Ultimately, the Dallas Cowboys didn’t finish the fight as they promised Sunday at AT&T Stadium.
Mason Crosby’s 51-yard field goal as time expired gave the Green Bay Packers a 34-31 victory in the NFC Divisional playoffs in front of an shell-shocked crowd of 93,396.
It robbed the Cowboys of their first trip to the NFC championship game in 21 years, ending their season two games short of their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1995.
But there is no questioning the fight and the future of a young Cowboys team that rallied from 18- and 15-point deficits before succumbing in a memorable thriller to the Packers and the magic of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
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It was a final miracle by Rodgers that proved to be the Cowboys’ undoing when he completed a 35-yard pass by to tight end Jared Cook on a third-and-20 play that gave the Packers the final chance at a field goal with 3 seconds left.
The Cowboys called a timeout to ice Crosby, but it was too no avail.
The made field goal sent the Packers into a frenzy and the Cowboys into a fetal position.
The reality of the final loss was utter disappointment for sure, as several Cowboys left the locker room without speaking to the media, some with parts of the uniform still on.
“It’s challenging,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “It’s playoff football. When you lose, you’re done.”
The Packers advance to the NFC Championship Game next week against Atlanta.
Rodgers completed 28 of 43 passes for 356 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Cook caught six passes for 104 yards and one touchdown, including his clutch 36-yard grab in the final seconds to set up the game-winning field goal.
The loss, however, shouldn’t diminish what the Cowboys accomplished all season behind rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott.
As much as this was the ending, it was also appeared to the beginning of a bright future.
This was the second time the Cowboys had posted a 13-3 record and earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs only to lose in the divisional round.
Though disappointed, owner Jerry Jones says this loss feels different than the one to the New York Giants in 2007.
“I did see that the difference is that when I look at what’s ahead for us,” Jones said. “When I look at the valiant way we played to make this thing get to be as competitive as it turned out near the end and I saw the we did that, then I’m buoyed in the short term more so than what happened to us in the ensuing years after ’07. I don’t think I’m being an optimist. I don’t feel like being an optimist. I just feel like giving Green Bay its due. The whole organization. They beat a good team out there.”
The Cowboys rallied because Prescott, who took over the injured Tony Romo to start the season, wouldn’t waver.
He nearly matched Rodgers play for play, passing for 302 yards and three touchdowns. He ran in a game-tying 2-point conversion in the fourth quarter.
Prescott, who had the best statistical season of any rookie quarterback in NFL history, continued to set records. He became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to pass for three touchdowns in a playoffs.
But it was no solace in the end.
“It was a great game all the way around,” Prescott said. “I just hate being on the losing end. It’s a terrible feeling. But it’s a game I dreamed about playing since I was a little kid. I plan on playing in many more.”
Prescott’s play reinforced the team’s decision to stick with Prescott after Romo returned to health after nine games into the season. There is no question now that the team will move on from the franchise’s all-time leading passer in the off-season, though the Cowboys will take their time in the process.
Elliott had 125 rushing yards on 22 carries and Dez Bryant caught nine passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns to help aid what appeared to be the makings of an historic comeback.
The most recent time the Cowboys rallied from 18 points down to win a playoff game was in 1972 against the San Francisco 49ers.
The Cowboys just ran out of time and didn’t have enough to stop Rodgers, who started hot and finished mazing.
Rodgers led Packers to touchdowns on the first three drives of the game to take a 21-3.
After the Cowboys made it 21-13 at halftime, consider the third quarter as the biggest turning point of the game.
Trailing 28-15 after the Packers scored on the opening drive of the half, the Cowboys seemed to be left for dead following a Prescott interception.
A chance to narrow the score with a second and 1 at the 19 was ruined when safety Micah Hyde jumped a hitch pass to Cole Beasley.
However, an unlikely hero gave the Cowboys new life when safety Jeff Heath picked off Rodgers on the ensuing drive.
It was the first interception off Rodgers in two months, a total eight games, spanning a whopping 318 passes.
Prescott made it count with 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten, making the score 28-20.
The maligned and seemingly overmatched defense answered the call again when safety Barry Church sacked Rodgers to get Green Bay off the field.
Prescott proved ready for the moment, directing an 11-play 80-yard touchdown drive.
The score came on a 7-yard pass to Bryant, who caught a 40-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
Prescott tied game with a quarterback draw on the 2-point conversion, making it 28-28 with 4:08 left.
The Packers followed with a 56-yard field goal by Crosby, set up by questionable pass interference penalty on cornerback Anthony Brown, which also nullified another interception from Heath.
Again Prescott didn’t blink, driving the Cowboys in position for a 52-yard game-tying field goal from Dan Bailey. The Cowboys were thinking touchdown on the drive, but a batted down pass on third and 3 forced them to kick with :40 to go in the game
That proved to be more than enough time for Rodgers and Crosby.
The Cowboys didn’t finish but they learned a lot about themselves in the way they fought back. And they feel good about their future.
When is an ending a beginning?
“It’s so emotional for me right, not for where I am in my career but for this team,” said Witten, a 13-year veteran who caught six passes for 59 yards. “But destiny awaits no man, especially in this game. I just thank these guys for what they did this year. It was a really good season. There’s a lot of things to build on moving forward.”