ARLINGTON, Texas – Sometimes, the things we want to see can cloud our judgement on reality. This season, I think it's safe to say, I've done that.
I think, in my mind, I kept telling myself this team was different. This team was special. Honestly, I really had no thoughts that this was going to end this weekend.
But I guess I didn't want to see the truth. And you didn't either. But it was there – all year.
That's why I'm not going to call this team a bunch of "frauds" that I've been seeing on social media. I don't think they really teased us either, only to fall short at the end.
No, actually this is the team we've seen all year long. From the very start they were a team that stacked up several wins –12 to be exact – against some of the weaker competition this league has to offer.
But against the best teams, the ones that really are elite and the ones that are still playing football right now, the Cowboys just weren't good enough.
They were pretty close – close enough to lose by two points to the Buccaneers, three points to the Cardinals, six to the 49ers – but not good enough to win.
And while you can come back and say they won three games against playoff teams – yeah, an overtime win at New England and two wins against the Eagles – both of those teams are out of the playoffs. Just like the Cowboys.
Yeah, I guess after covering this team for now 23 seasons, I saw something different. Or I wanted to see it differently.
But this team is exactly what they've been all year. And the problem areas popped up at the worst times yet again here Sunday.
Let's go through it, shall we?
· Penalties? In just about every loss, there have been some crazy calls that went against the Cowboys. Raiders game on Thanksgiving? They had a franchise-record in penalty yards. Against the Cardinals, they hated the calls so much that many of the players said they have to play against the refs, too. So in this game, why are we surprised that they had penalty issues yet again? It was embarrassing. The story I write on the "5 plays" not to forget, four of them were plays involving penalties. Guys like Connor Williams and Randy Gregory have had their penalty issues in the past and both of them were flagged here again.
· Slow starts? The Cowboys once again came out flat on both sides of the ball. How in the world is that possible? You're at home. The fans are going crazy. And despite everything being said about the 49ers having a lot of fans, it was a non-issue. But what was an issue was coming out and getting run over to start the game and the offense failing to do anything until the second quarter. It happened all year long, and only against the average teams could they really get away with it.
· Dak Prescott? He can't be let off the hook here. He didn't play well – at all. Did he get a lot of pressure in his face? Yeah, all game long. But still, there were plays to be made and he didn't make them. Even at the end, on fourth-and-11 with the game on the line. He's got Cedrick Wilson running free behind the defense, and he couldn't make the play. Now, that throw wasn't the easiest one to make, but there were others where he just completely missed his guy. He gets a lot of credit for rallying and fighting back and all that, but part of the reason why this team was down in the first place was because of the offensive struggles early in the game.
· No running game – again? The Cowboys started the season on fire in the running game, but it trickled off in a major way. Here we are in the playoffs and Ezekiel Elliott rushes for 31 yards and Tony Pollard gets 14.
· Coaching? I think for the most part this team has been well-coached this season. There have been some moments throughout the season where there have been clock-management issues. I think sometimes that gets overblown because we rarely talk about times in which the coaches managed the clock correctly. But in this game, clock management popped up again. To me, the end of the game came down to execution more than anything. They practice that scenario and get to the line of scrimmage to spike the ball. They just didn't get it spiked. Sure, you'd like the ref to get out of the way, but he didn't. Shouldn't have come down to that.
· Let's stay with coaching for a second. I said in the press box before halftime, don't throw the ball in the middle of the field. The sun is a problem right then and there, and you've got to get some points. Don't risk it. What do you know? A pass on third down to Wilson and he doesn't even see it? That would've probably led to three points and just imagine how a field goal would've changed things on that final drive. Forget Dak running up the middle, they're already in field goal range at the 40.
We can go on and on, but the results don't change. I think we're all disappointed by the outcome because we just saw a different scenario.
But we shouldn't have. This team has been the same all year long. Whether we wanted to admit it or not.