Nick Eatman is the author of his third book, the recently published ***Friday, Saturday, Sunday in Texas***, a chronicle of three football teams on three levels in Texas, from high school to college to the Cowboys.
ARLINGTON, Texas – If you're looking for a positive, upbeat column about all the good things that happened this year and how the future looks so bright, just check back at another time.
We have plenty of time to do that in the offseason, which abruptly began here late Sunday afternoon.
There's no doubt this team showed a ton of heart and fight and togetherness and all of that feel-good stuff that good teams need to win. But like Jason Garrett often says, "It's a 60-minute game." And for the entire 60 minutes, the Cowboys simply let this one get away.
Sure, they lost it on the final play of the game, but they were beaten in the first half. You can argue that they clawed all the way back and tied it, but it should've never been 21-3.
When I think about how this game got away, I go back to a couple of things happening in the first half that we actually worried about all year might happen, and they truly never did.
They never did until the stakes were the highest.
But we wondered all year when the defense would become a problem, especially with the lack of a pass rush. We also wondered when Dak Prescott might actually play like a rookie.
One of these is somewhat debatable, so let's tackle this one first.
Let me be clear: I thought Dak eventually played a great game and did everything he could to get his team in position to win. The way he fought back and drove the offense late in the game was sensational.
But things didn't start out so hot for him, which was part of the reason the Cowboys were down so big in the first half.
Again, don't come at me later about blaming Dak for this loss. But the offense wasn't scoring, and I put some of the blame on the play-calling for putting too much on his shoulders.
[embeddedad0]On the first drive of the game, the Cowboys have a third-and-2 at the Packers' 33-yard line and they call a pass for Dak to fire the ball into a super-tight window on a deep slant. That's not his best throw and they went for that play over running the ball to Ezekiel Elliott. In fact, I think I'm running it twice with him knowing that field goals weren't going to win this game.
I thought early on the offense was just completely out of sync and that falls on the quarterback's shoulders – whether it's his first playoff start or not. It's his job to take command of the huddle and know if there's 12 guys or not. You'd like for him to snap the ball when the Packers are running a guy off the field late, like Rodgers did a couple of times.
And his interception in the flat was just a poor decision on his part and something the Packers had sniffed out from the start of the play.
Again, I'm not saying Dak was bad. I'm certainly not going to talk about the other guy who wore a ball cap. That's for another day. But the Cowboys needed more from their offense to prevent a 21-3 deficit.
Ok, let's get to the other part and the real reason they were so behind early. That defense is pretty much what we thought we'd see all year. It just never happened much.
I seriously thought the lack of pass rush and defensive playmakers would rear its head long before the playoffs. It just never did. So because of that, we all got some false hope that this defense would be able to hold up.
Earlier in the season, I remember looking at the quarterbacks this team had faced and thinking the Cowboys were getting a break.
No Brady, Brees or Ryan. They got Roethlisberger, who went for 400 yards and nearly beat them. They faced Rodgers who just didn't have his A-game. And who knows where you want to place Eli Manning, but he's won two Super Bowls and he beat the Cowboys twice.
Sure, Stafford and Winston are both good quarterbacks, but not elite.
Rodgers was definitely elite on this day. And the Cowboys defense couldn't hold up. Now, it certainly tried in the second half and Jeff Heath nearly single-handedly brought the Cowboys back. Let that one sink in. Heath nearly won the game for the Cowboys.
His pick in the third quarter gave them a chance. He should've had another one in the fourth that was negated by a questionable penalty. And then he absolutely attacked Rodgers at the end of the game with a sack that I still have no idea how he didn't force a fumble.
Imagine if the ball comes loose and the Cowboys get it, and Bailey wins the game with a field goal.
But it wasn't meant to be. The Cowboys gave Rodgers the ball back with too much time and that's all he needed to make the game-winning play.
Hey, this was a great football game to watch if you're an average fan of the game. Cowboys fans are completely sick and they should be. You never know when you're going to get this far and have a chance to make it to the Super Bowl – in your home state.
And yes, it was a magical season by all standards. But it seemed like there was a part of me that always worried the defense might crack. And always wondered how Dak would respond on the big stage.
Both of them eventually came on strong. But you can't ignore the start of the game.
And ultimately, it was the start that led to the end.
View some of our favorite photos, updated throughout the Packers vs Cowboys game.