Coming into this NFC Wild Card game, the Dallas Cowboys knew they'd be facing a tough opponent in the San Francisco 49ers. In the end, their toughest opponent may have been themselves.
Simply put, the Cowboys undisciplined play was their own worst enemy.
Despite a furious comeback, too many penalties and unforced errors contributed to a disappointing 23-17 loss for the Cowboys, their hopeful season coming to an abrupt end. Continuing a trend that saw them finish as the NFL's most penalized team during the regular season, Dallas was flagged a whopping 14 times for 89 yards in this one, which tied the franchise record for most penalties in a playoff game.
That, of course, wasn't the only problem, as the 49ers were a handful from the opening kickoff. San Francisco dominated the time of possession, 33:57 to 26:03, as the visitors largely controlled the line of scrimmage, finishing with 169 rushing yards while allowing only 77 to the Cowboys on the ground, including just 31 on 12 carries for Ezekiel Elliott. The 49ers' big men up front also didn't allow a sack on offense, while their defensive line, even without an injured Nick Bosa for most of the game, totaled five sacks.
And, in truth, San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo mostly outplayed his counterpart with the Cowboys, Dak Prescott, who faced heavy pressure throughout the day. Garoppolo completed 64.0 percent of his passes for only 172 passing yards and one interception for a 67.4 rating.
But Prescott posted just a 69.3 rating after completing 53.5 percent of his passes for 254 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Most of his work, however, came in the fourth quarter with the Cowboys desperately playing catchup.
The 49ers made it look easy on their first possession, as they quickly darted 75 yards in seven plays without ever having a third down. That included four straight gains of 11 yards before running back Elijah Mitchell went around the right end and raced to the pylon for a quick 7-0 lead.
And soon enough the Cowboys were down by 10. After Dallas went three-and-out, the 49ers started at their own 42-yard line and advanced only 23 yards in nine plays. But that was enough for Robbie Gould, the kicker coming out to split the uprights on a 53-yard field goal.
Dallas' second possession was a good example of how the day would go. A block in the back penalty on Luke Gifford on the kickoff return got them started at their own 9-yard line. Both Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott dropped passes on the ensuing series, and Connor Williams got flagged for holding that negated a 32-yard gain. That was then followed by Cedric Wilson tossing a would be lateral to Tony Pollard out of bounds.
Needing a stop to keep the game from getting out of hand, the Dallas defense didn't surrender a touchdown, but it still gave up another three points. San Francisco converted three third downs on the drive, one of which was a third-and-9, but elected to kick the field goal on fourth-and-1 at the Cowboys 22-yard line, Gould coming out for the 40-yard field goal.
Desperate to get something, anything, going, Dak Prescot and the offense went no huddle and finally got on the board. The Cowboys ran seven times for 29 yards, which were mixed around a quick out to Wilson that picked up 18 more. Cooper got the scoring honors, though, when Prescott dropped a perfect pass into the wideout's arms in the back right corner of the end zone for the team's first touchdown.
San Francisco responded with yet another field goal, this one from 52 yards, to go up, 16-7. But getting the ball back with 3:03 remaining in the first half and then having possession to open the second half, the Cowboys had a chance to flip the script.
The first part of the equation came up short as the Cowboys threatened, crossing midfield, but were unable to add to their total before the break.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys didn't come close to threatening at the start of the second half, their hopes of quickly getting back in the game failing to come to fruition. Even after the 49ers ran into punter Bryan Anger for a roughing the kicker call that gave Dallas 15 yards and a fresh set of downs, the home side still couldn't get past its own 45-yard line.
But things only went from bad to worse on the Cowboys' next possession. After a penalty and 13-yard sack pushed Dallas back to its own 19-yard line, Prescott was picked off by cornerback K'Waun Williams, giving San Francisco the ball at the Cowboys' 26-yard line.
Then on the 49ers very first snap, Deebo Samuel went around the right end, slicing back to the center all the way to the end zone. With the field goal, the visitors now had a 23-7 lead.
As the clock ticked over into the final frame, the Cowboys caught a break when Anger connected with gunner C.J. Goodwin on a fake punt, the 16-yard completion moving the chains and keeping the drive alive. That led to a 51-yard field goal from Greg Zuerlein, the Cowboys back on the board with just under 12 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
And just when they needed it most, the Cowboys got a turnover, Garoppolo overthrowing his intended target and into the arms of Anthony Brown, the cornerback returning it 23 yards to the San Francisco 28.
Given the gift, the Cowboys were in the end zone five plays later. Prescott connected with Cooper for 11 yards and then CeeDee Lamb for 10 more before running the final 5 yards to pay dirt himself, Dallas now down just six points with 8:02 left on the clock.
When they got the ball back – Leighton Vander Esch stopping Samuel a yard short on third-and-5 – the Cowboys were at their own 16-yard line with 2:51 remaining in the game. And Dallas then had the 49ers on their heels when Prescott connected with tight end Dalton Schultz for 38 yards before the 2-minute warning.
Now in enemy territory, it all came down to a fourth-and-11 at the San Francisco 47-yard line with 1:49 on the clock. But a scrambling Prescott's desperation heave down the field fell just out of reach of the twisting, diving Wilson, the 49ers taking over on downs.
The Cowboys had one more shot, getting the ball back at their own 20-yard line with 32 seconds left. A pass over the middle to Wilson, who lateraled to Lamb, picked up 11 yards with a dump off to Pollard adding another 11.
Nine more yards was collected with an out route to Schultz, setting Dallas up at the San Francisco 41-yard line with 14 seconds left. But when Prescott ran a quarterback draw up the middle for 17 yards, the Cowboys couldn't get lined back up in time, the clock running out, the game over on perhaps another unforced error.
And with that, Dallas' 2021 campaign came to an unceremonious end after a 12-5 regular season and a first place finish in the NFC East, leaving Cowboys fans once again to wait until next year for that elusive sixth championship.