What were the Cowboys thinking?

Some might call this the worst ending to a postseason game in NFL history.

Since it came at the expense of Dallas, I’d say it was the best.

You can’t fully appreciate the absurdity of this sequence unless you watched the fourth quarter. Dallas trailed 23-7 at the start and had played miserably all game. They cut it to 23-10 with a field goal and then finally caught a break when Niners QB Jimmy Garoppolo threw an interception deep in his own end. The Cowboys turned that into a touchdown, trimming the lead to six. San Francisco appeared to ice the game by converting on third down with a minute left — but a review of the play showed that 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel was downed an inch shy of the marker. The Niners then seemed to convert the fourth down play on a quarterback sneak, again icing the game — but were called for a penalty. They’d have to punt. Dallas would get the ball back with a chance to win. The stars were aligned for a miracle, last-second one-point victory at home, a classic game in a classic rivalry.

They stayed aligned for the Cowboys’ first few plays after the punt as the offense moved quickly downfield and into San Francisco territory, ending up at the 40-yard line with 14 seconds and no timeouts left. A team has multiple options in a situation like that. They can go to the sidelines with a pass and hope the receiver gets out of bounds, stopping the clock and setting them up for a final play (or two). Or they can go to the end zone for a Hail Mary and try to win the game right there. That would be an attractive option against a secondary as undisciplined as the 49ers’:

If Dallas got a pass interference call on a Hail Mary, they would have been set up on the one-yard line. And if it didn’t work and the pass fell incomplete, there probably would have been enough time left to try it again.

The one thing they can’t do, obviously, is keep the ball in play. If you throw a pass over the middle — or, worse, run it — and end up being tackled, you’re at dire risk of having the clock run out on you before you can get set for that final play.

Well, guess what.

In the minutes after that happened, my memory was that Cowboys QB Dak Prescott had spent a second or two looking for open receivers, saw that everyone was covered, panicked, and made a mad dash to gain some yardage in the hope/expectation that Dallas would be able to get set in time for one more play. That would have been … sort of defensible as a poor snap decision made in the heat of a chaotic moment. The proper move in that situation would have been to throw the ball away.

But no. As you can see in the clip, Prescott never looked to pass. Dallas called this play.

McCarthy defended offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s decision to call the run, even with no timeouts. He said he was “shocked” the Cowboys didn’t get a last-play opportunity. The Cowboys call those situations “church clock” situations, and they practice them each week.

“Do you want to be running a Hail Mary play from the 50-yard line or do you want to run five verticals form the 25-yard line?” McCarthy said. “So, that’s the decision, it’s the right decision.”

Prescott said in retrospect he should have gone down sooner, which would have given the Cowboys — and the umpire — time to get set. He said a San Francisco defender jumped on him to slow him down briefly, but he did not think that was unfair.

Cowboys fans blamed the umpire afterward for getting in the way as the team lined up for its last play, but the umpire had no choice. As Tony Romo pointed out during the live broadcast, by rule the umpire has to spot the ball before the next play. Dallas can’t set the spot themselves.

Prescott was classy in defeat:

This epic failure caps a full quarter century of futility for “America’s team,” by the way. They’ve won a total of three playoff games since 1997, which compares unfavorably to one of the most embarrassing franchises in all of sports:

As much as I whine about being a Jets fan, I guess it could be worse. Exit question: Which team will Dallas lose to in the first round of next year’s playoffs?