SANTA CLARA, Calif. – And on the morning after, certainly we find ourselves asking why, why again, not to these same San Francisco 49ers. Not when all seemed right in the Cowboys' world.
They finished the 2022 regular season at 12-5. Finished with a 6-1 record against teams with a winning record. Went to Tampa, Fla., last Monday and knocked the snot out of the Buccaneers. Beat Tom Brady for the first time in eight tries.
Rolled into this NFC Divisional Playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers with a confident mindset, ready for this test. Great Sunday for football. Great grass field. Could have used it for putting. Healthy as you could ever wish to be in the 20th week of an NFL season. And a little symmetry in the air, having come to the Bay Area 30 years ago to win their first NFC title game in 14 seasons.
So why, for the life of us, why Niners 19, Cowboys 12?
Why here at Levi's Stadium under this azure Sunday sky? Why were the Cowboys short-circuited by this team, sure, riding an 11-game winning streak, but starting a quarterback taken with the absolute last pick in the 2022 draft?
Why, once again, could the Cowboys not break this streak of NFC Divisional round failures, dating back to the 1996 season, now reaching six straight? Always just one step from reaching the NFC Championship Game for the first time since that 1995 season, 27 years ago.
Let me count the ways.
They scored but 12 points, the third fewest of the season, and in these playoffs, you had better score if you plan on winning these games. Eight of the 10 winners these first 10 games of the NFL playoffs scored at least 27 points. The two failing to, Cincinnati won with 24 over the Ravens and, uh, the Niners needed to score only 19 to beat the Cowboys.
See what I mean?
Let's continue with the whys.
Dak Prescott can't turn the ball over two more times, giving him 17 interceptions for the 13 games he played. Both were somewhat weird, Dak anticipating Michael Gallup coming back after he hitched, yet the receiver kept going deep for an easy pick, the other one coming trying to thread a needle for yet another tip-ball interception.
Then there was that Cowboys offensive line, for the majority of the game no match for the NFL's No. 1 overall defense and No. 2 defense against the run. The 49ers bet the Cowboys wouldn't be able to protect Dak well enough, even if they only sacked him once but continually sent blitzes to harass him while winning their bet.
And an offensive line that led the way for this team all season was no match for the Niners run defense, especially after the Cowboys lost Tony Pollard late in the second quarter with a fractured left fibula and fearing further ligament damage to the ankle.
Then, when you can't run the ball effectively as the Cowboys couldn't, likely you end up struggling on third down, converting just 5 of 15 (33.3 percent), with eight of those third-and-5 or more. And this is a team finishing the regular season converting 45.5 percent of its third downs and at least 50 percent in nine of their previous18 games.
But the Cowboys most egregious transgressions were these:
Kicker Greg Maher, while 2 of 2 on field goal attempts, had his low kick on the first extra point of the game blocked. Minus-one point there.
Then with the Cowboys in scoring position, second-and-2 at the Niners' 18-yard line, likely at the very least a sure field goal, Dak gets picked. Minus-three at least. That's now minus-four. Even worse, the Cowboys defense allowed San Francisco to drive close enough as the half was ending for Robbie Gould's third of four field goals, this one from 50 yards that, without the Prescott interception, likely would have never been scored. That's now seven points.
And on top of that, with the score tied 9-9 and the Cowboys' Damone Clark recovering a Kelvin Joseph-forced San Fran fumbled punt return at the 49ers' 21-yard line, and moving to a first-and-goal at the 9, the Cowboys were forced to settle for a 25-yard field goal when a touchdown needed to be scored. Minus-four more points. That's 11 now.
They lost by seven.
In especially playoff games, winners make plays.
"You've got to make plays when you have opportunities to make plays," an understandably distraught Jayron Kearse said. "We didn't make them and they did tonight."
And then after all that, well, two more things. With the scored tied at 9-9, the Cowboys defense that held the 49ers to just 28 yards rushing with 5:58 left in the third quarter, started leaking runs. For the rest of the way, the 49ers racked up 91 yards rushing while scoring 10 more points.
They did so lining up mostly no more than two wide receivers, so going heavy with a fullback or two tight ends, and sometimes three running backs, lining up Deebo Samuel in the backfield while the Cowboys continued to play with their big nickel defense.
And here was more of the disappointing same: This Cowboys defense held the electric Deebo to just 56 total yards on eight touches and the Niners' dual-threat running back Christian McCaffrey to 57 yards on 16 touches. That's not even five yards a touch.
Plus, and here was the killer on defense, even though the Cowboys held Frisco to just 19 points, they knew coming in that Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan protects the rookie Purdy by only asking him to throw the ball over the middle. None of this deep out business. Down the hashes. Quick slants. Use your tight end, Greg Kittle finishing with five catches for 95 of Purdy's 214 yards passing. And for gosh sakes, don't be throwing the ball at Trevon Diggs. All he had to do was read the middle of the field.
The Cowboys really missed cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis in this one, both out for the season with injuries.
Funny how this playoff stuff works. The things you worry about or need to cover up during the regular season end up haunting you in the end. Your corners opposite Diggs. Your kicker who had missed five of his last six extra points, and the NFL-high four in the win over Tampa Bay. And Dak's rash of interceptions. And darn if those evils didn't show up.
But the final straw is scoring just 12 points. Twelve now, the third fewest all season, two of those outputs coming in the past three games.
The fewest? Well, but a field goal in the season-opening loss to Tampa Bay. Then the six in the final game of the season against Washington. Now these measly 12. At least in the other three defeats they scored 17 in the loss to Philadelphia, 28 in the overtime loss to Green Bay and 34 in the overtime loss to Jacksonville.
Meaning they started the season giving up just 19 points in the loss to Tampa Bay. And they bookended the season giving up 19 points again in the loss to San Francisco.
"It's tough, it's not anything you prepare for," head coach Mike McCarthy said after being asked what he said to the team. "I've never prepared for a talk for losing a game. You feel like you had opportunities to win and was confident going into it. In those moments, you just have to be real and genuine
"I mean, it's raw, it's raw. I mean it's raw in the locker room right now."
Just raw all around.