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Cowboys’ rally falls short in playoff loss to 49ers, leaving questions about what comes next

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott looks before throwing a pass during the first half of Sunday's loss to the San Franciso 49ers. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
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ARLINGTON, Tex. — And there he was again, on another Sunday night in January, using the words “extremely” and “disappointed” and “surprised” to describe his team, lamenting that what he built had proved not good enough. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones stood in his familiar spot outside his team’s locker room, in the bright lights of cameras, in the 26th straight year his team wouldn’t return to the Super Bowl — a destination he desperately craves.

Jones, 79, said, “This is one of the best teams that I’ve been a part of that this happened to.” He added that “when you get this combination of players together, you need to have success.” He was asked the last time he was this disappointed by a loss.

“I can’t remember,” he said.

The offense the Cowboys invested so much in — the league’s highest scoring in the regular season — fell flat. The unit’s imprecise play throughout the game was illustrated in the final non-play, when quarterback Dak Prescott rushed up the middle and handed the ball to his center, instead of an official; the official ran into him from behind trying to reach the ball; and Prescott ultimately spiked it too late, with the clock already having run out for a 23-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

Cowboys Coach Mike McCarthy said an official told him Prescott spiked the ball in time, that they were going to put time back on the clock.

“The next thing I know,” he said, “they were running off the field.”

In a pool report, referee Alex Kemp said the umpire spotted the ball correctly and that a collision with Prescott would not affect the clock. He said the officials did not use replay to review the play and that the league office in New York was not involved.

The loss ended McCarthy’s second season in Dallas and prompted the question of whether he will be deemed the right person to lead the team next season. This was the franchise’s 11th straight playoff appearance without reaching a conference championship game, the longest streak by any team in NFL history. Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott said this was the best team they’d had in Dallas, and it could lose offensive coordinator Kellen Moore or defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in the next round of coaching hires.

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Jones sidestepped a question about Prescott’s play — 23 of 43 passing (53.5 percent) for 254 yards, a touchdown and an interception — and declined to say what he thought of McCarthy’s coaching, whether the team was unprepared or whether he would consider a coaching change in the offseason.

“I don't have any concerns,” McCarthy said of his job security. “I'm proud to be standing here today. I'm proud of my football team.”

But Jones, McCarthy and Prescott have acknowledged how much this season meant to Dallas — both because of the promise it started with and because of looming paydays for its young stars.

“I don’t know if I’ve had a better chance or a better full team than this,” Prescott said. “It’s hard to accept. … We definitely underachieved, and it sucks.”

One of the most frustrating parts, Jones said, was the score did not reflect how uneven the game was. He said San Francisco’s first half was as dominant as any one he has been a part of — with the 49ers’ outside zone-based rushing attack and yards-after-catch machines controlling the clock and leading to scores on their first four drives. Jimmy Garoppolo continued his career-best stretch with quick passes to avoid huge negative plays by the Cowboys′ pass rush, which was applying pressure.

But the 49ers didn’t put the game out of reach. Coach Kyle Shanahan passed up fourth and one from the Dallas 22-yard line to kick the second of the team’s three field goals in the first half — and left the door open for Dallas.

It seemed, for most of the second half, as if that high-powered offense would never appear — even though two of San Francisco’s best defenders, star pass-rusher Nick Bosa (concussion) and linebacker Fred Warner (ankle), were out by the fourth quarter. McCarthy punted on fourth and one from the Dallas 33-yard line while Cowboys fans booed. On the next drive, a fake punt worked, but it led to only a field goal.

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It wasn’t until Garoppolo made the type of mistake that has dogged him throughout his 49ers tenure that the Cowboys gained a realistic chance at winning. With pressure in his face, he overthrew a pass and was intercepted by cornerback Anthony Brown. Prescott, given the ball and a short field, ran in a five-yard touchdown to close the gap to six.

Dallas’s defense held San Francisco’s offense near midfield, and on fourth and one, Shanahan elected to kick again. He called for a punt to give the ball back to the Cowboys, and though Shanahan later called the decision to punt a mistake, Prescott couldn’t turn the possession into points, failing on fourth down with less than two minutes remaining.

The Dallas defense would force one more punt, and on the final drive, with no timeouts left and 14 seconds remaining, Prescott ran a quarterback draw up the middle. McCarthy and his players defended the call after the game, saying the team practiced the play over and over throughout the season and that the offense would much rather run five verticals from the San Francisco 25 than a Hail Mary from the 50.

McCarthy blamed the officials for stopping the team from running the play as practiced, saying, “we shouldn’t have had any problem getting the ball spotted there.”

“From my vantage point, it seemed that the ref was too slow,” wide receiver Amari Cooper added.

After the game, Cowboys fans hurled bottles and debris from the stands. Prescott thought it was aimed at players and said he understood the disappointment but that the players tried. A reporter told him the trash was aimed at referees.

“A credit to them, then,” he said. He was asked if he meant to condone trash-throwing.

“The fans felt the same way as us," he said. "I guess that’s why the refs took off and got out of there so fast.”

Then Prescott added the line of the evening, which appeared to sum up the feeling from the owner’s box to the stands to the players and coaches on the Cowboys’ sideline: “I think everybody is upset with the way this thing played out.”