The Morning After
As we sort through a gutting end to an unexpectedly amazing Cowboys season, perhaps we should start with the most simple truth there is: At this time of year, with one game to decide your fate, there are details everywhere that make a small difference. And that small difference is the margin between winning and losing. Inches. Mere inches. It is said football is a game of inches, because for decades, these postseason battles in which both teams felt like they earned a victory have ended in similar fashion.
One team survives. They make one more play. They use those last precious moments to figure out one more score. And then they celebrate with the entire pot in the middle of the table.
The other team falls to the ground. They fought their tails off. They were sure they earned a better fate. They are simply gutted with the verdict that claims they were second-best, because they know they were the better team.
Every franchise that is successful knows that in order to win a few trophies, you have to have your heart broken countless times. That is just the way it is in a sport where 12 teams get to go to the postseason -- somewhere the other 20 teams would trade anything to go -- but by the end of the month, 11 of them have had their successful seasons converted into tears and misery yet again.
These are the stakes at the biggest table. The perennial losers never risk their hearts because they are already a few weeks into their offseason, no doubt on a beach, somewhere hot. But the winning teams slug it out for our entertainment, waging unforgettable classics with the twists and turns that will be imprinted on our minds for decades to come.
Fair? Don't be silly. There is nothing fair about playoff football. Two teams that have had seasons to be proud of meet on a field only one will leave happy. The game of inches will be decided by just a few. And on this occasion, the inches did not favor the Dallas Cowboys.
I assume we will talk about this game, a 34-31 loss to the Green Bay Packers, for a long, long time. The Cowboys, as the No. 1 seed, were rested and ready to deal with the prospect of winning two home games on their way to a Texas Super Bowl, in a season where it appeared the NFC was without another season-long heavyweight. The usual suspects had either missed the playoffs altogether, or had endured enough attrition that 2016 was not their year -- all while there was unanimous agreement that the Cowboys had never been healthier, or in better form.
But Green Bay had come in as the hot team in the NFC, having won seven in a row on the trot. One thing agreed upon all week long was the importance of a fast start to keep Aaron Rodgers from dictating the feel of the game and putting the Cowboys behind. This could affect everything from nerves to play-calling, and it was vital to get off to a fast start. The opportunity would be virtually assured, because the Packers insist on deferring the snap.
The start was not particularly fast. The Cowboys moved the ball all day on a per-play basis and were never really slowed down. The Green Bay defense gives up yards every week and is simply playing the gamble that, at some point of a 12-play drive, you will allow them a big play or accommodate them with a self-inflicted error. Sunday's game offered both.
First drive, on third-and-2, the Cowboys are already in range and they try to push the ball down the field to Dez Bryant. It is a statement of intent, but it comes with the consequence of settling for a field goal if it doesn't connect. It doesn't. And in a game like this, a field goal is not necessarily a successful drive.
The Packers slice right down the field and get their touchdown.
Second drive: The Cowboys easily move the ball back into Packers territory before they are handed a penalty that, I will confess, is one I never see enforced. The nature of the rule that stopped a drive and made Brice Butler the target of rage from many is not to preserve the integrity of the huddle, but rather to not allow a team to try to deceive their opponent with substitutions. Once you run players onto the field -- in this case, 11 personnel -- you cannot circle back off right before the play. You run on, the defense gets a chance to match your substitutes, and then the play happens. When Butler ran on, circled and ran off, putting the Cowboys back into 21 personnel, the officials threw the rare flag. It certainly appeared to be a strict interpretation of the rule, but one where the Cowboys may call a timeout if they had it over again. Regardless, they punt and get nothing.
The Packers again go 90 yards down the field and get another touchdown.
Third drive: The Cowboys feature a rare drop by Terrance Williams, which almost became a turnover. On third down, Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers were able to affect the throw, and Dallas goes through its only drive all game in which it went three-and-out. In fact, on every other drive, the Cowboys moved the chains no fewer than twice.
The Packers again go 80 yards right down the field and get yet another touchdown.
It's now 21-3.
In a game where you simply could not afford a slow start, with 7:37 to go in the first half, Green Bay had gone touchdown, touchdown and touchdown to put its lead at 18 points. This season, teams down 18 points had a 2-89 record. You could argue the hole was just too deep already.
But that is where a Cowboys fan can be very proud today. Because this team, which prided it self on "Fight" and a resolve that was unshakable all year, fought its tail off.
The rookie tandem of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, in particular -- whom this season seemed to be all about -- accounted for themselves brilliantly for most of the afternoon.
Prescott made countless plays under duress and in tight spots as he tried to help the team dig out of the hole. He wasn't perfect, and there were a few throws he would like back, but once he found his rhythm, the Cowboys' offense again looked like the machine it had been since September. On their final six drives, they scored five times with three touchdowns and two field goals. Unfortunately, his interception to Micah Hyde on what appeared to be well-scouted defensive play took points off the board and, in a game like this, arguably helped decide the outcome.
Elliott was very impressive. The narrative will certainly revolve around not using him enough, but from this view, that is more a byproduct of being down 18 points early in the game. We all know that running the ball is best done to deliver knockout punches. They lost most of that with the deficit. In fact, you could argue that it is actually a bit of a marvel that they got their running back 23 touches in a game that was quickly in peril.
As both of those young stars look to their second years, I would feel great confidence in more of the same. That duo was a great portion of dominant offense this season and its theme -- repeatable and sustainable -- in the way they went about their business. A team that was capable of magic tricks beat them, but when you talk probabilities and the ability to win seven or eight out of 10 meetings, you have to trust the physical bulldozing capabilities of what Dallas is doing over a quarterback creating miraculous moments. History favors the Cowboys' build.
But nobody wants to hear about 2017 or 2019 right now. They want to talk about this game and how it got away.
Green Bay had the ball after the Cowboys' furious comeback at 28-28. There was 4:08 to go and it appeared the game was now about whether Rodgers could get one more touchdown. Anything less would put a Green Bay defense back on the field that had nothing left against a Dallas offense that was rolling downhill.
They had to settle for less when DeMarcus Lawrence destroyed a Ty Montgomery running play to the left for a massive loss of five and took them out of supposed field goal range. One incompletion later, and Green Bay faces a fourth-and-12 from the 37-yard line. Mason Crosby is a fine kicker, but kicking over 50 with the game on the line has not been his specialty. Crosby had been 0-4 all-time in kicks over 50 to tie the game or take a lead in the fourth quarter.
The 56-yard field goal started right and barely got through -- 31-28, Green Bay.
But the Cowboys now had 1:33 to go back down the field and win. Again, Green Bay had been allowing drive after drive since Dallas got in rhythm.
Prescott knew the game was one drive from the win column. He needed 75 yards and got 35 yards on the first two snaps: 24 to Williams, 11 to Jason Witten. First down now with 48 seconds to go.
The spike here is under plenty of critique today. I understand the view that it was not needed. But I also see the idea -- rookie quarterback, lots happening, let's recollect our thoughts here with half of the task completed. Remember, the Cowboys were not playing for the tie. They thought, at that moment, they were going to score a touchdown. They were going to finish the fight right there. So they spiked the ball on first down.
Seven yards to Beasley on second down. Third-and-3 from the 33. Four-man rush from Green Bay, and with Peppers and Matthews working the backside with a stunt, Nick Perry is in the throwing lane on a slant to Dez Bryant that had worked all day. Again, Green Bay concedes yards looking for a play or stop. They got the stop when Matthews hit Prescott as Perry batted down the ball with his club. Incomplete pass, clock stopped. And Dan Bailey has to settle for a game-tying field goal from range.
It's 31-31 with 35 seconds to go.
You know what happens next. A series of moments. A 17-yard screen play where Green Bay catches Dallas in a big blitz. A Jeff Heath sack that was the play of the game, in terms of Rodgers holding on to a ball that was in one hand as he gets blindsided. Again, probabilities suggest most quarterbacks fumble it right there and the game is lost.
And then, on third-and-20 with 12 seconds left from their own 32, Rodgers makes magic happen again. I would love to see the All-22 this morning, but I will have to wait. I assume the Cowboys feared a Hail Mary and dropped too many defenders deep beyond the field goal range. A three-man rush was not enough to apply pressure, and it sure looks like there could have been a holding call on T.J. Lang against David Irving. Regardless, the throw was something seldom witnessed, and the catch by tight end Jared Cook right in front of a horrified Cowboys bench stunned everyone.
He got in, but how? How did Byron Jones not seal that off? How did the throw get there from a quarterback running to his left? How?
This is the type of play the playoffs produce. Two heavyweights throwing punches for three hours, and one play claims the entire game.
Crosby then hits a 51-yarder, making him now 2-for-6 in those situations. The only two kicks of his career of that magnitude happened 10 minutes apart.
Green Bay cannot believe its win. Dallas cannot believe its dream season disappeared on a third-and-20.
These are the playoffs. This is why we love and hate this sport.
I am confident Dallas will be back in this spot very soon. It has a few remaining weaknesses that will be addressed. This is now a young team with a bright future.
But the present is going to sting for quite a bit. Any team that goes to the playoffs with regularity has a list of disasters to remember that surrounds the occasional trophy. It is part of the struggle. It hurts and leaves a mark, but it comes with the territory.
The problems with being a playoff team are the gutting losses that usually follow instead of parades. A real shame anyone had to lose that. The Cowboys lost an instant classic. And those young stars will remember that and be better for the next time.
And yes, I am confident there will be a next time.