FRISCO, Texas – Strictly speaking, 2020 is over – but this 2020 season had one more twist of the knife for the Dallas Cowboys.
With everything this team has been through over the last six months, it felt like a fitting ending. With a potential playoff berth on the line, the miscues added up and saw a potential Cowboys victory vanish in the final moments.
"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," said Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy.
There are plenty of ways to explain that microcosm – from Andy Dalton battling a hand injury, to questionable coaching decisions, to key drops and defensive miscues.
But really, the most picturesque image of all might be the final memory of this game, when Giants running back Wayne Gallman fumbled in the open field on his own 25-yard line with one minute to play.
For the briefest of moments, the Cowboys seemed to once again have a breath of hope – only for it to be ripped away by a ruling of a Giants' recovery.
"I think the biggest was just, at the end – that fumble that we thought we got," said Ezekiel Elliott. "Them not giving it to us, that really rolled up the whole season in a nut shell."
It would be hard to do justice to the twist and turns of this crazy season. From the loss of their starting quarterback, to the decimation of their offensive line, to the unexpected death of strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul, there was enough emotion to fit into several seasons – and that doesn't even include the fact that it was played in a global pandemic.
"This team has been through a lot," said Andy Dalton. "For us to just have this opportunity, it just shows the fight in this team."
That part can't be denied. This won't be a season that many are eager to remember, and the Cowboys clearly fell short of their goals – a 6-10 record, landing them squarely out of the NFL playoffs.
At the same time, this team looked completely hopeless on multiple occasions this season -- the 25-3 loss to Washington on Oct. 25 and the 34-17 loss to Baltimore on Dec. 8 come to mind. That Ravens loss – their most recent one prior to Sunday – dropped them to an abysmal 3-9, making a playoff appearance seem unlikely even in the woeful NFC East.
"You see where we were at, we were 3-9 and we gave ourselves a shot to make the playoffs," Elliott said. "Like you just said, everything we faced this year – it seems like not really anything went our way. But somehow we kept grinding, we kept going and we kept fighting. I'm proud of this group of men for that."
As has been a theme for much of this season, moral victories don't count for much in the NFL. The Cowboys finished 2-4 in the division, which is one of the primary reasons they'll watch one of their NFC East rivals claim a playoff spot on Sunday night.
Still, it's understandable if the Cowboys feel as if this trying season can benefit them moving forward, and that was definitely a thought that several members of the team shared on Sunday afternoon.
"It's a hard year, but I think we needed this year," said Michael Gallup. "Facing adversity like that, all the injuries we've had. It just makes you grind a little bit harder, come together a little bit more, but definitely a tough year."
It's a bit early to think too hard about next season. This team undoubtedly needs some time to rest and recharge. Not to mention, there's a ton of crucial decisions that need to be made about what next year's team will look like.
Still, if there's any solace that can be found about such a trying year, perhaps it's that the adversity faced in 2020 could help lead to big things in 2021.
"If anything, I think it gives us a little bit of ammunition and gives us a little bit of drive to push that much further in the offseason and get back to it next year," said Dalton Schultz.