Cowboys’ loss to Packers marks end of a brilliant season and start of a brighter future

That wasn’t how or when it was supposed to end for the Dallas Cowboys. They had been, truly, the story of the NFL season to that point, recapturing the full majesty of being “America’s Team” and unveiling a new set of stars while establishing themselves as the solid Super Bowl favorite in the NFC.

But it all came crashing down in the first half of Sunday’s NFC semifinal against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium, when Aaron Rodgers played like an all-time-great quarterback and the Cowboys fell behind by 18 points. They regained their dignity by fighting back to tie the score in the game’s closing minutes, only to have their season ended by one final dose of magic by Rodgers that produced a Packers field goal as time expired and a 34-31 triumph for Green Bay.

It was an NFL postseason classic, and the Cowboys were left trying to balance their pride in what they had done over the entirety of the season and in the grit of their second-half comeback Sunday with the bitter disappointment of losing at home as the NFC’s top seed and failing to advance to the conference title game, much less the Super Bowl.

“Right now you want to go back, and you want to look at this film,” rookie quarterback Dak Prescott said late Sunday. “It’s going to [stink] doing that. But once we put that behind us, I think it’s nothing but good things looking forward and what this team can do.”

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Cowboys players spent Monday cleaning out their lockers instead of readying to host the NFC championship game this Sunday. The offseason arrived far sooner than they had wanted or anticipated.

“After having seen the way we came back in the second half, I don’t know that any words can be said about missing this opportunity,” owner Jerry Jones said Sunday. “But I will say I saw the team go against a really outstanding team and a great player. This team didn’t stop competing. It took some really outstanding plays to have us sitting here in the locker room like this.

“I know now that this team was capable of playing all the way through this thing. Even with rookies in key spots, I know now that we were ready to win. We didn’t. That’s very real. [The Packers] deserve all the credit. It’s no consolation here because this is a team that’s coached and has the leadership and character to give us a chance to win the game. It hurts. It really hurts.”

It was, in so many ways, a wondrous season for the Cowboys. Prescott took over for an injured Tony Romo and established himself right away as a franchise quarterback. Romo never saw the field again, save for a series during the meaningless regular season finale at Philadelphia when the Cowboys already had the No. 1 seed in hand. Fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott became the NFL’s rushing leader. Both played splendidly Sunday, with Prescott throwing for 302 yards and Elliott running for 125.

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The Cowboys became the league’s marquee team during the regular season. The NFL put them on prime-time television whenever possible, and the Cowboys delivered, spearheading the sport’s post-election rebound in TV viewership. Prescott seemed to have a reasonable chance to become the first rookie quarterback to take his team to a Super Bowl victory. A Cowboys-Patriots matchup in Houston probably would have been a TV-ratings dream for the league.

But Rodgers was simply too good Sunday. And it will be Rodgers and the Packers, not Prescott and the Cowboys, who will face the Matt Ryan-led Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

“I think this is just the beginning for the Cowboys,” Rodgers said Sunday. “There’s going to be more battles like this over the years. They should be really proud of what they accomplished.”

Prescott grew up a Cowboys fan. His first NFL playoff experience was all that he had imagined, he said, other than the result.

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“It was a great atmosphere,” Prescott said. “AT&T was amazing today. . . . It was a great game all the way around. I just hate to be on the losing end, obviously. But it’s the game I dreamed as a little kid of playing in. I plan to play in many more of them.”

The Packers were not ensured of a playoff spot until the final day of the regular season, and they had to play in the opening round of the postseason. They were the sharper team in every way in the game’s early going Sunday, as the Cowboys committed a series of gaffes. But Coach Jason Garrett did not blame the gap between meaningful games for his team’s start.

“You earn that bye by being the number-one seed,” Garrett said. “And we were banged up at the end of the year, and we got a lot of guys healthy. And I thought that was a positive for our team.”

Garrett also said: “The objective for everyone is to win the Super Bowl, and obviously we didn’t achieve that objective. We have to look at ourselves and find a way to take the next step. But there’s no question in my mind. On Day 1, the objective was to build a team we’re all proud to be a part of forever. And I can say unequivocally I’m proud to be a part of this football team.”

It will be an eventful offseason for the Cowboys. Romo probably will move on and seek a starting job elsewhere; the Cowboys seem likely to accommodate him in that. Elliott faces an NFL investigation and possible discipline under the personal conduct policy. The Cowboys will have to retool the defense that had no answers Sunday for Rodgers. Part of the solution could be the participation of linebacker Jaylon Smith, last year’s second-round draft choice out of Notre Dame, who missed his entire rookie season because of the knee injury and nerve damage suffered in his final college bowl game.

But all of that is for some time down the road. The first step is merely to deal with the burdensome emotions of Sunday’s defeat.

“I thought we were a team that was capable of taking this thing all the way,” Jones said. “I know we are now after that second half. We have a team and we have players that can win these big games. [But] we didn’t do it.”