I have to do my part.
But the team’s star-studded supporting cast and coach Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling were enough against a Cowboys defense that struggled to gain yards in ways the 49ers lacked their 10-game winning streak to end the regular season. Running back Christian McCaffrey scored the 49ers’ only touchdown in the third quarter, and the rest of the scoring came from Gould’s four field goals.
The 49ers will make their second straight appearance in the NFC Championship Game and the third time in the last four seasons when they face the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday.
Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones told reporters after the game that he thought the team had an advantage in the game at quarterback, but Prescott’s struggles took that away.
“I thought this team with Doc at quarterback, I thought we had a chance to compete at a high level in this tournament,” Jones said. “I really did. Tonight was our tip here—I thought.
The loss added to a long list of painful playoff disappointments for Dallas, which has won just five postseason games since its last Super Bowl win in the 1995 season. Since then the Cowboys have made zero conference championship appearances.
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