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The Dallas Cowboys' missed opportunity: Was this the best Cowboys team of the Dak Prescott era?

Landover, Maryland, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) looks on against the Washington Football Team during the second half at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

A lot went wrong during the Dallas Cowboyswild-card loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

The game-ending quarterback draw with 14 seconds and zero timeouts remaining takes the cake, but 14 penalties, 17 pressures allowed (most in a game all season) and rather mediocre rates both running (3.7 yards per carry) and throwing (5.9 yards per attempt) the football doomed this team regardless of whether they could’ve — or should’ve — had the chance for a last-second Hail Mary.

Nobody ever doubted if the 12-5 Cowboys truly belonged in the playoffs. They won the NFC East fair and square and were favored to beat the 49ers by 3.5 points for the entire week. Match these teams up 10 times, and it’s very possible that both squads win a handful of games.

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Still, it seemed as though there was something different about this version of the Cowboys. They fielded the league’s top-ranked scoring offense, racking up 35 or more points in seven separate games this season — nobody else reached that threshold more than five times. At times, Dak Prescott looked like one of the league’s best quarterbacks behind PFF’s top-ranked offensive line while always having somewhere to go with the football thanks to the likes of CeeDee Lamb and Amari Cooper. Micah Parsons, who earned unironic comparisons to Lawrence Taylor because the man was that good, led a defense that ranked seventh in scoring, though he received frequent contributions from ball-hawking first-team All-Pro CB Trevon Diggs.

It certainly seemed like this was the most complete Cowboys team anyone had seen in quite some time. Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones seemed to recognize this particular year as a missed opportunity, telling reporters after the game, “When you get this combination of players together, you need to have success.”

The comparisons between the 2021 Cowboys to the franchise’s Super Bowl-winning squads from the 1990s were and are a bit much, but the question remains: Was this edition of the team truly superior to the Prescott-led groups that have made their way to the playoffs on three separate occasions since 2016?

There doesn’t seem to be too much doubt that this answer is “yes,” based on the below chart referencing team-wide figures and ranks in point differential as well as expected points added (EPA) per play.

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