The Cowboys had used their running game to carry them all season long. Between the explosiveness of Tony Pollard and physical nature of Ezekiel Elliott, it had been the foundation for one of the best offenses in the league this season. But in one play, the foundation cracked, and there was no quick fix available to save the Cowboys' season.
In the midst of their 19-12 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday for the second straight season, this time in the NFC Divisional Round, what was initially diagnosed as a high-ankle sprain suffered by Pollard in the second quarter shook the hourglass on the Cowboys' time, dwindling it down that much more.
Pollard was eventually helped off the field and subsequently carted off to the locker room with a towel over his head, not to be seen again on the field at Levi Stadium. He left with the help of crutches in making his way out of the locker room postgame with a diagnosis of a fractured left fibula that will require surgery.
"Yeah, that hurt," Dak Prescott said after the game. "Just a guy that brings so much to our offense, brings so much to our team. His energy on the sideline, in the huddle, the way to get guys going. He's a special teammate, special player, and obviously that one hurt us. Weren't able to create as many explosive plays as we planned. I'm sure he would have been a big part of some of those had he not gotten hurt."
"It's tough to see one of your guys go down," Elliott said of Pollard's injury. "Never want to see that. [Pollard] had such a great year, he was so important for us this year. When he went down, we took all of our pony plays out of there; that's him and I on the field at the same time."
Head coach Mike McCarthy characterized the loss of Pollard as "a big blow for us," but it also forced the Cowboys to not only hand over the majority of the carries to Elliott, but also forced them to move to the passing game with wide receiver screens. That, however, really left the majority of the offense to go to CeeDee Lamb, who totaled 10 catches on 13 targets for 117 yards.
Without Pollard, the passing game quickly became the only viable option to move the ball, though even that could not seem to buy the Cowboys any momentum offensively with their premier playmaker sidelined. In total, Prescott had 37 attempts with just 23 completions and only 5.4 yards a pass for a total of 206 yards. For context, outside of Lamb, the Cowboys had just 89 passing yards to seven different players.
Lamb notwithstanding, Dalton Schultz had just five catches for 27 yards and the Cowboys' only touchdown of the game in the first quarter. Noah Brown had two catches for 21 yards, T.Y. Hilton recorded just a single catch, and Michael Gallup had only two targets come his way the rest of the game after being the intended receiver on Prescott's first of two interceptions.
The run game didn't fare any better following Pollard's injury after he left with only six carries for 22 yards. Elliott tallied 26 yards on 10 carries while Prescott had 22 yards on four attempts. Collectively, the Cowboys mustered just 76 yards on the ground for no scores, and 3.5 yards a carry. All of that for an offense that, during the season, ranked in the top-10 team in rushing yards, yards per game and had the second-most rushing touchdowns as a team in the league.
In short, the loss of Pollard, who earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl this season with his first career 1,000-yard rushing season and nine scores, cratered an offense that had been rolling just six days before in the Super Wild Card round against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
For a game that has stumped the Cowboys for so many years prior, including dropping their last six attempts in the divisional round dating back to the 1995 season, Pollard's injury encapsulated just another brutal memory to rank right alongside the many others that could be pointed to in previous tries to crack the NFC Championship Game for the first time in almost 30 years.
"Yeah," Elliott said. "Hurt by this loss."