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Every playoff loss is, of course, disappointing, but some are more heartbreaking than others. It’s been two weeks since the Cowboys fell to the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs—and the loss still stings.
The list below includes each of the 27 playoff losses in team history, ranked in order of most disappointing.
Although some will insert the latest loss as the most disappointing, I ranked it fourth behind “The Catch” in 1981, the Ice Bowl in 1967, and Super Bowl V.
Dallas Cowboys: Most Disappointing Playoff Losses
The Dallas Cowboys lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Green Bay Packers in the 2016 NFL Playoffs. This list ranks the most disappointing losses in team history.
1981 NFC Championship Game
No reference needed other than "The Catch."
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, the Cowboys have gone 14-9 during divisional round playoff games. The team’s first loss in the division round occurred in 1976.
The team’s first loss in the division round occurred in 1976. The 11-3 Cowboys hosted the 10-3-1 Rams at Texas Stadium.
Dallas had a 10-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter, but the Rams regained the lead and held on for a 14-12 win. The lack of a running game prompted the Cowboys to trade for a draft pick that allowed them to select Tony Dorsett.
One Dallas player during that 1976 playoff loss recorded two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Who was it?
The picture below is not from the game in question but provides the answer.
Part of the storyline following the Cowboys’ 34-31 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs will focus on the future in Dallas.
It does look bright—at least on the offensive side of the ball. Dak Prescott showed he could handle the pressure in a playoff game, making only a few mistakes and guiding the team to what could have been a comeback for the ages. He used all of his weapons, with Zeke Elliott coming through with 125 rushing yards and Dez Bryant catching nine passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
Here’s the problem—we remember Roger Staubach because he was Captain Comeback. That title means he won his comebacks. He also won Super Bowls. We remember Troy Aikman for the same reason; he was a winner.
We do not remember Craig Morton fondly, for he could not lead the Cowboys to a Super Bowl title in the two years he was at the helm. We do not remember Danny White fondly because the team lost three consecutive conference championship games under his leadership. Perhaps only one of those losses was White’s fault, but that is his legacy.
Prescott has plenty of time to develop his own legacy, but he is going to have to help elevate the Cowboys to a level higher than they have seen in more than twenty years.
Between 1970 and 1995, the Cowboys went 14-3 in divisional playoff games. Conference title games were a different matter, but the team knew how to win in the playoffs.
Since the 1996 season, the Cowboys have gone 0-5 in the divisional round. Following several of those seasons (1996, 2007, 2009, 2014), the Cowboys were considered to be favorites to reach the Super Bowl the next year. But Dallas did not even reach the playoffs in 1997, 2008, 2010, or 2015.
It looked as if the Cowboys were going to change history on Sunday thanks to a frantic fourth-quarter comeback.
The team needed that comeback because of a first-half debacle. Aaron Rodgers was on fire and so confident that he did not even buckle his chinstrap on one play. A 3-0 Dallas lead evaporated into a 21-3 deficit, and the game felt much like the 34-3 divisional-round loss at Minnesota in 2009.
But Prescott led the team to ten points near the end of the first half to cut the deficit to 21-13.
Green Bay received the ball to begin the third quarter, and the Dallas defense once again had no idea how to stop him. When Rodgers hit Jared Cook for a three-yard touchdown pass, the Packers led 28-13, and Dallas was reeling.
But Prescott did not fold. He led Dallas to two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and ran in the two-point conversion to tie the game at 28.
The Dallas defense needed a stop and appeared to catch a break when Jeff Heath picked off a pass deep in Dallas territory with less than two minutes remaining. But Anthony Brown was called for defensive pass interference, and the Packers were within field goal range.
DeMarcus Lawrence then made a play reminiscent of Larry Cole’s tackle of John Riggins in the famous 1979 game. Lawrence blasted through the left side of the Packers’ line and stuffed Ty Montgomery for a five-yard loss. The play forced the Packers to try a 56-yard field goal.
Which Mason Crosby made. We would see it again.
Prescott again drove the Cowboys back downfield. In two plays, he moved the Cowboys from their own 25 to the Green Bay 40.
Dallas chose to spike the ball with 47 seconds remaining, which turned out to be a mistake. A seven-yard pass to Cole Beasley set up a 3rd and 3, but Prescott’s pass on third down was deflected. The Cowboys had to settle for a 52-yard field goal to tie the game.
The turn of events gave Rodgers 35 seconds to drive the Packers into field-goal range.
On a play that will live in infamy, Rodgers hit Cook on a 36-yard pass play to move the ball to the Dallas 32, allowing the Packers to try a game-winning field goal.
Which Mason Crosby made.
I’m thinking that Jason Garrett’s legacy might end up being his inability to manage the clock.
Among the plays that helped set the stage for the Packers to beat the Cowboys with a last-second field goal was a spike by Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott on the team’s final drive.
A pass to Jason Witten gave the Cowboys a first down in Green Bay territory with 1:07 left to play and Prescott spiked the ball to stop the clock at that point. The Cowboys, trailing by three at the time, would move seven yards closer before a third down incompletion set up Dan Bailey’s field goal with 35 seconds left to play.
After the game, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett was asked about the decision to spike the ball there rather than continue running plays and time off of the clock.
“Just felt like that was the right thing to do at the time,” Garrett said. “Keeping the timeout to be able to kick a field goal is really important if you can do it. So in those situations when you make a first down, we believe you clock it there so you keep the timeout in your back pocket. Obviously in that situation we’re trying to go down and score a touchdown so you want to keep as much time on the clock as you can. If the clock is going and you need a timeout to get yourself in field goal range you have that one still available to you.”
Garrett never needed that timeout, which obviously would have been in his pocket with or without a spike on the first down play, and he wasted a down that could have been used to try to score a touchdown. The Packers could have stopped the clock, but that would have left them without timeouts to use on their own final drive and increased the likelihood that Bailey’s kick sends the game to overtime.
The Dallas Cowboys had wrapped up the top seed in the NFC playoffs before taking the field on Sunday against the Eagles. The game turned into something resembling a preseason game, with the team sitting several key starters.
Dak Prescott played for about a quarter. Mark Sanchez played most of the rest of the game.
In between came the first appearance of 2015 by Tony Romo. He completed three of four passes for 29 yards and a touchdown. Most highlights of the game have focused on Romo’s short appearance.
Other coverage of the game has focused on the fact that Dallas did not win its final game, while the Falcons, Packers, Seahawks, and Giants did. A win would have given the Cowboys a franchise record 14 wins, but the team seemed more concerned with protecting its players from injury.
Winning the Final Game Is Critical?
It has only been nine years since the Cowboys started a season with a 13-2 record. Dallas traveled to Washington but did next to nothing in a 27-6 loss. Two weeks later, the Cowboys lost to the Giants. Many (including me) believe that Dallas lost momentum thanks to a late-season slide.
During each of the five times that the Cowboys have won a Super Bowl, the Cowboys have won their season finale. Moreover, the three teams that lost the Super Bowl also won their regular season finales.
Winning the season finale has not been critical to all recent Super Bowl champions, however. Of the last ten Super Bowl champions, four lost their last regular season games. These teams included the 2014 Patriots, the 2012 Ravens, the 2009 Saints, and the 2007 Giants. In fact, New Orleans lost its final three games of the 2009 season after a 13-0 start, but the Saints were able to win Super Bowl XLIV anyway.
Witten Does Not Break Irvin’s Record
Jason Witten entered Sunday’s game needing only 27 yards to surpass Michael Irvin as the team’s all-time leader in receiving yards.
Witten only managed 10 yards, though, so Irvin will remain the franchise leader until at least the early part of 2017. Witten still needs 17 yards to take over the top spot.
Elliott’s 1631 Yards Ranks Fifth
For the sixth time, a Dallas running back led the league in rushing.
Ezekiel Elliott gained 1631 yards, even after sitting out the season finale on Sunday. His total ranks fifth in team history.
The top ten are now as follows:
Several versions of the Cowboys during the 2000s had a habit of falling apart during the month of December.
Anyone with a memory of that decade will remember the 8-4 start in 2006 that disintegrated into a 9-7 finish.
The 8-4 start in 2008? Yep, another 9-7 finish.
In between those seasons was 2007, when the Cowboys raced to 12-1 start. However, the Cowboys struggled against the Detroit Lions and wound up losing two of the final three to end the season with a 13-3 record and little momentum. Despite having the best record in the NFC, Dallas lost to the Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs.
So when this year’s version of the Cowboys lost to the Giants on December 11, many of us started to worry. The Cowboys’ performance against Tampa Bay did not resolve our concerns, given that the Cowboys blew a 17-6 halftime lead.
Thankfully, the Cowboys did not need to do more than that to win the NFC East, because Philadelphia’s 24-19 win over the Giants ensured that Dallas would have the #1 seed in the NFC.
Dallas could have rested its starters or not taken Monday’s game against the Lions seriously. Of the two teams, Detroit actually had more to play for, given that a win over the Cowboys would have guaranteed a playoff spot for the Lions.
Instead, Dallas looked like the best team in the NFC. Despite giving up 21 first-half points, along with too many big plays by a running back named Zack Zenner, the Cowboys looked sharp on offense and turned up the intensity in what turned out to be a 42-21 romp of the Lions.
Dak Prescott was nearly flawless all night. He completed 15 of 20 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns for a rating of 148.3 (along with a QBR rating of 94.4). Prescott will not beat Tony Romo’s 113.2 passer rating from 2014, but the rookie QB’s rating of 105.6 is better than any other rating in team history, including Roger Staubach’s 104.8 rating during the team’s first Super Bowl season in 1971.
Ezekiel Elliott only managed 80 yards, but he still managed two touchdowns, including a 55-yarder in the first quarter.
The receiver named Dez Bryant? He caught two touchdown passes and threw for a third.
The Dallas defense? Despite giving up some longer runs to Zenner in the first half, the defense forced two turnovers and sacked Matthew Stafford four times.
The result? The Cowboys played like the best team in the NFC. They close their season at Philadelphia on Sunday before hosting the division round two weeks later.
It’s my blog. Here we are (way up there).
In 1971, the starting defensive line consisted of Bob Lilly, Jethro Pugh, George Andrie, and Larry Cole. I didn’t have to look that up.
In 1977, the starting defensive line consisted of Pugh, Randy White, Harvey Martin, and Too Tall Jones. Nope, didn’t have to look that up either.
In 1992, the starting defensive line consisted of Charles Haley, Russell Maryland, Tony Casillas, and Tony Tolbert. Didn’t have to…you get the picture.
Against the Lions on Monday night, the starting defensive line consisted of Benson Mayowa, Terrell McClain, Maliek Collins, and Jack Crawford, with David Irving and Randy Gregory seeing quite a bit of action.
I was at the game but still had to look that up.
Sort of lost in all the other stories this season is the fact that the Cowboys have had three different running backs rush for more than 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.
(Hat tip to Robert Stiltner, who asked me on Facebook why nobody has mentioned this. I did the research based on his comment.)
The Cowboys are the third team in NFL history to accomplish the feat. The other two instances each happened since 2003.
Denver Broncos (2003-2006)
The Broncos under Mike Shanahan became famous for finding a seemingly endless number of running backs. Between 2003 and 2006, a different Denver running back rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
2003 – Clinton Portis: 290 attempts, 1,591 yards
2004 – Reuben Droughns: 275 attempts, 1,240 yards
2005 – Mike Anderson: 239 attempts, 1,014 yards
2006 – Tatum Bell: 233 attempts, 1,025 yards
New York Giants (2006-2008)
The Giants kept trying to develop its “thunder and lightning” attack with various running backs during the mid-2000s. They became the second franchise to have three different backs with at least 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. Moreover, during the third of those three seasons, the Giants had two 1,000-yard backs.
2006 – Tiki Barber: 327 attempts, 1,662 yards
2007 – Brandon Jacobs: 202 attempts, 1,009 yards
2008 – Derrick Ward: 182 attempts, 1,025 yards; Brandon Jacobs: 219 attempts, 1,089 yards
Dallas Cowboys (2014-2016)
The Cowboys have featured what is probably the best offensive line in football during the past few years, so it is no coincidence that the team has had three 1,000-yard backs.
2014 – DeMarco Murray: 392 attempts, 1,845 yards
2015 – Darren McFadden: 239 attempts, 1,089 yards
2016 – Ezekiel Elliott: 310 attempts, 1,551 yards (through 14 games)
Some other teams have come close to appearing on this list. Quite a number have had different backs rush for more than 1,000 yards in (for example) three of four or five seasons.
Atlanta nearly made this list thanks to quarterback Michael Vick. Warrick Dunn rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2004, 2005, and 2006, and Vick added 1,039 rushing yards of his own in 2006. The Falcons did not have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2006, but Michael Turner gained 1,699 yards in 2008.
The Colts were another team that barely missed this list. Below are the Indianapolis rushing leaders from 1998 to 2001:
1998 – Marshall Faulk: 324 attempts, 1,319 yards
1999 – Edgerrin James: 369 attempts, 1,553 yards
2000 – Edgerrin James: 387 attempts, 1,709 yards
2001 – Dominic Rhodes: 233 attempts, 1,104 yards
The Colts did not have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2003, but a back rushed for at least 1,000 yards every year from 2003 to 2007 (James from 2003-2005; Joseph Addai in 2006-2007).
The Dallas Cowboys are not going to bench Dak Prescott for Tony Romo. We’re talking about replacing a QB who has won 12 games this season with a QB who has not completed a pass in a regular-season game since throwing three interceptions on Thanksgiving Day in 2015.
We’re also talking about a potential franchise quarterback vs. the previous franchise quarterback who won a grand total of two playoff games in more than nine years as a starter.
So with the Cowboys holding an NFL-best 11-2 record and the team closing in on a division title, the drama has centered on whether the team should insert Tony Romo into the lineup.
You are not welcome here, Mr. or Ms. Unnecessary Drama.
Against Tampa Bay on Sunday night, rookie Dak Prescott nearly set an NFL mark in completion percentage in a single game by hitting 32 of 36 pass attempts. Only Rich Gannon in 2002 completed a higher percentage of passes on 36 or more attempts.
Parts of Sunday’s game were indeed frustrating, but not because of Prescott. Dallas should have had a chance for a touchdown on the opening drive of the game, but a holding call on Vince Mayle effectively derailed the drive, and Dan Bailey missed a 56-yard attempt.
Most of the rest of the first half went the Cowboys’ way, and the team held a 17-3 in the second quarter thanks to touchdowns by Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.
But just as the Cowboys had trouble putting the Giants away last week, Dallas nearly self-destructed against Tampa Bay.
That 17-3 lead? It evaporated into a 20-17 deficit. The defense had chances but could not contain the Buccaneer offense. And the automatic one, Bailey, missed another attempt from beyond 50 yards.
The rest of the game was a nail-biter, as Dallas could only manage to kick three field goals. The defense followed one of those field goals with an interception by Jeff Heath, setting up yet another field goal.
The magic really appeared to wear off when Jason Witten fumbled with 8:45 remaining in the 4th quarter. But Tampa Bay could do nothing on the ensuing drive, resulting in another punt.
Following another punt by Tampa Bay, Dallas drove 81 yards in 8 plays, with the Cowboys relying heavily on Elliott. Although the Cowboys could not score a touchdown, the team kicked another field goal to take a 26-20 lead with just over three minutes remaining.
Tampa Bay had two more drives but could not move the ball. On the Buccaneers’ final drive, Orlando Scandrick picked off Jameis Winston to end the game.
At 12-2, Dallas will clinch the NFC East and home-field advantage with a win in either of the final two regular season games against the Lions and Eagles.
In 12 previous games in 2016, the Dallas Cowboys had forced two or more turnovers only twice—two against the Chicago Bears and four against the Green Bay Packers.
So if we knew that the Cowboys would force three against the New York Giants, we would probably have some confidence that the Cowboys would win pretty easily at New York on Sunday night.
Instead, the Dallas offense could not take advantage of many opportunities, while the Giants did just enough to eek out a 10-7 win.
In the first half, the game looked promising. Dallas capped off a 10-play, 67-yard drive with a great 31-yard touchdown pass from Dak Prescott to Terrance Williams after a great play fake.
Eight plays later, Dallas recovered an Eli Manning fumble, and the Dallas offense moved to near midfield.
But the offense did what did for most of the evening and self-destructed. Dez Bryant slipped on a pass play, and Janoris Jenkins stepped up to intercept the pass.
Dallas managed to recover yet another fumble by Manning in the second quarter, but the offense could do nothing with it.
Dallas moved into field goal position late in the first half, but Dan Bailey’s attempt hit the crossbar.
After the Giants kicked a field goal in the third quarter, Prescott tried to go deep to Bryant, but Leon Hall picked off the pass and returned it to the Giant 39.
Two plays later, Odell Beckham Jr. caught a slant and raced 61 yards for a touchdown.
Sadly, the game was all but over after that because the Cowboys offense looked a bit like the 2015 version.
The next three Dallas drives ended in punts. Even an interception by Anthony Brown failed to spark anything.
When Dallas had a chance to drive with less than three minutes left, Prescott went back to Bryant, who had not caught a pass all game. Bryant caught a slant on third down and promptly fumbled it.
The last chance for the Cowboys came with just over a minute left. Needing to go the length of the field, Dallas failed to make a single yard. The final offensive play was a pass attempt to Bryant. Although officials first ruled that he caught the pass for a first down, replays showed that he dropped the ball.
At 11-2, Dallas still has a two-game lead in the NFC East and a two-game lead for home-field advantage. But the team certainly cannot afford any more games like this one.
Sad news that former Dallas linebacker Dave Edwards died earlier this week.
Edwards started ten games during his first two years in Dallas before taking over the strongside linebacker position in 1965. He remained the starter through the 1975 season, missing only one game between 1965 and 1975.
He became known as a playmaker in 1967 when he picked off three passes and made several other key plays. Against the Saints on October 15, 1967, Dallas was holding on to a 14-10 lead, but New Orleans was driving with 1:01 remaining.
Edwards made the play of the game by stealing a fumble. He raced 94 yards for an apparent touchdown only to have the play called back. Dallas went on to win the game, and the Dallas Morning News ran a column entitled “Wanted: TD for Edwards.”
“I’ve never scored a touchdown,” he told the paper. “Sure, it’s becoming a big thing with me.”
Less than two months later, Dallas faced the Baltimore Colts in Baltimore. The Colts led 10-7 in the second quarter when Edwards picked off a Johnny Unitas pass and scored from 26 yards away. It turned out to be Edwards’ only career touchdown.
His final game was Super Bowl X against the Steelers. During the following offseason, the Cowboys considered placing Edwards in the expansion draft held for the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Edwards instead decided to retire.
He finished his career with 13 interceptions. Although he was never named to the Pro Bowl, he was a critical part of the teams that went to three Super Bowls and won Super Bowl VI.
The following quiz asks ten questions about Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks.