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Spagnola: Oh no, not again, when least expected


ARLINGTON, Texas – Never in all my born days, and there have been many thousands of them, would have thought this was coming.

Packers 48, Cowboys 32.

Nor did any other soul among the 93,799 snuggled into AT&T Stadium on this wintry wild-card Sunday.

Not this year, dang it. Not this time. Not when so much was going the Cowboys' way, having finished 12-5 for the third consecutive year, having snuck into the NFC East title that final week of the season. And not only earning the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs but having homefield advantage in the first wound, with the second round, too, providing they were able to beat the seventh-seed, 9-8 Green Bay Packers.

Not when the Cowboys had gone 8-0 at home this 2023 season, not after stretching their current NFL-long home winning streak to 16 consecutive games and averaging a skosh more than 37 points a game during those eight home wins.

This must be a bad dream. A nightmare.

But no, not upon waking up this morning to a snow-covered yard. Was for real.

And you know what is even worse than losing in the first round of the playoffs for the second time in three years? This game wasn't even that close. Why, the Packers were leading, 27-0, with 1:50 left in the first half, waking up the wrong ghosts of playoffs past. Reminded of when the Cowboys immediately fell behind the San Francisco 49ers in the 1994 season NFC Championship Game, 21-0, midway through the first quarter before they even gained a first down, thanks to three straight turnovers, going on to lose, 38-28. At least they made a game of it.

If this was some sort of Pee Wee football matchup, this lopsided game would have been called on some 25-point rule.

Did you realize that when this game was all but over with the Packers, now 10-8 and winners of their past four games, leading 48-16 with 10:23 left to play, the Cowboys were on the verge of matching their widest margin of playoff defeat in this their 67th playoff game, and their all-time worse home playoff defeat? You'd have to go all the way back to the 1969 season when they were drilled by the original Cleveland Browns, 38-14, while still playing at the Cotton Bowl.

This is why Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called this loss "most painful."

Why Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy called the loss, "Very disappointing," then adding, "I don't think anyone saw this coming." Certainly right about that.

And why Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said he was, "Shocked. … We got beat, no way to sugar coach it. Shocked."

They all stopped short of saying "embarrassed."

Nope, can't eve n put some lipstick on this one, even though the Cowboys scored two consolation touchdowns in the final six minutes to make their 31st playoff loss in now 67 games (36-31) look a tad more respectable. They were even throwing for the end zone in the final 30 seconds of the game, pressing their hands together for not just a Hail Mary touchdown but probably the entire rosary since they would have been required to recover an onside kick if scoring, then intersperse an "Our Father" touchdown heave.

Instead, the only sound the Cowboys faithful heard was kerplunk, the Cowboys falling on their faces, that only to be drowned out by the attending Cheeseheads serenading with, "Go Pack Go!"

So the $64,000 questions certainly you're asking is, "What the hell happened?"

Start here. The Cowboys defense was lost the entire game. Maybe they never heard of Packers star wideout Romeo Doubs. The second-year receiver, no more than a fourth-round draft choice last year, caught six passes for 151 yards. Not a one was contested. In fact, his first four catches went for 22 yards, 26, 15 and 39 yards. And in the third quarter, Doubs added a 46-yarder. Total breakdowns.

In fact, on the Packers' second-to-last touchdown, Luke Musgrave was so wide open he actually had to stop his route and was waiting for the ball with his back to the end zone before sauntering in for the 38-yard score.

Then there was the third-year quarterback, first as a full-season starter, Jordan Love, who was one completion short of a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating, hitting on 16 of 21 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns. The Cowboys didn't sack Love once. Only credited with three QB hits.

That they zeroed out on sacks was somewhat of a trend, since this is the sixth time in seven games the Cowboys have finished with no more than one sack, the four the previous Sunday at Washington a mere mirage.

Green Bay gained 415 total yards, which could have been worse since once up 48-16, the Packers ran the ball five of their next six plays before we found out some guy named Sean Clifford was their backup quarterback. The 48 points the Packers scored was the most the Cowboys have ever given up in 67 playoff games, 10 more than the previous record, first recorded in 1969 and last recorded by the Niners in that aforementioned NFC title game.

Speaking of records, the Packers tied their single-game playoff high mark with the 48 points.

"They got into a bunch of 12 personnel and ran the ball a little bit, and then play-action passed it," said cornerback Stephon Gilmore, another shortcoming of the Cowboys all season when trying to play two-tight end formations with just one linebacker and converted safety Markquese Bell most of the time. "We just couldn't get in a rhythm. We just had to play better; and in the playoffs if you don't do that, that's the results you get."

Didn't help matters that for three and a half quarters, the Cowboys offense was malfunctioning. Dak Prescott, until the two consolation touchdowns, had his worst performance of the season, getting intercepted twice. The first one by Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander, though yanked Brandin Cooks from behind and then beat him to the ball at the Cowboys' 19-yard line. But that didn't mean the defense had to give up a touchdown four plays later.

Then the second one with the Cowboys crossing midfield to the Green Bay 40-yard line basically sealed the game. Safety Darnell Savage came off the slot receiver to jump Dak's pass intended for CeeDee Lamb and returned the pick 64 yards for what might as well have been the technical knockout touchdown to give the Pack their 27-0 lead with 1:50 left in the half.

"I'm not a guy who lives in the past," said Dak, refusing to rest on any season-long laurels, having led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes and being intercepted only nine times. "I sucked tonight."

At halftime, Dak had completed just 13 of 21 passes for but 87 yards, one touchdown – a one-yard pass to Jake Ferguson, the first of his three TD receptions – and those two picks, for a QB rating of 47.2.

Worse, the NFL-leading Dak-to-Lamb connection was shut down but good. Lamb had only two receptions for 18 yards at halftime, and while finishing with nine for 110 yards, needed 17 targets to do so.

"Credit them for some of the early looks disguising how they were going to play him," Dak said of how the Packers were covering CeeDee, using a combination of zones in trying to take him out of the game. "And then late after the snap, moving and not giving me the same picture that they were pre-snap as they did post-snap. Credit to them. Then I missed him on the sideline on a little roll out. But once we got it going, it was too late."

Sure appeared Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry – remember, former Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's son-in-law – did a fine number on containing this offense that led the NFL in scoring.

And while he didn't say it, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur did a number on the Cowboys defense, figuring out how to run the ball just enough – 33 attempts for 143 yards after putting 207 on the Cowboys in last season's 31-28 overtime win – then resorting to the Packers play-action passing attack. Why, just what we feared, Packers running back Aaron Jones running for 118 of the Packers 143 rushing yards. Totaled 131 from scrimmage and his three rushing touchdowns tied a Packers single-game playoff high. He now has seven career playoff rushing touchdowns, more than any Packer player, including those named Jim Taylor or Paul Hornung.

Funny how in the playoff those regular-season warts get exposed, including the as-of-late inability to sack quarterbacks or force takeaways.

"Jordan Love, wow," LaFleur said. "That's about all I can say is wow. What he did, the poise he shows, the command he shows."

And with that the Packers head to San Francisco for the next round to take on the No. 1-seeded 49ers, certainly well-rested for earning their first-round bye.

The Cowboys, well, that's it. Exit interviews, weather permitting, will begin on Monday. All that work to take the next step after being knocked out of the playoffs the previous two season by San Francisco in heartbreaking fashion and nothing to show for a 12-5 record and winning the NFC East.

Same playoff song, next verse, the Cowboys now 5-13 in their 13 playoff appearances since winning Super Bowl XXX that 1995 season. And still searching to get past the second round, now six times losing in the wild-card round.

Seemingly everything that was set up perfectly to reach at least the NFC title game for the first time since that 1995 season, assured of two home playoff games if they won the first round, now down the drain. And they didn't even come close.

"Just express the reality of where we are," McCarthy said of his message to the team. "This is a hurtful loss. We put ourselves in position to play a home playoff game. We had a great opportunity, felt really good about the week of preparation, so we thought we matched up well.

"But, you know, we clearly picked a wrong day to have a bad day."

An awfully bad day.

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