SANTA CLARA, Calif. – This is not what it was supposed to be.
Not even close.
Why, the 3-1 Cowboys were coming here to the West Coast for a nationally televised confrontation with the undefeated San Francisco 49ers (4-0), universally considered the best team in the NFC. Maybe even the best team in the NFL.
Why, San Francisco had won 14 consecutive regular-season games, 10 straight to end the 2022 season, then two more in the playoffs, including ousting the Cowboys, 19-12, then of course the first four games of this season.
This was to be a measuring stick game for the Cowboys, who held a 108-13 point advantage over the three opponents they had beaten, only losing 28-16 to the Arizona Cardinals. We thought that was an anomaly. We thought we'd find out just where the Cowboys were this Sunday night here at Levi's Stadium.
While the Cowboys had lost the last two times they had played the Niners, getting ousted by them in the playoffs the past two years, but only by 23-17 and the 19-12, they couldn't wait for this encounter. It was the Cowboys' No. 2 defense in the NFL up against the Niners' No. 2 offense. Parson vs. Bosa. Dak vs. Brock. Finally, the Cowboys' starting five offensive linemen were playing together for the first time since the end of the 2021 season, going up against a stout San Francisco defensive front.
Well, in the end, Dak Prescott said, "I called it a couple of weeks ago humbling against Arizona, but this may be the most humbling game I've ever been a part of."
Head coach Mike McCarthy called it, "a punch in the gut, a kick in the ass."
Certainly, you guys called it a … well, shame on you for using such words like that. So for the sanctity of the English language, why don't we just let the facts tell this story of just how disheartening this was.
Niners 42, Cowboys 10.
And frankly, telling you what, sitting through this for 3 hours and 5 minutes seemed significantly worse than that.
This 32-point loss matched the Cowboys' largest margin of defeat since Nov. 10, 2013, a 49-17 one to the New Orleans Saints, and matched the 12th largest in this the franchise's 64th season.
In fact, to find the last larger margin of defeat we have to go back to, and this really is ironic, a 45-7, 38-point drumming on Nov. 7, 2010, at the hands of, uh, Mike McCarthy and the Green Bay Packers. The Cowboys fell to 1-7 that season, necessitating the move from head coach Wade Phillips to interim head coach Jason Garrett that next week and then head coach for the next nine seasons.
The 10 measly points scored means the Cowboys have totaled just 39 points in these three consecutive losses to the 49ers, averaging now only 13 points a game.
Why, they turned the ball over four times, three Prescott interceptions in the second half and a Tony Pollard lost fumble.
The Cowboys only totaled 197 yards, the fewest since, well, the 182 in the blowoff 2022 season finale against Washington.
They gave up a season high 421.
They could only run for 57 yards, the fewest since the 45 against Arizona in Game 16 of 2021.
And now, we must admit, the Cowboys have not solved their run defense problems, the Niners pummeling them for 170 yards on the ground in the loss, along with the 222 gained by Arizona in that loss, seemingly suggesting some similarity.
Niners quarterback Brock Purdy scorched the Cowboys when throwing the ball, completing 17 of 24 attempts for 252 passing yards and three touchdowns with a QB rating of 144.4, while Dak had one of his worst outings in quite some time, completing just 14 of 24 for 153 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and a QB rating of 51.6, the seventh lowest of his now eight-year, 102-game career.
We could go on and on with these lopsided stats, but the real tale of the tape was the Cowboys got whooped up front on both sides of the ball, the San Francisco offensive line keeping Purdy mostly clean, getting sacked just once and hit but two times. He had the time of day in the pocket while Dak was running for his life far too often, getting sacked three times and hit another nine. Plus, the Niners registered six tackles for losses.
Just not good.
"I didn't see this coming," McCarthy said, along with, "We got a lot of work to do, a lot of work to do, and we've got another one coming in eight days."
Yep, the season isn't over with this humbling loss, but does drop the Cowboys to 3-2, now two games behind the Eagles in the NFC East, and certainly from an image standpoint, further behind the 49ers than we ever imagined.
Why, these Niners just might be in a league of their own. They have now won 15 straight regular-season games, the longest active streak in the NFL. They have now scored at least 30 points in their last eight regular-season games, the first NFL team to do so since Denver over the 2012-13 seasons.
And this may sound strange, since in the end San Francisco tight end George Kittle demolished the Cowboys secondary, turning his only three receptions into his only three touchdowns of the season without a Cowboys defender in sniffing distance of him on the way into the end zone.
But one second-quarter play became one of those dynamite-inducing avalanches on the slopes. There was but 6:16 left in the first half. The Cowboys had just driven 78 yards in 11 plays, having recorded their first three first downs of the game, with Dak hitting KaVontae Turpin with a beauty of a 26-yard touchdown pass to narrow the Niners lead to a manageable 14-7.
It was third-and-4 at the San Francisco 46-yard line when Juanyeh Thomas busted up a Purdy pass intended for Christian McCaffrey over the middle, ostensibly forcing a San Francisco punt. But here came a flag flying in from out yonder and a hat, too, from the same official a good 15-20 yards from the play. Not only was he calling, and by the way, not interference, but unnecessary roughness on safety Donovan Wilson for his hit on McCaffrey, but then an unsportsmanlike penalty on Jayron Kearse for good measure for taunting.
Both of the 15-yard variety, but you only get one, so the roughing call stood, giving the Niners, who were about to punt for only Dallas' second stop of the game, a first down at the Cowboys' 39-yard line – a dramatic turn of events, to say to the least.
The Cowboys were incensed.
"We go trying to make a tackle and it's roughing," DeMarcus Lawrence said. "Playing at someone else's field. It was a clean hit. Certain calls need to be reviewed in New York. They can see."
Five plays later, McCaffrey plunges one yard into the end zone, and instead of the Niners punting and the Cowboys having a possession to possibly tie the game, they are now behind 21-7 with 2:36 left in the half.
Compounding that frustration, the Cowboys go three-and-out, never getting off the mat with a two-minute drive. And even though they deferred the opening kickoff and had the ball to start the third quarter, on a third-and-4 at the San Francisco 31-yad line, this supposed West Coast offense curiously elected to run the ball. With Rico Dowdle losing a yard, they had to settle for a 50-yard Brandon Aubrey field goal, narrowing the lead to 21-10.
That is as close as the Cowboys would ever be for the rest of the game.
They wanted to call this offense the "Texas Coast" offense, but in this game at least, might as well have been the "Gulf Coast" offense. And again, just the facts, finishing the game with just eight first downs, matching the fourth fewest in franchise history. The team leading the NFL in third-down conversions at a 51.6 percent rate and tied for the lead with 19 red zone possessions also converting just four of 11 third downs (36.4 percent) and never once reaching the red zone. Dak never looked comfortable, save the one drive.
Worse, with just one turnover in the first four games, finishing with four in this one.
Good thing about this one, it's only one loss, no matter how lopsided. The season is long. Can't let this bleed into coming back to the West Coast next Monday night to face the Chargers.
But as McCarthy said, he doesn't believe in burning bad tape. Got to own it. Got to move on. Got to find a measure of consistency, so far boomeranging with two big wins, one bad loss, a big win against what appears to me a less than average New England team and now a discouraging loss. Such a wide spectrum of performances.
"We have to compete," a frustrated all game long CeeDee Lamb said. "You can't go out there one week and look like a super team and then the following week poop the bed."
Glad he chose his word carefully.