“People have been trying to find the next Deebo,” Mike McDaniel, the San Francisco offensive coordinator, said last week. “The problem is there’s one Deebo.”
The Cowboys do not have him. But they did have Prescott, a set of tremendous receivers, a strong running game and an opportunistic defense that led the N.F.L. in takeaways. The Cowboys were not a complete team, but a complete team did not exist in these playoffs, and perhaps for that reason Jones reiterated in a radio interview last week that their objective “unquestionably” was to win a championship.
An organization that identifies itself by championships, the Cowboys have won as many playoff games at AT&T Stadium (three) since it opened in 2009 as the Alabama Crimson Tide. A deep red flecked the stands Sunday, with throngs of 49ers fans descending on Texas for the revival of a fierce playoff rivalry gone dormant. For so long, San Francisco and Dallas engaged in what seemed near-annual tussles for conference supremacy, though they had not convened in the postseason since January 1995.
The following season, the Cowboys beat Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl, but they haven’t reached even the conference championship game since. The 49ers have been to five over that span — and two Super Bowls, losing both, including two years ago against Kansas City, when Jimmy Garoppolo overthrew Emmanuel Sanders on a deep pass over the middle.
On Sunday, Garoppolo’s precision through three quarters enabled the 49ers to reap yardage after the catch, but his overthrow in the fourth, grabbed by Dallas cornerback Anthony Brown, led to a Cowboys touchdown that would position them for one final comeback. Their decision to call a running play, with 14 seconds left and no timeouts, reflected equal parts hubris and audacity.
The dozens of occasions they practiced it, Prescott said, endowed him with the certainty that it was both the right call — they liked the pass plays available from the 24-yard line — and they had the requisite time for it. But those occasions did not account for variables, such as Prescott getting bumped by the umpire, who could not set the ball in time for a last snap. Instead of handing the ball directly to the umpire, he gave it to the center, Tyler Biadasz — as Prescott said he was told to do. McCarthy indicated that Prescott erred.
Still, McCarthy said: “We shouldn’t have had any problem getting the ball spotted there.”
But they did. They had problems, multiple. Jones, who declined to discuss the possibility of any staff changes or the team’s preparation, will now set about assessing why Dallas, through five of the league’s six wild-card games, was the only higher-seeded team to lose. Once a dynasty, now an outlier, never the champion.