The Dallas Cowboys knew their regular-season Finals could be meaningful.
They knew they would continue to compete for the NFC East title, home playoff games and in-game improvements.
They played their appetizers.
Nevertheless, they failed in a 26-6 loss to a team from the Washington Commanders and gave rookie quarterback Sam Howell his first start.
All three phases went below expectations. Problems on the offensive and in special teams proved particularly costly.
“We can suckle at this all week,” Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones said in the locker room after the game at FedEx Field. “And if that doesn’t make you get ready in 6-7 days, nothing else will.
“That was just as thorough a kick ass as this year. And we’re gonna find out if that gets you down or not. It should.”
The Cowboys finished their season 12-5 for the second straight season under head coach Mike McCarthy. But when Dallas hired McCarthy to replace Jason Garrett, Jones wasn’t primarily hoping for a coach who could handle the regular season.
He wanted McCarthy to highlight a team that hasn’t returned to the NFC Championship, let alone the Super Bowl, since the 1995 season. In 13 seasons as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, McCarthy oversaw nine playoff appearances, including a Super Bowl title.
Winning the revenue battle and finding a rhythm in December were two key points of McCarthy’s success in Green Bay. The Cowboys lead the league in takeaways but are also 17th in giveaways, Prescott’s 15 interceptions are the most of any quarterback in the league despite missing five games.
Jerry Jones was candid about the Cowboys’ loss to Washington. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)
Dallas hasn’t lost a straight game this season. But dropping a game in which wide receiver CeeDee Lamb even admitted the Cowboys felt “like we knew we were going to win” exposed flaws in the Cowboys’ current structure.
“It’s disappointing, no question,” McCarthy said. “The timing of this is not what you are looking for. I see that clearly. But like many things in life, if you get your ass kicked or your mouth slapped, you have a chance to react.
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“I have great confidence in our football team that we will react.”
McCarthy’s job security could depend on it. The Cowboys’ cap was extremely high that year, offensive blasts made 40 points seem easy, and rousing defensive performances led them to secure a postseason berth relatively early.
But questions have been piling up lately about Dallas’ neutralized pass rush, schematic and blocking challenges choking the running game, and the reliability of a secondary player who, despite injuries, rose to the occasion. Prescott knows he needs to play better and change his decisions to advance to the divisional round.
“It’s a fine line and I have to get better at it,” Prescott said. “It’s that simple. It won’t go on like this.”
Jones, also the team’s general manager, said he hopes his Cowboys will use the loss as motivation to sharpen their focus and refine their details more clearly ahead of a Monday night wildcard game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“We didn’t rest anyone, so everyone had to bite that apple,” he said of the pain of loss.
The Buccaneers beat the Cowboys 19-3 at the start of the first week. Since then they have lost nine games.
Still, the Bucs will retain home field advantage and lead quarterback Tom Brady, who has played the Cowboys seven times in his career and won all seven.
Danger awaits the Cowboys, especially if they play as badly as they did in Washington on Sunday.
Jones finally infused some of his trademark optimism into his post-game remarks, which otherwise had a cautionary tenor.
“I have no doubt that as a team, not just individually but as a team, we can come back and take this nightmare, whatever you want to call it, and turn it into a positive,” Jones said. “I’m so disappointed in our fans. But now half as disappointed as I would be if I was sitting here this time next week.
“We’ve got plans, and we’re going to empty this bucket this week.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein