Spagnola: This Loss Just 2020 In A Nutshell

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FRISCO, Texas – Well, so much for a storybook ending.

Giants 23, Cowboys 19.

And that's that for the 2020 season.

And if it wouldn't have been Sunday afternoon, well, it would have been that seven and a half hours later.

Washington 20, Philadelphia 17, rendering whatever the Cowboys had done at MetLife Stadium moot.

Just more 2020 horror spilling into the third day of 2021.

And we should have known better. A team starting off a season 3-9 as the Cowboys did, then making a gallant effort to win three consecutive games to air up improbable hopes of winning the unstable NFC East and qualifying for the playoffs, probably was not going to be good enough to win four consecutive games, a difficult task in this NFL, no matter who you are.

And they weren't.

Plus, asking the renamed Washington Football Team to play along in this storybook ending probably was a little much, not only the Cowboys needing to win their final four games to have a chance at winning the NFC East, but needing WFT to lose its final three games. Although, as badly was the Washingtons played on offense in that absolute final game of the NFL season Sunday night, it's a mighty good thing they were playing the worst team in the NFL's worst division.

Otherwise …

Oh, never mind. If we are being realistic, this whole thing was probably farfetched. So Washington wins the NFC East at 7-9. Cowboys and Giants tie at 6-10, though the New York Football Giants gain the second-place edge with a better division record than the Cowboys, 4-2 to 2-4. And Philly, geesh, 4-11-1, dead last. Probably a good thing WFT won its game, otherwise the Cowboys would be hitting themselves over the head, allowing the Giants to win a three-way tiebreaker to claim the East title at 6-10, with what would have been the worst record ever to _earn_ a playoff berth.

Can't make this stuff up.

Thank Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy for putting a season-ending perspective on this final loss, essentially what could have been a Cowboys potential playoff game, one of those win-or-else season-finale deals in which they have now stretched their _else_ futility to five consecutive occurrences.

"It's been, obviously, a year of a lot of ups and downs, trials and tribulations, and frankly, in some ways this game is a bit of a microcosm of our season," McCarthy said after the Cowboys fought in East Rutherford, N.J., to a bitter end.

Took the words right out of my mouth, seemingly what happens when losing a playoff game, all your warts getting exposed.

Cowboys get off to a slow start this season, fighting through injuries to critical players, sitting there 3-9 after 12 games.

They get off to a slow start in a cold, turned pouring rainy day, trailing 20-6 with 45 seconds left in the first half.

Defense has been problematic all season long, Cowboys giving up a franchise, single-season high of now 473 points, 37 points more than the previous high, and 2,541 rushing yards, 31st in the NFL this year and just 95 short of tying that franchise single-season high.

Well, those 20 points the Giants scored in the first half? They were more than the struggling Giants, losers of their previous three games, had scored in any of their past five games. And those rushing yards? Well, 47 more than the Giants had totaled in any of the past three games they lost.

Sacks, not one of the Cowboys defense's better qualities?

Well, they registered two. Two, on Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, who had been sacked six times in each of his previous two starts, and Giants quarterbacks 15 times during that three-game losing streak.

That beat up offensive line, one starting three backups and one backup to the backup that has been this team's Achilles heel all season long, causing the four quarterbacks starting for the Cowboys this season to be sacked now 44 times and get hit/pressured enough times to turn them black and blue?

Well, Andy Dalton, who didn't have one of his finest first halves of his 10-year career, was sacked six times by a team that had just two sacks in the past three games. He was hit/pressured another nine times. And the Giants registered nine tackles for losses, like that's one-third of the Cowboys 27 carries. Not even the imagination of boy wonder Kellen Moore, with a new three-year deal to continue on as offensive coordinator in his pocket, could weave his way out of this mess.

And then this, becoming one of the of the big microcosms in the game: Red Zone, like scoring touchdowns once inside the opponents 20, but really the Cowboys Dead Zone all season long. Going into the game the Cowboys had scored touchdowns on just 26 of their 50 red-zone possessions, or 52 percent. That ranked them 29th in the NFL. Too many field goals.

What happens Sunday? The Cowboys score a touchdown on just one of their four red-zone possessions. Ended up with two field goals, leaving eight points on the field, and then that game-damning interception with 1:15 to play. So they solidified their 29th spot, and lowered their red-zone touchdown percentage to an even 50 percent.

And guess what happened on all three of those possessions, causing the most consternations? Dalton getting sacked each time.

First, on third-and-goal from the 14, a minus six. Greg Zuerlein 38-yard field. Next, first-and-goal from the 11, Ezekiel Elliott minus-2 and then Dalton sacked on third-and-goal from the 9. Zuerlein 36-yard field goal, drawing the Cowboys to 20-19.

And lastly, first-and-goal at the 7 with 1:53 to play, trailing 23-19, first play, Dalton sacked, minus-10. So after CeeDee Lamb dropping a pass on second down, Dalton, under immense pressure, scrambles to his left, and while getting hit, out of desperation, throws up a wounded duck into the end zone allowing Giants safety Xavier McKinney to register his first interception of the season.

Ball game. Uh, season.

But Dalton should have known better, with one more down to go.

"In hindsight, I wish I wouldn't have done that, I wish I would've just thrown it away," said Dalton, who needed stitches after the game to repair a serious cut to his left hand that was stepped on after sliding down running out of the pocket, causing him to play with a glove the blood was soaking through. "Being where we were in that game, there were a couple of different possibilities with what we were able to do. Once we got the third down there, I tried to extend the play and tried to throw it up and give somebody a chance.

"In hindsight, I wish I wouldn't have done that. I wish I would've just thrown it away, but it's unfortunate that it got intercepted, and that was the end of it."

That sure was the end of it. The game.

Now, there already has been a lot of talk about why the Cowboys didn't challenge that third-down, 10-yard catch by Dante Pettis, moving the Giants close enough for Graham Gano to kick the 50-yard field goal for that four-point Giants lead instead of punting. Probably was worth a Mike McCarthy challenge, though have serious doubts the call would have been overturned. Sounds as if there was not much discussion over if he should, McCarthy never giving a look on the stadium video board.

And then there was the Wayne Gallman fumble ruled he recovered with 58 seconds remaining that the Cowboys came out of the pile with the ball. Figures, though, after a review, the ruling on the field stood.

"That really rolled up the whole season in a nutshell," wide receiver Michael Gallup said with great perspective, and he could have added Pettis' 33-yard touchdown grab ruled a catch, though the ball coming out as he hit the ground without contact that he recovered in the end zone.

Of course he did during a weirdo season laced with so many injuries, this whole pandemic thing and a few close calls, like losing three games by a total of 16 points, the first being that season-opening 20-17 loss to the playoff-bound Rams, then that 38-31 loss to a Seattle team going to the playoffs the Cowboys were leading 31-30 in the fourth quarter, and then this four-pointer.

So this winds up only the Cowboys' second losing season since going an identical 6-10 in 2010, resulting in head coach Wade Phillips being fired after a 1-7 start and the promotion of offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to head coach, leading the Cowboys to a 5-3 record the rest of the way, then three consecutive 8-8 finishes, followed by winning the NFC East three times over the next six seasons.

But this loss extends the Cowboys win-or-else futility in the final game with playoff possibilities on the line.

In 2008, at 9-6, needing to beat Philadelphia (8-6-1) in the final game of the season to finish 10-6 and claim a wild-card berth, the Cowboys got skunked, 44-6, finishing third in the NFC East and watching the Eagles head to the playoffs.

In 2011, the 8-7 Cowboys had a chance win the East by beating the Giants in the final game of the season. But they lost, 31-14, the Giants winning the East and going on to win Super Bowl XLVI.

In 2012, at 8-7 again, facing a win-the-East-or-else Game 16 against Washington (9-6), the Cowboys were beaten 28-18, Washington winning the East at 10-6 when the Cowboys would have won the 9-7 tiebreaker over WFT.

And in 2013, for the third consecutive year, the 8-7 Cowboys were facing the 9-6 Eagles in the season finale, but with Kyle Orton starting for an injured Tony Romo who had back surgery the Friday before the game, the winner would win the East. Cowboys were beaten 24-22.

Now this, and again starting a backup quarterback, four backups on the offensive line, a backup tight end, backup linebacker and a backup to the backup defensive tackle.

"I think honestly it just sums up the kind of year that we've had," Gallup said in final resignation.

Also taking the words right out of my mouth.

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