Though they gave up the first 13 points of the game, and trailed 23-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Dallas Cowboys came within just 24 yards of completing a historic comeback in their wild card game against the San Francisco 49ers. Unfortunately for them, they needed just a little more time to do anything with that opportunity. A bizarre decision to run the ball straight up the middle with just 14 seconds remaining doomed Dallas to an early playoff exit after a strong 12-5 year.
The Niners offense, led by Elijah Mitchell in the backfield and Deebo Samuel everywhere, held a firm grasp on the game for most of its runtime. But a Jimmy Garoppolo interception with the score 23-10 allowed the Cowboys to pull back into a one-possession game. And with 40 seconds remaining, a false start on a fourth-and-inches QB sneak gave Dallas one last breath to drive all the way from their own 20 and into the end zone.
Their improbable attempt at stealing a last-second victory started perfectly, as the Niners’ soft coverage and the Cowboys’ ability to get out of bounds led Dallas all the way to the opposing 41 with 14 seconds left (and zero timeouts). The win, still, was quite far from their grasp, but the choice to run the ball—whether it came from Prescott or the sideline—will haunt Cowboys fans all summer. The Niners defenders, as you can see in the video below, extended an ornate invitation to the middle of the field, and they were right to do so, because the clock ran out before Prescott could get the ball back and spike it.
As Tony Romo pointed out during the replays, aside from the questionable call to run with it in the first place, Prescott made another, more subtle error at the end of the play by giving the ball to his center instead of the referee. The center, of course, can’t spot the ball and snap it all by himself. It’s the official’s call where the ball should go. Whether or not this slight delay would have made any kind of difference in the final timing is tough to say, but regardless, it’s a heartbreakingly impotent way to end the year.
As the lowest seed remaining in the NFC, San Francisco will play the top-seeded Green Bay Packers next weekend.