ARLINGTON, Texas – In my wildest imagination, this one was not going to end 49ers 23, Cowboys 17.
No way, not again. Not another one of these soul-crushing finishes like we witnessed seven years ago almost to the day in Green Bay. Not like we witnessed five years and one day ago right here at AT&T Stadium, again against the Packers.
Not this time.
In this Super Wild Card Weekend game before 93,460, the Cowboys at the San Francisco 40-yard line, down six with just 14 seconds left to play. This was going to be the reincarnation of the original Hail Mary 46 years later. Just as Roger Staubach hit Drew Pearson from the 50-yard line with just 24 seconds left for the touchdown to beat Minnesota in a first-round playoff game, this was going to be Dak Prescott hitting the fourth celebrated No. 88, CeeDee Lamb, for the game-winning touchdown, though needing the extra point, with like seven seconds to play.
Had it all dreamed out.
Then with Dak sliding in at the Niners' 24-yard line with nine seconds still left in the game, this was going to be The Catch II, the 40-year reenactment of the 49ers' Joe Montana to Dwight Clark winning touchdown in the back of the end zone to grab the NFC title game away from the Cowboys, 28-27. But this time for sure was going to be Dak rolling away from pressure to his right and lofting a pass with time expiring to tight end Dalton Schultz in the back of the end zone that with the extra point would have the Cowboys going to Tampa, Fla., next weekend for NFC Round 2.
Just could feel it.
But darn it, the reason the third-seeded Cowboys were in this precarious, last-second predicament against the sixth-seeded Niners at home was their own dang fault.
Prior to this game, basically laid out the three things that just had to happen for the Cowboys to advance one win away from having a chance to win their first NFC Championship since 1995.
First, and Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy agreed with me, saying on Friday, "We understand this game starts up front, and it's going to end up front."
Well, the Cowboys offensive line got whooped by the San Francisco defense. Prescott was sacked five times. Nearly worse, he was hit now 14 more times while attempting to pass. On top of that, the Cowboys couldn't run the ball, just 77 yards rushing on 21 carries, for a 3.7 average per carry. And worse, Dak's 17-yard run at the end of the game was their longest carry, meaning the other 20 carries netted just 60 yards.
"It's no secret, we need to get better," All-Pro guard Zack Martin confessed. "We got smacked in the mouth early today."
Box left unchecked.
Then there was Deebo, Deebo Samuel. Mr. All-Everything. The Niners' leading receiver, second-leading rusher and leading scorer with 14 touchdowns. Could not let him dice them up. Well, oh, brother did he ever, rushing 10 times for 72 yards, including that 26-yard touchdown run, and catching three passes for 38 more yards. That's 110 yards from scrimmage.
Box left unchecked.
And then this: All season long, and in the majority of the Cowboys' losses – four of the five to eventual playoff teams – and as wrote on Friday, this defense's kryptonite was giving up big plays – 76 of them for 20-plus yards. Just had to buckle down since the Niners had totaled 70 of those biggies themselves. Well, darn if the Niners did not gash the Cowboys for 15 plays of at least 10 yards.
Maybe the most damning one after Dak was picked off at his own 26-yard line with 5:58 left in the third quarter of a 16-7 game was Deebo's 26-yard end-around on the very next play for a touchdown, putting the Cowboys, with a struggling offense, down 16.
Check this out: Those 15 plays of at least 10 yards accounted for 240 of the Niners' 341 yards of total offense. That means their other 48 plays netted just 101 yards, barely more than 2 yards a play.
"I feel like we could have done a better job of honoring the moment. You know, taking care of business on the field," defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. "The results are not what we wanted them to be. So, it is what it is."
Box left unchecked.
And on top of that, 14 penalties, though two of those had to be firsts of the season. Don't recall the Cowboys defensive linemen being called for holding all season long. And the delay of game penalty after the successful fake punt was caused by the umpire holding up the game because he thought the Cowboys had substituted – they hadn't – meaning the Niners had the right to counter when actually the Cowboys had a second trick play called to be run by the punting 11.
McCarthy said the officials thought the Cowboys were substituting when one of the players on the sideline was celebrating on the wrong side of the sideline, the refs thinking he was coming into the game. Then, after the umpire threw out the kicking ball for an official offense ball, the game was held up so the Niners could run their defense back on the field. And with 20 seconds left on the reset play clock, the Cowboys had no choice but to run their offense back on the field.
And they were set and ready to go with eight seconds left on the clock, but for some reason the umpire, and remember the name, Ramon George, stood over the ball until there was two seconds left on the play clock. By the time he backed off so Dak could get the snap, the clock expired. Minus five yards, the Cowboys never able to overcome first-and-15, kicking a field goal instead four plays later.
Have mercy. And this was an all-star crew.
So now you know why with the clock ticking down under 10 seconds the Cowboys were rushing to the line of scrimmage to spike the ball so they could have one more play to throw for the end zone to try to erase all of their game-long transgressions.
But here was the problem. Er, problems. When Dak slid in, Niners linebacker Azeez El-Shaair landed on top of him, with no hurry to get up. Thought no one is supposed to hit the quarterback after giving himself up. Oops.
Then this: There was no official in sight to hand the ball to. In fact, the umpire, yes, George, was still on the other side of the 50-yard line as Dak began his slide. None of the officials on the sideline moved in for the ball. And with five seconds left in the game, George is just getting to the 26.
The rule states the next play can't be run until the umpire touches the ball to spot it. Well, George spots the ball, then of all things, he re-spots it, scooching it back a half yard for some reason. Now just two seconds left in the game, and this after he comes crashing into Dak from behind to get to the ball.
By time he backs away so center Tyler Biadasz could snap the ball, the clock hit :00.
Still, there was hope.
"The communication that I was given on the sideline was that they were reviewing it, they were going to put time back on the clock," McCarthy said of what he had been told by the alternate officials on the sidelines for both teams during the playoffs for better communication purposes. "The next thing I know, they're running off the field. That's the only facts I have for you."
The replay official in the booth must have froze up. No ring down from New York.
All the 93,000 people at the game were told by head referee Alex Kemp was "That's the end of the game."
Sure was, and just like that, the crew went running off the field with debris raining down from disgruntled fans as they ducked into the tunnel.
After the game, when speaking to Pro Football Writers Association pool reporter Todd Archer, Kemp said, "The umpire spotted the ball properly."
When asked if the umpire was in a reasonable length of space away from where the play ended, Kemp said, "Yes, absolutely."
Absolutely? George was 25 yards behind the play. Why in the world would he be back there for that long? What possible infraction could he call from that far away?
"We're trailing the play, keeping proper distance so that we can identify fouls, if there are any," Kemp said, giving no quarter to being 25 yards behind the play.
And when was asked to reaffirm there was no replay assist or a call coming in from New York to possibly intercede because of the tardy placement of the ball, Kemp stuck to his guns, saying, "That is correct. That's handled by the officials on the field."
Sure was, though properly is a whole 'nuther story.
And so that's that, another playoff season comes crashing down to a crushing end. There would be no Hail Mary attempt at salvation. Not another The Catch retribution, the Cowboys paying the ultimate price for those unchecked boxes.
So yep, after all this, and with respects to the Temptations, "It was just my imagination runnin' away with me" after all.