SANTA CLARA, Calif. – This one hurt. This one really hurt.
The pain was evident in the locker room here early Sunday evening.
Trevon Diggs lingered at his locker, the room nearly empty, save the media waiting to speak with Jayron Kearse, who slowly, painfully dressed, as if he too did not want to leave. Diggs sat there, towel over his head, staring at the floor, staring at his cell phone.
Dak Prescott was at the other end of the locker room. Just sitting there, staring straight ahead, at nothing in particular, trying to process what happened in this NFC Divisional Round Playoff for the right to go to the NFC Championship Game against NFC East brethren Philadelphia next Sunday.
Yep, that won't happen, not for the first time in 27 years. Once again, the San Francisco 49ers made sure of that for a second time in two years, sending the Cowboys home for good this 2022 season, as they did last year in a 23-17 defeat at AT&T Stadium.
This time, in the winner-goes-on, loser-goes-home single-elimination tournament, it was Niners 19, Cowboys but 12.
Played their hearts out. Just didn't play well enough.
"It sucks, it all sucks," a solemn Prescott said once he had composed himself to speak, but still facing the music, breaking down his two interceptions and the squandered opportunities, the impetus for holding this high-scoring offense to but a touchdown and two field goals.
Same over in the other corner of the locker room, Micah Parsons surrounded by the media, mics and cameras up in his face, speaking in tones barely audible, the pain of failing when these Cowboys seemly were confident this was their year to right all the playoff divisional-round wrongs since the organization last playing in an NFC Championship Game back in the 1995 season, beating Green Bay for the right to go on and win their third Super Bowl in four years.
"I hurt for the guys, I hurt for the fans," Parsons said. "I hurt for myself. It just wasn't enough."
No, it sure wasn't. Can't leave the field in a playoff game scoring just 12 points. Can't let a rookie quarterback, Brock Purdy, the final pick in the 2022 NFL draft throw for but 214 yards and beat you. Can't let a team you held to 28 yards rushing with 5:58 left in the third quarter finish with 113 when they basically start playing their heavy offense – normally just two wide receivers, along with either two tight ends or two running backs, using a fullback at times, or putting Mr. All-Everything Deebo Samuel in the backfield, too.
The hurt was dripping off Kearse's face when he finally finished dressing and turned to face the music, the standup guy he is.
At one point, all he could utter was this: "It's tough … it's tough … it's tough … when you know you were close to winning the game."
And Kearse is right. At one point, the Cowboys led 6-3. They were tied with the Niners 9-9 at halftime. And they were within 16-12 with 11:03 left in the fourth quarter.
All they needed was a stop and to then score a touchdown, just a second touchdown for a team that had scored 60 touchdowns in 18 games, an average of 3.3 a game. Didn't seem like an impossible ask.
But in the end it was.
"Just falling short to the same team two years in a row," Kearse said. "You've got to make plays when you have opportunities to make plays. We didn't make them and they did tonight."
And for 2022, in the first three weeks of 2023, that's it once again.