If you ask certain Dallas Cowboys fans, it was an uncatchable ball, an ill-timed spike, a lucky last-second swerve of a poorly struck field goal attempt. But if those denizens of Cowboys Nation stare long enough through the existential looking-glass at the bottom of their bottle of Lone Star, they'll realize that they actually just got beat.
Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers did everything pundits like me said they wouldn't be able to: Come into AT&T Stadium, throw the ball all over the field, run up a bunch of points before the Cowboys could respond, and force quarterback Dak Prescott to play catch-up.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was caught between a rock and a hard place when Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy spread the field wide, forcing the Cowboys to pick their poison: cover the whole field or blitz and risk getting beat. For much of the first half, Marinelli blitzed—and Rodgers made mincemeat of a Cowboys defense that's better accustomed to protecting a lead, not trying to stem the bleeding.
In the second half, order was restored: Interceptions were exchanged, Zeke Elliott piled up many of his 125 yards, and Prescott made several of the kinds of clutch plays he'd made all season. The Cowboys whittled the Packers' lead down to eight, and then down to none. With 58 seconds left on the clock, it looked as though we were headed for at least two possessions of spectacular free football. It was enough time for Rodgers to throw two Hail Marys and an Our Father.
But while Rodgers showed off his wing on the subsequent drive, he proved he didn't need to throw up a prayer. A few nibbles gave way to a big giant bite when Rodgers challenged tight end Jared Cook to a Cirque du Soleil-level feat of ankle flexibility:
Cook's spectacular catch left three seconds for the Packers to kick a makeable 51-yard field goal. Packers kicker Mason Crosby, who has struggled at big moments throughout his career, booted an ugly-but-good practice kick as the Cowboys iced him.
Once the teams re-set and tried it again, a Professors-Snape-and-Quirrell battle of magical curses seemed to battle for supremacy as the ball wobbled its way through the uprights:
Cowboys fans will certainly be looking for hexes and shadowy forces on which to blame this loss. While there are plenty of crucial flukes and failures that played into the loss, the fact is this game started with the Packers walking into Arlington and handing the Cowboys their hat.
As Jerry Jones and his inner circle reflect on this loss, there will be as many apparent solutions as there are false premises being floated around tonight. But for everything the Cowboys have done right this year—for all the reasons they earned their No. 1 seed—some other team came into their house and outplayed them.
That, and no other reason, is why a great young team will be watching the rest of this season's playoffs on TV like the rest of us.