The stage was set for one final play from the Dallas Cowboys, who made myriad errors down the stretch Sunday but still had a shot to make things interesting in their Divisional Round game against the San Francisco 49ers. And as far as formations go, this one held some intrigue.
Dallas trailed by seven at its own 24-yard line, thanks to some rather poor execution in the final minutes. The Cowboys came out in a fascinating formation with zero offensive linemen in their normal spots and running back Ezekiel Elliott ready to hike the ball to Dak Prescott, catching everyone's attention.
"It didn't get going," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said of the ill-fated gadget play.
The Cowboys walked out with their offensive linemen lined up wide, while Elliott made his first NFL snap at center (in what could have been his final snap as a Cowboy, strangely).
Despite the long odds and 76 yards to go, the play appeared to have the makings of some real innovation. So what did Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore have in his bag of tricks? Well, this time the rabbit didn't come out of the hat the way it was supposed to.
Prescott dropped back and quickly unloaded the ball to KaVontae Turpin -- more on him in a minute -- who was hit almost immediately. It clearly was a shock to Turpin, who fell to the ground immediately. Whatever magic the Cowboys were trying to invoke, we might never know.
"I really don't want to get into detail on it, but that obviously wasn't the plan," McCarthy said. "It's obviously a gadget play or whatever to end it. It's the last-play-situation call we practice."
On their prior offensive possession, Prescott was sacked on third-and-10, and the Cowboys punted from their own 18-yard line with all three timeouts remaining and more than 2 minutes left in the game. That part of the strategy worked, sort of -- the Cowboys defense caught a break when 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell ran out of bounds after picking up a first down -- as Dallas would get the ball back.
But the final 51 seconds were even worse than the other side of the two-minute warning.
Prescott's sack happened with 2:50 on the clock, and Bryan Anger's punt was fair caught at the 2:11 mark. That means the Cowboys let at least 15, possibly 20 unnecessary seconds tick off the clock. That was critical time lost that could have reshaped the entire final drive's outcome.
When the Cowboys got the ball back, Turpin fair caught the ball at the 6-yard line. Had he simply let the ball hit the ground, it seemed destined to bound into the end zone. The 49ers' left gunner had been blocked to the ground, and the next man downfield was about 5 yards behind where the ball would have hit.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones appeared to understand the significance of Dallas' failures in the penultimate drive.
"We had it there for us probably right up until the last three or four minutes," Jones said told reporters after the game. "We had it there for us to go get a step farther to the championship. But still, I'm sick. ... I had a different ending to this thing."
That wasn't all, however, as the Cowboys' medley of late-game errors continued.
On the first play of their final series, Prescott rolled out on a slow-developing pass play well into his own end zone -- and he nearly was taken down for a game-ending safety. Prescott managed to duck a pass rusher in the end zone, but he threw incomplete to Schultz, setting a tone for the drive.
Schultz took his turn with back-to-back 9-yard catches, including a clutch grab on third-and-1 near the sideline. Even though Schultz went out of bounds, he was knocked backward when he crossed the line. By rule, with less than 2 minutes to go, that's a running clock. Dallas had burned all its timeouts on defense the series prior.
With 10 seconds left, the 49ers sagged completely back on defense, and Dallas tried to catch them napping. Prescott threw an out route to Schultz, a connection that would have put them at the 39-yard line and respectable range for any final-play hijinks they'd cooked up back at The Star. But Schultz made no extra effort to tap his second foot inbounds, so it went down as an incompletion after a review.
That's when the final play served as a culmination of the Cowboys' poor execution down the stretch. It ended the Cowboys' season. It also might have been the end of the line for Elliott, who ran 10 times for 26 yards and dropped two third-down passes in the second half. With Tony Pollard out of the game due to an ankle injury, Elliott, who has a potential out in his contract this offseason, and the run game came up short.
Yet the Cowboys still had their chances to tie or win the game on the road with 3 minutes to go -- and again with just under a minute left. The Cowboys never gave themselves a chance with how those final minutes unfolded.