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Going Nowhere: Late Try Fails, Cowboys Lose to 49ers in NFL Playoffs

The Dallas Cowboys were going to have to check an assortment of boxes to win Sunday's NFL playoff game against visiting San Francisco here at AT&T Stadium. They failed to do so.

ARLINGTON - There were going to have to be certain boxes checked in order for the Dallas Cowboys to win Sunday's NFL playoff game against visiting San Francisco here at AT&T Stadium.

The Cowboys, in watching their promising season shrivel away, checked exactly none of those boxes on the way to a come-crashing-down 23-17 loss to the underdog Niners.

Rely on the cool excellence of QB Dak Prescott? There was a last-two-minutes desperation bomb, but ... Nope.

Be crisp enough to end the trend of being the NFL's most-penalized team? Nope.

Out-physical a Niners team that threatened them with "Bully Ball''? Nope.

Utilize a collection of high-octane stars to make more plays than the grind-it-out Niners? Nope.

Harken back to the early 1990's and ride the coattails of past Dallas clubs' Super Bowl brilliance? Nope.

Prescott, the $40 million-a-year quarterback, was erratic as best. By game's end, he was 23 of 43 (awful, percentage-wise) for 254 yards, with a rushing TD ... but too rarely quite able to make "the play.''

His first-half TD throw to Amari Cooper breathed life into the Cowboys but for a moment. 

But his third-quarter interception - like so many of his "Wild Thing'' throws - made efficiency impossible. And a fourth-down heave to Cedrick Wilson with inside of two minutes remaining could've made a difference.

But it fell innocuously to the turf as Wilson spun about wildly trying to locate the ball.

A Dak run could've set up something later, with precious seconds ticking ... 

But that all went away as well.

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Also blocking efficiency: Dallas' penchant for penalties. Over the course of 2021, along with its 12-5 regular-season record, Dallas led the NFL in flags. The locker room whined about that often, but a truth was exposed here, with offsides and false starts and silliness taking their toll.

Also punishing, and haunting, is the fulfillment of the "Bully Ball'' threat. Niners people weren't shy about expressing the sentiment all week. And on Sunday? Dallas got pushed around and Dallas got gashed.

So, if you can't out-physical 'em, out-skill them? That would be a conventional option, but the paltry numbers tell the story: From Trevon Diggs and Randy Gregory on defense to CeeDee Lamb (1 catch, 21 yards) and Ezekiel Elliott (12 carries, 31 yards) on offense, the Cowboys weapons fizzled.

OK. Out-think 'em?

Down 23-7 early in the fourth, the Cowboys pulled off a fake punt, turning a fourth-and-5 into a 16-yard pass from punter Bryan Anger to special-teamer C.J. Goodwin. But queerly, on the very next play, somehow the offense wasn't ready to snap the ball in time.

Alas, another penalty, causing Dallas to settle for a Greg Zuerlein field goal, and at least he didn't miss it.

Factually, this Dallas effort offered up no resemblance whatsoever to Cowboys-Niners Super Bowl-level traditions. Those teams - on both sides - were about talent feeding off challenges ... the way Prescott promised his team would on Sunday. And "trying hard in the fourth quarter'' ... with a pair of desperate goes ... changes none of that.

''I don't necessarily know why people have labeled the word `pressure' as such a bad thing, honestly,'' Prescott said. ''I think it creates high expectations and high standards, and they usually create high results.''

Nope. On this day, "pressure'' was a bad thing. Execution was a bad thing. Penalties were a bad thing. Attempts at being physical were a bad thing. Attempts at being skilled were a bad thing. Attempts at being smart were a bad thing.

The questions about coach Mike McCarthy stewardship are going nowhere. The questions about the Prescott-led offense are going nowhere. The questions about the defense led by rookie Micah Parsons are going nowhere.

''I think it's just another game,'' Parsons said this week. The only difference is this will dictate if we're going home or not, and I hope we're not going home.''

"Hope,'' they had. It was pretty much every other box that went unchecked. And now, in addition to the questions going nowhere ...

The Dallas Cowboys are going nowhere.

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