The Dallas Cowboys knew their regular season finale could be significant.
They knew they remained in contention for the NFC East title, home playoffs and improved in-game standings.
They played their starters.
Still, they lost 26-6 to a Washington Commanders team, giving rookie quarterback Sam Howell his first start.
All three phases went below expectations. The misfortunes of offense and special teams proved particularly costly.
“We can suck on this all week,” Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones said in the postgame locker room at FedEx Field. “And if that doesn’t make you want to get ready to leave in 6-7 days, nothing else will.
“It was as complete a kick as we’ve had this year. And we’re going to find out whether that will prepare you or not. It should.”
The Cowboys finished their season 12-5 for the second straight year under head coach Mike McCarthy. But when Dallas hired McCarthy to succeed Jason Garrett, Jones wasn’t primarily hoping for a coach who could navigate the regular season.
He wanted McCarthy to elevate 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 guided nine playoff appearances playoffs, including a Super Bowl title.
Winning the turnover battle and building momentum in December were two fundamentals of McCarthy’s success in Green Bay. The Cowboys lead the league in takeouts but are also 17th in gifts, with Prescott’s 15 interceptions the most of any league quarterback despite missing five games.
Dallas hasn’t lost consecutive games this season. But dropping a game that 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 doubt,” McCarthy said. “The timing is not what you are looking for. I clearly recognize it. But it’s like many things in life: when you get kicked in the ass or punched in the mouth, you have a chance to react.
“I have great confidence in our football team that we will respond.”
McCarthy’s job security could depend on it. The Cowboys’ ceiling this year has been extremely high, offensive outbursts making 40 points look easy, and frenzied defensive performance to take away has led them to a relatively early acquisition of a playoff spot.
But recently, questions beset Dallas’ pass-stopping rush, blocking and schematic challenges stifling the running game, and a secondary’s reliability to rise to the occasion despite injuries. Prescott knows he needs to play better and change his decision-making to advance to the divisional round.
“It’s a fine line and I have to improve,” Prescott said. “As simple as that. It’s not going to continue.
Jones, also the team’s general manager, said he hopes his Cowboys use the loss as motivation to sharpen their focus and hone their details more clearly ahead of a Monday night wildcard game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“We didn’t rest anyone, so everyone got to bite that apple,” he said feeling the pain of loss.
The Buccaneers beat the Cowboys 19-3 in Week 1 opener. They’ve lost nine games since.
And yet: The Bucs will retain home-court advantage against a quarterback in Tom Brady, who has faced the Cowboys seven times in his career and won all seven games.
Danger likely awaits the Cowboys — especially if they play as badly as they did Sunday in Washington.
Jones eventually weaved some of his signature optimism into his post-game remarks that otherwise had warning content.
“There is no doubt in my mind 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 something more,” Jones said. “I am so disappointed for our fans. But now, half as disappointed as I would be if I was sitting here at this time next week.
“We have something to do and we’re going to empty that bucket this week.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein