As the San Francisco 49ers began to celebrate another trip to the NFC Championship Game, television cameras caught a dejected Jerry Jones in his suite at Levi’s Stadium. The Cowboys owner was forced once more to wrap his mind around a play-off disappointment, this one a 19–12 loss on Sunday.

In that moment, Jones looked all of his eighty years, glancing this way and that, surely understanding that the clock is ticking on many levels, especially for this generation of Cowboys and quarterback Dak Prescott, whose arrival in 2016 had generated so much optimism. Instead, the Cowboys keep coming up short. Later, Jones would attempt to describe the pain of Sunday’s failure.

“I thought we were suited to come in here and win this thing,” he told reporters. “Frankly, I wouldn’t say surprised. I’d say just real disappointed. . . . We came up short. We’re sick. Sick. Sick.”

That’s the beautiful thing about Jerry Jones. Even after more than a quarter century of his Cowboys being one of the NFL’s premier underachievers, Jones still believes his team is an eyelash from another championship. He believes in a quarterback, Prescott, who again stumbled on the big stage. He remains behind head coach Mike McCarthy despite the availability of a future Hall of Fame coach in Sean Payton. On and on America’s Team rolls, same as it ever was.

Ever since the Cowboys won three Super Bowls in a four-year stretch between 1992 and 1995, Dallas hasn’t come close. Last week’s win at Tampa Bay was just their fifth play-off victory in 27 seasons. This, for a franchise that used to make the NFC Championship Game seem like its birthright. In the 26 seasons between 1970 and 1995, the Cowboys got there fourteen times.

In 1983, after they’d made it to three straight conference finals but failed to reach a single Super Bowl, the late Tex Schramm, then the Cowboys president, called the team’s postseason performance “embarrassing.” The Cowboys haven’t been to another NFC title game since 1996; they’ve been 0–7 in the divisional round since then. That’s embarrassing.

Sunday was the ninth time the Cowboys and 49ers met in the postseason, tying Packers-49ers and Rams-Cowboys for the most frequent NFL postseason matchups. The series has produced a string of iconic NFL moments, from Dallas’s seventeen-point fourth-quarter comeback in 1972 after Tom Landry sent his backup quarterback—Roger Staubach—into the game. That was the beginning of the era in which NFL Films dubbed the Cowboys “America’s Team.”

There was “the catch” by San Francisco’s Dwight Clark in 1982, and the Cowboys’ victory in 1993 that propelled Dallas to its first Super Bowl in the Jones era. “How ’bout them Cowboys?” then–head coach Jimmy Johnson crowed in the locker room. Dallas beat the 49ers the next season as well, with Johnson calling into a radio station two days before the game to guarantee a victory.

“Put it in three-inch headlines!” he bellowed.

San Francisco eliminated the Cowboys 23–17 in the first round of last season’s play-offs and entered this weekend favored to win again. Still, in the days leading up to Sunday’s game, Jones had expressed optimism that this time would be different. He remembered fondly how the Cowboys had eliminated the 49ers thirty years earlier on their way to his first Super Bowl with the team.

Jones said this time reminded him of that season, with a team that seemed to have few weaknesses, other than a suddenly shaky kicker, Brett Maher. “I don’t think I can dream any bigger than Sunday,” Jones told 105.3 FM The Fan in Dallas. “It’s that important.”

After a second straight 12–5 regular season, these Cowboys—with playmakers scattered up and down the roster—might have been the franchise’s best team in a quarter century. And they were close to pulling out the win—just close enough to make it all sting a little more.

Jones was let down again by quarterback Dak Prescott, who delivered one touchdown in ten possessions and threw a pair of early interceptions that led to six of San Francisco’s nine first-half points. He had a potential third interception dropped in the closing minutes as the Cowboys attempted a desperate fourth-quarter rally to tie the game. He’s winless in three Division Round games. This year, Prescott tied with Houston Texans quarterback Davis Mills for the most interceptions thrown in the regular season, despite the Dallas signal caller missing five games with a hand injury.

“I can’t put the team in jeopardy like that,” Prescott said on Sunday. “The defense gave us an opportunity to win the game, they did a great job against a good offense. For us to put up the points we did, it’s unacceptable and that starts with me.’’ Asked about the interceptions, he said: “The number it has gotten to [seventeen in fourteen games, including the play-offs] is ridiculous. I can promise it will never get this high again. I promise it.’’

Prescott entered the weekend as the most experienced quarterback remaining in the play-offs, but his 63.6 passer rating was the second-lowest of the batch, above only Daniel Jones of the New York Giants. “I thought this team, with Dak at quarterback, I thought we had a chance to get to and compete at the top level in this tournament,” Jones said. “I really did.”

Defensively, Dallas was excellent on Sunday, holding one of the NFL’s best offenses to four field goals and one touchdown. But San Francisco’s former third-string quarterback, Brock Purdy of Iowa State, the 262nd and final selection of the 2022 NFL Draft, outplayed Prescott.

The Cowboys were whistled for eight penalties in addition to the two turnovers. They converted just five of fifteen third-down plays, and after running back Tony Pollard was injured in the first half, Dallas pretty much gave up on running the ball. This is where Jones paid for his decision to let wide receiver Amari Cooper leave via free agency after last season. CeeDee Lamb was excellent in catching ten balls, but Prescott needed another option.

He led a 74-yard touchdown drive on the third Dallas possession, finding tight end Dalton Schultz with a four-yard touchdown pass. But the good vibes of a 6–3 lead lasted about two minutes, right up until Maher trotted onto the field and had what appeared to be another errant extra-point kick blocked. He had missed five of six before that, including four in the victory at Tampa. The kicker’s late-season collapse was so noteworthy that even Texas governor Greg Abbott joined the chorus of social media criticism.

Where do the Cowboys go from here? Jones seems reluctant to fire McCarthy despite Payton’s availability. Jones knows Payton well from his days as an assistant coach in Dallas under Bill Parcells, but Payton would surely want more control over team decisions than Jones is likely to offer.

Prescott will be thirty by the start of next season. He has led one of the NFL’s top offenses the last two seasons, but Dallas quarterbacks—that is, Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach—are measured by their play-off success. Prescott has led the Cowboys to four play-off appearances but only two victories in six healthy seasons. That’s not awful considering the Cowboys won three play-off games in twenty seasons before his arrival. Prepare for a week of hot takes about his future on Dallas talk radio.

As for Jones, his has been a remarkable 34 years as the Cowboys’ owner. He has revealed his business genius again and again in riding those three early championships to building the most powerful brand in North American professional sports. Only the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers are even in the conversation with the Cowboys. The franchise Jones bought for $150 million in 1989 is now worth round $8 billion. Some of that is a byproduct of the ever-skyrocketing value of NFL television rights. But plenty of it is Jerry, who understood that those uniforms and that star on the helmet represented something unique in the hearts and minds of fans around the nation. Hate ’em or love ’em, we can’t leave ’em.

NFL games accounted for 82 of the 100 highest-rated television shows in 2022, according to data compiled by Sportico, breaking the previous record of 75 in 2021. And no team turns ratings into gold like the Cowboys, who played in four of the 2022 NFL season’s five highest-rated games, including a Thanksgiving Day contest against the Giants that drew 42.1 million viewers and became the most-watched regular season game in NFL history.

Despite numerous scandals over the years, the Cowboys’ “America’s Team” brand has remained remarkably resilient. Last year, a team executive was fired for filming cheerleaders in their dressing room. Jones was accused of fathering a child outside of his marriage. And there was a variety of crude behavior detailed in Texas Monthly’s podcast on the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, America’s Girls.

Yet during the run-up to Sunday’s game, Jones had seemed more confident than ever that he finally had the team that could get over the hump and back into the Super Bowl conversation. Instead, fans in Dallas were treated to a familiar story of unfulfilled expectations. For a supposed silver lining to this season, consider that the Cowboys did make the play-offs in back-to-back years for the first time since 2007, and that’s what McCarthy tried to sell.

“Factually, we’ve taken one step closer to our goal,” he said after the loss. “I thought we’re a better team than we were last year. . . . Obviously just extremely disappointed. This has been an incredible journey with this group of men. We just came up short tonight to a very good football team.”