The thing about completing a successful Hail Mary pass is that it involves throwing an actual Hail Mary. Down six points with 14 seconds left on the clock in his team’s wildcard playoff against the San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott took the ball and ran instead of heaving it into the endzone. It was a disastrous decision that ensured the once-mighty Cowboys suffered yet another early postseason exit.
The already infamous final play started on the San Francisco 41-yard line. On 2nd and 1, Prescott rushed for 17 yards before he was taken down by the San Francisco 49ers’ defense. In theory, the QB had just enough time to spike the ball and then attempt a game-winning touchdown on fourth down. Instead, after getting up, Prescott collided with the umpire as the official attempted to place the ball down, a crucial error that allowed the clock to run down. The 49ers held on for a 23-17 victory.
“That was the best option … It’s the right decision,” Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy said after the game, regarding the final play of the game (offensive coordinator Kellen Moore called Prescott’s run play with McCarthy giving it the OK). McCarthy postgame analysis will be disputed by many, particularly Cowboys fans.
It was a fitting end to a game in which the Cowboys were dinged for a whopping 14 penalties. In a game they eventually lost by six points, the Cowboys’ playoff death was primarily due to a series of self-inflicted wounds – some would say hiring a coach as unimpressive as McCarthy in the first place was the first one – with Prescott’s inexplicable run merely the last of them.
The most painful thing about that Cowboys’ loss is that they had a chance to win the game after at one point trailing the Niners 23-7. Once upon a time, back when the Cowboys were firmly America’s Team and synonymous with football, they would have pulled it off. This is a franchise that has made it to the Super Bowl eight times, tied for the second-most out of all NFL franchises. Between 1992 and 1995, they won three championships and established themselves as the team of the decade. They were more than dominant, they were inevitable.
That changed. The Cowboys haven’t won a title since the 1995 season. In their last 11 playoff appearances, they have failed to even make the conference championship game, the longest such drought since the AFC and NFC were established in 1970. With Sunday’s loss, they have now gone out in their first game of the postseason seven times in those 11 opportunities.
There is, however, one place where the Cowboys still reign supreme. At $5.7bn, the Cowboys are ranked by Forbes as the most valuable sports franchise in the world. That’s not bad for a team that Jerry Jones purchased for $150m back in 1989. That puts them above storied teams like the New York Yankees, Real Madrid and the Los Angeles Lakers. Of course, there’s a major difference between those teams and the Cowboys: the others have won titles this century. The Cowboys, in contrast, keep taking in money without producing any tangible results.
Actually, scratch that, maybe in a very real way, they still are America’s Team.
MVP of the week
Josh Allen, quarterback, Buffalo Bills. On Saturday, Allen rushed for 66 yards, went 21-for-25 passing and threw for 308 yards, plus five touchdowns, in a “stop, stop, they’re already dead” offensive performance, almost single-handedly ensuring that the New England Patriots will retool their defense in the offseason. Allen, who was thrillingly uneven during his first few seasons in the league, now looks more and more like one of the game’s premier quarterbacks and someone that none of the remaining playoff teams will be eager to face.
Video of the week
Joe Burrow’s second touchdown throw of the Cincinnati Bengals’ 26-19 win over the Las Vegas Raiders was impressive. But it probably should not have counted. Before Tyler Boyd made the catch, an official accidentally blew the whistle, which caused several Raiders defenders to assume that the play had been called dead. Whether Boyd would have made the catch anyway is debatable, but the NFL rules indicate that the play should not have stood.
On Sunday, word came out that head referee Jerome Boger’s officiating crew is not expected to return this postseason. That would be the best for everybody involved.
Stat of the week
2-for-47. On Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles were held scoreless in the first half of a playoff game for just the second time in 47 chances. The Buccaneers eventually defeated the Eagles 31-15.
BONUS STAT OF THE WEEK: Rob Gronkowski’s touchdown reception on Sunday was the 107th of his career. Of those 107 touchdowns, 105 of them were thrown by the same person: Tom Brady.
Quote of the week
That quote is notable because Belichick, who turns 70 in a few months, has previously dismissed the idea of coaching into his eighth decade.
Has something changed? Well, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Tom Brady. The quarterback left the Patriots for the Buccaneers in 2020 and duly won a Super Bowl in his first season in Tampa, while New England missed the playoffs. One of the longest ongoing arguments in US sports – up there with LeBron v Jordan in longevity/annoyingness – has been whether Belichick or Brady was more responsible for the Patriots dynasty … and the immediate returns were a solid mark in Brady’s favor. Belichick would never admit it publicly, but you have to believe he’s desperate to win at least one ring as head coach without Brady’s help.
Elsewhere around the league
— The Las Vegas Raiders’ season began in disarray when head coach Jon Gruden resigned on 11 October after a number of highly-offensive emails were discovered during an NFL investigation. Then, the team cut Henry Ruggs III after the wide receiver was involved in a fatal car crash. In that void, assistant head coach Rich Bisaccia helped guide the team to a 10-7 regular season and a competitive postseason loss. Following their elimination, quarterback Derek Carr and defensive end Maxx Crosby took the case for retaining Bisaccia.
“I think we can all think he’s the right guy,” Carr said after their loss on Saturday.
Bisaccia has never been a full-time head coach, he came into the league as a special teams coordinator for the Buccaneers in 2002 and has stayed employed in the NFL in a variety of roles since. The man has paid his dues, in other words. The Raiders should explore all their options before coming to a decision, but Bisaccia has made a strong case that the most logical move would be to lift that “interim” tag from his job title.
— Ben Roethlisberger’s final game as a Steeler went as expected with the Kansas City Chiefs recording a crushing 42-21 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday evening. The Chiefs’ offense is clicking at the right time and was too much even for a defense boasting TJ Watt and Cam Heyward. And the days when Roethlisberger could match a quarterback of Patrick Mahomes’ quality are long gone.
— When the San Francisco 49ers picked Trey Lance in last year’s draft, the assumption was that they would see what they could get from starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on the trade market. Instead, the 49ers made the decision to keep both men, keeping their veteran starter while slowly developing Lance until they thought he was ready. While Garoppolo wasn’t perfect on Sunday, as his brutal late-game interception proved, being patient could end up paying dividends.
Lance has a higher ceiling than Garoppolo, whose propensity for making poor throws has made him a lightning rod for criticism. But San Francisco think they have a good chance of winning a championship right now and believe that Garoppolo – who has already led the team to an unexpected Super Bowl appearance – gives them a better chance in the playoffs than a talented, but completely untested rookie. Can Garoppolo mimic the story of Nick Foles, the unassuming journeyman who was supposed to be Carson Wentz’s backup in Philadelphia, but ended up being the MVP of Super Bowl LII? Stay tuned.
— Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts struggled in his playoff debut, going 22-for-40 while throwing two interceptions. He didn’t record a touchdown pass until late in the fourth quarter when the game was essentially decided. Still, the 2020 second-round draft pick had a solid first year as a starter, replacing the not-entirely-dearly departed Carson Wentz, even being selected as a Pro Bowl alternate.
After the game, Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni gave Hurts what sounded like a genuine vote of confidence. “I know we’re all judged on the last game that we played,” he said, “I fully get that, but I felt like Jalen grew throughout the year. And he got better as a passer, he got better reading the defense, getting the ball to the right place.” It sounds like the Eagles are sticking with their young quarterback for the time being.