Cowboys ‘sick’ after being eliminated by 49ers again and changes likely ahead

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Standing outside the visiting locker room doors at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday night, Jerry Jones said the word “sick” five times. That’s how he described his emotions after Dallas’ latest divisional-round playoff loss.

The Cowboys had their chances. They entered the fourth quarter tied with the San Francisco 49ers. But a defense that was impressive most of the day ran out of gas. And quarterback Dak Prescott failed to make enough plays late to overcome his two first-half interceptions.

For the second consecutive season, the Cowboys had their postseason ended by the 49ers, 19-12. Dallas’ streak of falling short of the NFC Championship Game now stretches to 27 seasons.

“It didn’t surprise me at all, the game and how it went,” Jones said while walking out of the stadium. “I was just begging for a chance to get back to where we were the year before with the ball. I thought we had that chance. Eerie the way the thing kind of matched up at the end between the two years.”

The part that bothered the team’s owner and general manager the most is that Dallas was unable to capitalize on its advantage at quarterback. Prescott is a seven-year starter. San Francisco QB Brock Purdy is less than nine months removed from being the last pick of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Prescott’s final stat line Sunday: 23 of 37 passing, 206 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a 63.6 passer rating. Statistically, it was the worst of Prescott’s six playoff starts. And he easily could have had at least one more interception.

Purdy finished 19 of 29 for 214 yards, no touchdowns, no interceptions and an 87.4 rating.

“I thought we would win it because I’ve got such confidence in Dak,” Jones said. “I’ll line up there five times with a similar situation and if we’ve got him at quarterback, I’ll take my chances. So I’m just saying: Give me that setup a year in advance, a month in advance, and give me him as the quarterback, and I feel very strongly we’ll win.”

The 49ers’ defense, arguably the NFL’s best, had a lot to do with Prescott’s performance. Aside from Dallas’ lone touchdown drive, Prescott didn’t look much like the player he was last Monday night in the Cowboys’ dominant wild-card win at Tampa Bay, the best playoff performance of his career.

The touchdown drive Sunday started late in the first quarter and ended with 9:25 remaining in the first half when Prescott found TE Dalton Schultz for a 4-yard score. Prescott was 7 of 7 passing for 41 yards on the possession. He also rushed once, an 11-yard gain to set up the TD. It was Dallas’ longest run of the day. Brett Maher’s missed extra point made the score 6-3. Maher, who missed four consecutive extra points at Tampa, did not miss any other kick Sunday, making field goals of 25 and 43 yards.

Dallas was driving again on its next possession, but a major blow was suffered when RB Tony Pollard was lost to a significant left leg injury. Jones said after the game that Pollard would not have been able to play even if the Cowboys had advanced.

Following the injury, the Cowboys called a timeout. On the next play, Prescott was intercepted, trying to fit a pass between two defenders while targeting CeeDee Lamb. It was Prescott’s 13th interception in the Cowboys’ last nine games.

“The first one I just hitched one too many times,” Prescott said of his interception while targeting Michael Gallup. “Hitching three times, (Gallup) thought I was going to go on a scramble and the guy just came back to the ball and made a play. I’ve got to throw that one away or use my feet and get out of the pocket.

“On the second one, the nickel squeezed and tried to throw it low CeeDee, but he was able to make a play on it, tip it up in the air and tip it to (LB Fred Warner). Just two throws that I can’t have, you can’t have in the playoffs. You can’t have them when you’re trying to beat a team like that. You can’t have it on the road. There’s no excuse for that. Those two are 100 percent on me.”

Prescott targeted Lamb 13 times. The Cowboys’ No. 1 receiver finished with a game-high 10 catches for 117 yards. However, Prescott didn’t have much success targeting any other receiver. No other player had more than 27 receiving yards.

Defensively, DeMarcus Lawrence was the tone-setter early. He had a quarterback hit, a sack and a tackle for loss in the first quarter alone. LB Leighton Vander Esch had a game-high 11 tackles. Rookie CB DaRon Bland had 10 tackles. Star LB/DE Micah Parsons didn’t have nearly the impact he did against the Buccaneers, finishing with one QB hit, one pass defensed and four tackles.

The last Cowboys player to leave the field was CB Trevon Diggs. He had some rough moments in the game, whiffing on an opportunity to put a big hit on 49ers TE George Kittle late in the third quarter. Kittle’s juggled grab across midfield ended up going for 30 yards. San Francisco scored seven plays later to take a 16-9 lead. Diggs also had a great opportunity to record his first interception since Week 7 on that possession. With 1:06 left in the third quarter, Purdy threw a pass that was tipped by LB Anthony Barr and deflected right to Diggs. It landed between both arms and hit his stomach before falling to the ground.

Dallas finished with only one takeaway, a forced fumble by CB Kelvin Joseph on a 49ers punt return early in the second half that was recovered by rookie LB Damone Clark. They had only one last week, a Tom Brady red zone interception by Jayron Kearse. But that was still enough to win the turnover battle. The Cowboys led the NFL in takeaways during the regular season for the second consecutive year with 33 in 17 games.

“We knew it was going to be a slug-fest,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. “We just didn’t quite do enough. You can go through the statistics, the decisions. I thought defensively, we did a really good job for the most part. Would we have liked to have a couple more stops? Yes. Did we need more third-down conversions on offense? Yes. We could have used that, too, red zone production.

“Obviously just extremely disappointed. This has been an incredible journey, with this group of men, and we just came up short tonight to a very good football team.”

Sunday might have been Dan Quinn’s last game as Dallas’ defensive coordinator. He again has significant head coaching interest from other teams. When asked about Quinn after the game, Jones pointed to how as much as a third of the roster could be different next season. Jones and the Cowboys will have to figure out how to replace those roster, and possibly coaching staff, spots.

“The system recognizes and rewards excellent coordinators and excellent coaches,” Jones said near the team buses as celebratory fireworks went off in the background at Levi’s Stadium. “So you can’t think that your life’s over when you look ahead and think that you’re not going to have the same people as coordinators or even coaches. If you look at my years in the NFL, they do come and go. They all leave. Closest thing to that was the one that left when I got here, Coach Landry. I’m really not trying to be cute. Especially when you have success, you know there’s turnover.

“But I’m disappointed, as I said last year, I would like to be right back here with the same hand. The same hand, the same opportunity, with Dak as the quarterback, and go get it.”

(Top photo of CeeDee Lamb: Michael Owens / Getty Images)

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