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The Dallas Cowboys got a close-up view of how far they still have to go — figuratively, sure, but also quite literally. 

It’s too fitting a visual to ignore. Trailing San Francisco, 19-12, with three minutes to play and all three timeouts remaining, the Cowboys had the ball in Dak Prescott’s hands with 82 yards separating them from a tied game. They didn’t gain a single one. For that matter, Prescott was lucky not to throw a pick-six right to 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw.

The Cowboys fell far short of their goal — a fitting image for a franchise that has now wrapped up its 27th season since returning to the NFC Championship Game, let alone the Super Bowl.

If you watched it, you’ll know that possession wasn’t the end of the game. The Cowboys would go on to one last mind-bending possession with less than a minute to play.

That’s window dressing, though. This game was determined long before, with that three-play, zero-yard possession serving as a lasting reminder of how fall short this offense fell. 

“We weren’t able to come out with this one,” Prescott said. “Disappointed in my play, disappointed for the guys in the locker room.” Prescott will sit at the epicenter of this for the foreseeable future. Fresh off the best performance of his career last weekend, the Cowboys entered this game knowing they once again needed his best to have a shot against a juggernaut of a 49er defense. He didn’t come close to matching that high. 

Ironically, Prescott did throw the game’s first touchdown, but the rest was regrettable. He attempted 37 passes on the evening and finished with just 206 yards. And if that zero-yard possession wasn’t the lasting image from Sunday, the two interceptions will be. Throughout the season, Prescott’s turnovers have been a steady topic of conversation, as his 15 regular-season interceptions led the league despite him appearing in just 12 games. He might have managed to avoid the issue in Tampa, but it returned with a vengeance at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday. 

Prescott threw his first pick on just the eighth play of the day, as Deommodore Lenoir jumped in front of a curl route with such an ease that he seemed to see it coming. Roughly an hour later came the real heartbreaker, as Prescott looked over the middle for CeeDee Lamb — missing Jimmie Ward in coverage in the process. Ward broke on the ball, tipping it into the arms of Fred Warner. 

The pick came at the San Francisco 12-yard line, denying the Cowboys a chance at taking a crucial lead just before halftime. There will be other moments that stand out, for sure. The Dallas defense played plenty well enough to win this game, as they clamped down on the 49er rushing attack for the better part of three quarters. They made rookie sensation Brock Purdy work for every one of his 214 passing yards, while the 49ers averaged 3.5 yards per carry as a team. But in a game of snapshots, it will be hard to erase the mental image of a tipped Purdy pass dropping through the hands of Trevon Diggs just 10 yards outside the Dallas end zone. The throw — one of just a few Purdy might want back — was batted into the air by Anthony Barr, but Diggs just couldn’t wrap his fingers around it in time.

The play would have gotten the Cowboys off the field with a 9-9 tie still intact at the end of the third quarter. Instead, Christian McCaffrey found paydirt just four snaps later, and the Niners were in control for the final stanza. Special teams had their moments. While Kelvin Joseph did force a crucial fumble on a San Francisco punt return, Brett Maher had his lone extra point attempt of the day blocked. And it’s a good bet that KaVontae Turpin won’t enjoy watching the tape of his 44-yard kick return in the fourth quarter, as the replay showed he was a cut away from a possible touchdown.

It’s also impossible to forget that, one snap before Prescott’s costly red-zone pick, Tony Pollard was lost for the day with a high-ankle sprain. Aside from CeeDee Lamb, who was outstanding with 10 catches for 117 yards, Pollard provided the only thing resembling a spark for the Cowboys offense

This all feels like semantics, though. Those moments, good and bad, are guaranteed in any closely contested playoff game.

Kevin Burkhardt & Greg Olsen on the 49ers’ win against the Cowboys

Kevin Burkhardt & Greg Olsen on the 49ers' win against the Cowboys

Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen discussed the San Francisco 49ers’ big win against the Dallas Cowboys to advance to the NFC Championship.

The brutal truth is that Prescott had the ball in the San Francisco red zone with 1:24 remaining in the first half and a chance to take the lead. The possession ended in a turnover. Hours later, despite everything that had happened, he had the ball with a chance to drive for the tie.

He wasn’t good enough, and the Cowboys are going home again. And with neither of the NFC’s two finalists, Philadelphia and San Francisco, looking likely to go anywhere, anytime soon, so begins another attempt to rise to their level.

David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.

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