Cowboys Doomed by Miscues Against 49ers Defense

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Throughout the season, the Dallas Cowboys had been buoyed by a great defense and had to live with whichever version of their quarterback, Dak Prescott, that showed up on game days.

He could gash defenses quickly like he did against the Buccaneers in the wild-card round, when he threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns. Or Prescott could look confused and make poor decisions, like when he finished with 128 passing yards, one touchdown and one interception in the regular-season finale against the Commanders.

On Sunday, the Cowboys got the latter version of Prescott, as they lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 19-12, at Levi’s Stadium in the divisional round of the playoffs. The game featured dominant defensive play and the 49ers goaded Prescott into two costly first-half interceptions.

Turnovers had been an issue for Prescott all season. Despite missing five games with an injured thumb, Prescott finished the regular season tied for the league lead in interceptions with 15. After Sunday’s loss, he called his interception total, the highest of his seven-year career, “ridiculous” and promised that the number would never be that high again.

“It hurts. I’m disappointed in my play, disappointed for the guys in the locker room,” Prescott said after finishing with 206 yards passing, a touchdown and two interceptions.

While Prescott and the Cowboys’ offense struggled, many of their errors were forced because of great plays by the 49ers’ defense. One came on the Cowboys’ second possession of the game as Prescott tried to find Michael Gallup for a pass that was picked off by Deommodore Lenoir. The throw came when Gallup had stopped running his route with Lenoir standing at his side. As Lenoir saw Prescott’s throw sail short, it shocked him and his “hyena senses” kicked in, he said. The turnover resulted in a field goal from Robbie Gould that gave the 49ers a 3-0 lead.

Dallas retaliated with a long scoring drive that culminated with Prescott’s 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dalton Schultz. Then the miscues continued for the Cowboys’ kicker, Brett Maher.

Maher set an N.F.L. record in the Cowboys’ win over the Buccaneers by missing four extra-point attempts. Typically, that many missed kicks would mean the end of a kicker’s tenure with a team. Despite adding another kicker to the roster ahead of Sunday’s game, the Cowboys stuck with Maher, who had missed just three extra points in the regular season.

As Maher prepared to kick the extra point after Dallas’s only touchdown of the game, Cowboys fans stopped swinging their blue and white towels and seemed to hold their collective breath. The kick was blocked by 49ers defensive end Samson Ebukam. The block kept the Cowboys’ lead within a field goal at 6-3. In the second half, Maher made his two field goal attempts, the only points Dallas scored the rest of the way.

Another key turnover came on an interception by linebacker Fred Warner in the second quarter. On a defense with many stars and the potential defensive player of the year in defensive end Joey Bosa, Warner might be the most important. Throughout the game, Warner did virtually everything: stopping runners in the backfield; running stride for stride with CeeDee Lamb, the Cowboys’ best receiver, for a pass deflection; and securing an interception. Warner was a major cause of the Cowboys’ offensive struggles in a second half in which they had only one drive that lasted more than six plays.

The 49ers looked like they were going to put the game away as they moved downfield in the fourth quarter leading by 16-12. They ran nearly eight minutes off the clock, but the Cowboys’ defense held them to a field goal, keeping the team’s deficit within one score with just over three minutes to go. Two incomplete passes and a sack followed on Dallas’s next possession. The Cowboys got the ball once more with 45 seconds left but were pinned on their own 6-yard line. On the final play of the game, the Cowboys used a strange offensive formation that had running back Ezekiel Elliot snapping the ball to Prescott. The play ended swiftly, with the receiver being tackled immediately before he could start a chain of desperation laterals.

“Yeah very strange, I don’t know if they, if they plan to be in that situation obviously, but it didn’t work very well,” Warner said.

Warner and the 49ers’ defense had looked vulnerable in the weeks leading up to this game, allowing 34 points to the Raiders backup quarterback in Week 17, and giving up 23 points to the Seahawks in the wild-card round. They were games that the defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans previously said fell below the team’s standard.

On Sunday, Warner said the 49ers’ defense played to its potential.

“For the most part it felt like us, man,” Warner said. “Obviously we know that we got to play big-time football in the playoffs have a chance to win this next game.”

For the 49ers, it was the first game in which the rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, the last pick in the 2022 draft, looked flustered. The Cowboys’ pass rush consistently pressured Purdy, who was sacked twice. He missed several throws, including a few that should have been intercepted had they not been dropped. Purdy said after the game that his play annoyed him.

“There’s times in the game where it’s like, man, I want to be better. I want to capitalize on third downs, and finish when we get in the red zone,” said Purdy, who finished with 214 passing yards and no touchdowns. “But at the same time, man, it’s the N.F.L. It’s not easy to do on your own. And so, for me, it’s like man I got to do my part.”

But the team’s star-studded supporting cast and Coach Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling did just enough against a Cowboys defense that made the 49ers struggle to gain yards in ways they hadn’t on their 10-game winning streak to close the regular season. Running back Christian McCaffrey scored the 49ers’ only touchdown in the third quarter, while the rest of the scoring came from four field goals from Gould.

The 49ers will make their second straight appearance in an N.F.C. championship game and their third in the last four seasons when they face the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday.

Jerry Jones, the Cowboys’ owner and general manager, told reporters after the game that he thought the team had an advantage in the game at quarterback, but Prescott’s struggles took it away.

“I thought this team with Dak at quarterback I thought we had a chance to get to and compete at the top level in this tournament,” Jones said. “I really did. That was our edge here tonight — I thought.”

The loss added to a lengthy list of painful playoff disappointments for Dallas, which has just five postseason victories since last winning the Super Bowl in the 1995 season. The Cowboys have zero conference championship appearances since then.

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