NFL Wild Card Takeaways: What were Prescott and the Cowboys thinking?

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) reacts next to San Francisco 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead, middle, and cornerback Ambry Thomas (20) after the final play of an NFL wild-card playoff football game. (Roger Steinman/AP)

The clock is running. The umpire is running. There’s a collision. The ball is snapped, and spiked, but it’s too late. Time’s up.

Whether or not you’re a Dallas Cowboys fan, we all deserve answers: How can a playoff game — and thus, a season — end with such egregious mismanagement of the clock?

“It’s the execution between us and the officiator spotting the ball,” coach Mike McCarthy said during his post-game press conference. “Obviously wasn’t in tune. We shouldn’t have had any problem getting the ball spotted there. Is that the quote you’re looking for?”

Dallas dropped a stunning NFL wild-card game on Sunday afternoon, 23-17 to the San Francisco 49ers, thanks in part to a designed quarterback keeper that consumed too much time. The Cowboys had inflicted loads of self-harm already, committing 14 penalties, but nothing topped their game-ending gaffe.

Devoid of timeouts, Dak Prescott had marched the Cowboys into 49ers territory with 14 seconds left. With proper execution, Dallas had enough time to move closer to the end zone before a last-gasp play for the win.

Prescott ran into a patch of open turf, but it was a little too open. His 17-yard scamper to the 24-yard line caused precious seconds to tick away.

Then he handed the ball to his centre instead of to the umpire barreling down the field. By rule, an NFL official must spot the ball before play can resume. The umpire crashed into Prescott, set the ball in place and backed away. But by then, the game was over.

So, who’s to blame? McCarthy for green-lighting a run up the middle? Prescott for running too far? The umpire for not spotting the ball in one smooth motion?

We’ll let you decide. In the meantime, here are our other takeaways from Sunday’s NFL wild card action.

Deebo’s Adaptable Dominance Continues

If you were smart (or lucky) enough to draft Deebo Samuel in fantasy football this year, you’ve seen his game-breaking abilities on display for months. After helping many fantasy teams to championship glory a couple of weeks ago, Samuel turned in another winning performance to push the 49ers into the divisional round.

San Francisco’s 215-pound Swiss Army knife tallied 110 all-purpose yards — 72 rushing, 38 receiving — as well as the game-winning score. On his touchdown, Samuel rebuffed a run play that was designed to take him to the edge; instead, he ad-libbed his way to the end zone.

He’s still technically a wide receiver, but the lines are blurred. Samuel rushed for eight touchdowns this year (a single-season NFL record among receivers), and his rushing touchdown on Sunday was the first by a San Francisco receiver in playoff history.

Credit the 49ers for valuing Samuel’s athleticism and doing whatever they can to feed him the football. Look at his regular season rushing splits in 2021:

First eight games: 6 carries, 22 yards (3.7 yards/rush), 1 TD

Final eight games: 53 carries, 343 yards (6.5 yards/rush), 7 TD

Whether he lines up out wide, in the slot or in the backfield, Samuel can (and probably will) scorch his opponent. Just give him the dang ball.

“I don’t second (guess) anything (coach) Kyle (Shanahan) asks me to do,” Samuel said after the game. “I trust him just as much as he trusts me with the ball in my hands, and I just go out here and give it my all.”

We trust that the 49ers will give Samuel ample opportunities next week against the top-seeded Green Bay Packers.

A Quiet End For Big Ben

Though he hasn’t given the official word, Ben Roethlisberger has suggested for weeks that this season is his last in the NFL. And so, with the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 42-21 loss in Kansas City on Sunday night, Roethlisberger’s Canton-bound career met an unceremonious end.

He won two Super Bowls over 18 seasons in Pittsburgh, leading the league in passing twice and reaching six Pro Bowls. His longevity is a major component of his legacy, evidenced by his position on the all-time lists for completions (fifth), passing yards (fifth) and passing touchdowns (eighth).

In Week 17, Roethlisberger played his final home game at Heinz Field, beating the Cleveland Browns on Monday Night Football and keeping his team’s playoff hopes alive. Then he led Pittsburgh to an overtime victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 18, and an improbable playoff run was on.

But there’d be no Hallmark moment to follow. Roethlisberger threw for just 215 yards on 44 attempts with two touchdowns, outdueled in all facets by Patrick Mahomes (404 yards on 39 attempts, five touchdowns). The Chiefs took a two-score lead into halftime and never looked back.

And now, barring some sort of Favrian misdirection, Roethlisberger’s NFL career is complete.

Wirfs Gets Hurt

As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers began their Super Bowl defence, they were already missing many of their most potent playmakers. Now, their top facilitator, Tristan Wirfs, could miss time with an injury.

The All-Pro right tackle has a sprained ankle, and the team will “wait and see” for his status next week, coach Bruce Arians said. Wirfs sustained his injury during the game’s first drive, and he needed assistance hobbling to the locker room.

With under four minutes left in first half, and the Buccaneers boasting a 17-0 lead over the Philadelphia Eagles, Wirfs limped his way back into the game. Three plays later, he fell in a heap — while allowing a sack — and his day was done.

Philadelphia wasted little time picking on Wirfs’s replacement, Josh Wells, and dropping Tom Brady for one of four sacks on the day.

It’s fair to question why Wirfs returned to a three-score game when he clearly wasn’t feeling 100 per cent. At the same time, the fact he wanted to give it a go suggests his injury may not be long term.

Wirfs had played every offensive snap during his first two seasons prior to exiting from Sunday’s win. If he has to sit out next week, the Buccaneers have some sizable shoes to fill (literally and metaphorically).

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