In 'Super Bowl or nothing' season, Cowboys left once again with nothing

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Twice in the final 2:42 and with the Dallas Cowboys down six points, Dak Prescott had the game in his hands. That's all he wanted.

"I don't necessarily know why people have labeled the word 'pressure' as such a bad thing, honestly," Prescott said four days before the wild-card meeting against the San Francisco 49ers. "I think it creates high expectations and high standards and they usually create high results."

Twice the quarterback could not deliver the high results, although he, coach Mike McCarthy and just about anybody supporting the Cowboys thought they would get at least one throw to the end zone after a chaotic and questionable ending saw a promising season end with a 23-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the playoffs.

"Obviously when you play for the Dallas Cowboys, you play here and you understand it's Super Bowl or nothing," Prescott said. "Having the team we have, having the brotherhood, the camaraderie, the full team, talent, great unity, great coaches, we definitely underachieved. And it sucks. Point blank."

For the 26th straight season, the Cowboys ended the year without a Super Bowl, extending a franchise-record drought. The Cowboys have gone 11 straight playoff appearances without reaching an NFC Championship Game, breaking a tie with the Kansas City Chiefs (1994-2017). For the seventh time in the past 11 playoff appearances, the Cowboys are one-and-done.

For parts of this season, it looked like this would be a different year. On Halloween night, they beat the Minnesota Vikings without Prescott, who was dealing with a calf strain, to improve to 6-1.

They would go 6-5 the rest of the way.

"I'm satisfied that a lot of people gave what they could give out there tonight and gave what they could give to get here," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "But again, we've got a team that all year would basically disappoint to some degree and then turn around and show. This was a game that we needed to show. ... Against a team like San Francisco, as solid a team as they are, no matter how good we looked on paper we needed to make this happen. I'm really disappointed for our fans. They really deserved to see this team advance on into the playoffs."

The Cowboys thought they were prepared to make a postseason run. They were as healthy as they had been all year. Of the starters or key performers, only wide receiver Michael Gallup (knee) and linebacker Keanu Neal (biceps) were missing Sunday. Prescott entered with 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the final four regular-season games. Linebacker Micah Parsons and cornerback Trevon Diggs were named first-team All-Pros last week.

"This is one of the best groups of players that I've been around," Jones said.

Yet they lost a wild-card playoff game at AT&T Stadium for the first time (3-1). Their leading receiver, CeeDee Lamb, did not catch a pass until the fourth quarter. The highest-scoring offense in the NFL scored seven points in the first three quarters. The defense was bullied by San Francisco's running game.

As glamorous as some of the statistics looked, they did not add up to the success they expected.

And now some wonder if McCarthy's future should be in question.

"I don’t even want to discuss anything like that at this particular time," Jones said. "No discussion about anything."

McCarthy had a brief conversation with Jones after the game.

"I don't have any concerns," McCarthy said of his future. "I'm proud to be standing here today. I'm proud of my football team."

Two key assistant coaches could be gone, with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore getting interviews with head coach-needy teams. There are several key free agents (TE Dalton Schultz, Gallup, LB Leighton Vander Esch, DE Randy Gregory) and several key decisions that will need to be made regarding high-priced talent (DE DeMarcus Lawrence, WR Amari Cooper).

"These guys, they've been going strong since February, captain workouts and everything," McCarthy said. "So, there's a tremendous amount that's gone into the culture in the locker room and the way this group's come together and I'm proud of that. I'm damn proud of that. And I know they are. We're disappointed as hell, this is a game we expected to win. ... When the time comes, we'll start the journey for next year. But there's been a lot that's been accomplished. You think about the personnel changes, the coaching changes, and so forth, we've done a lot of good."

Fifteen months removed from a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle, Prescott, who threw a franchise-record 37 touchdown passes, is the biggest reason for hope, but his $40 million contract has upped the pressure for him to perform. At times during the season, he played like an MVP candidate. At times, he was pedestrian.

At times against San Francisco, he was both.

But it all ended Sunday.

"Tough to accept. Definitely tough to accept," Prescott said. "The men in that locker room, what we've created, the brotherhood that we have, everything that we've worked for, knowing we had a chance. In all my years, don't know if I've had a better chance or a better full team than this. So, yeah, it's hard to accept knowing every year that a team's not going to be the same, some of those guys won't be back. It's just hard for me to accept right now."