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5 baffling decisions determined the final moments of the Cowboys’ win over the Falcons

Bizarre clock management dictated the end of Cowboys-Falcons — and may have handed Dallas a win.

NFL: New York Giants at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys got a validating win Sunday when they toppled the Falcons on the road, by a final score of 22-19. But while Dallas head coach Jason Garrett didn’t make things easy on his team, Atlanta coach Dan Quinn was there to help.

A smattering of weird decisions and questionable calls carved out a unique path for the final two minutes of a key NFC showdown. The Cowboys and Falcons burned timeouts, spurned big plays, and eventually settled on a game-winning 42-yard kick as Dallas escaped a furious Atlanta comeback. But Garrett’s too-conservative playcalling may have doomed this game to overtime if not for a few curious Falcon timeouts.

Here’s how it all unfolded.

1. With the Cowboys facing third-and-5 from their own 30 with 98 seconds left, Falcons coach Dan Quinn decides to burn his first timeout

This is a power move. Quinn is confident enough in his defense to believe they’ll get a stop here. He’s willing to give the Cowboys an extra 20-25 seconds of game time should they convert third-and-medium because he believes giving the ball to Matt Ryan with 1:30 left and two timeouts is a more valuable situation than giving Ryan the ball with 1:05 left and three timeouts.

Instead, the Cowboys convert on third down, and with 90 seconds and three time outs remaining, feel no real sense of urgency on the following play. With time to burn, Dallas’ next three plays spring for 30 yards.

2. Facing first down at the Atlanta 30 with 34 seconds to play, Dallas dials up an off-tackle run to Ezekiel Elliott

Garrett fires back with a power move of his own. He’s so confident in his first-year kicker Brett Maher that he’s willing to run the clock down before taking a last-second, 45+ yard field goal. Nevermind that Maher missed a 52-yard game-tying field goal against Washington that started off as a 47-yard kick before a false start penalty less than a month earlier. Or that Maher had already missed a pair of kicks from the 40-49 yard range this fall. Garrett has learned nothing, and he wants to make sure Quinn knows this.

3. With Dallas declaring its intention for a long field goal and 29 seconds left in the game, Quinn takes his second timeout

But Quinn isn’t content to let the Cowboys kick the ball from 46 yards. He takes Atlanta’s second timeout, hoping he can strip the ball from Ezekiel Elliott, whose only guidance from the sideline has been “DO NOT FUMBLE.” Elliott had fumbled earlier in the game, but that was just his 10th time in 855 NFL touches. Assuming Dallas will jump on 50% of his fumbles, that gives the Falcons roughly a 1 in 171 chance of stripping the ball on second down.

What’s more likely is that Elliott will gain a few more yards that makes Maher’s eventual field goal attempt even easier or even breaks through the line of scrimmage and runs in a 30-yard touchdown.

4. Quinn has dared Garrett to throw the ball and either put the game away with a touchdown or set up a more manageable field goal. Garrett goes right back to a conservative dive up the middle for Elliott.

“No thanks, Dan,” Garrett basically says. “We’re either winning this one with a 45-yard field goal or not at all.” He calls the safest play in his book that doesn’t require Dak Prescott to take a knee. Elliott plows forward for 2 yards.

5. With the ball at the Atlanta 26 and 24 seconds left, Quinn takes his third and final timeout

Quinn decides to try his luck again before third down. It succeeds only in giving Maher an extra 2 yards of field position when Elliott’s final carry of the game pushes the ball to the middle of the field at the ATL 24-yard line. This gives Maher a straight-on, 42-yard field goal attempt with zero wind at Atlanta’s indoor stadium.

So at this point, Garrett has made his intention to settle for a long field goal clear. Quinn, unable to accept this, burns a pair of timeouts in hopes of convincing him otherwise. All this manages to do is turn a likely 46-yard field goal into a 42-yarder. Garrett pounds Elliott, his 228-pound tailback who at this point in the game is carrying the football with all the ferocity of a mother elephant protecting her young, into the center of his line.

And did those extra 4 yards make a difference? It sure looks that way.

Maher’s kick juuuuust slides inside the right upright. Add another 4 yards to that kick, and it looks like it either would either clip the goalpost or go wide right. But that 46-yard miss was, in reality, a 42-yard game-winner. And it’s all possible thanks to some impressively stubborn playcalling from both sides of the field Sunday.

In the end, Garrett got the win and had his playoff hopes restored at 5-5. The 4-6 Falcons were forced to reconsider their postseason plans and take a deep dive into the concepts of time management. Quinn gambled hard late in the game, betting on his defense to come up with a strip or a stop. In the end, the extra plays he created only served to make a tough kick easier and helped the Cowboys escape Georgia with a win.