Cris Carter explains exactly why the Cowboys lost to the Packers

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) walks off the field after losing to the Green Bay Packers in an NFL divisional playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. The Packers won 34-31. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Days after the Green Bay Packers upset the Dallas Cowboys, many NFL fans are still trying to figure out just what went wrong for Dak Prescott and his team.

Was it that Dallas trusted a rookie quarterback? Were the Cowboys simply doomed at the hands of Aaron Rodgers, one of the greatest quarterbacks in history? Or did their choice to go away from Ezekiel Elliott in the second half lead to the defeat?

All of those factors likely played a role, to be sure. Yet on this week’s Make Me Smarter football podcast, NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter and host Nick Wright point to two crucial mistakes the Cowboys made that cost them a chance at an NFC Championship Game berth.

First, there was the choice to rest the starters in Week 17, which both Carter and Wright agree backfired on Dallas:

CRIS: The first three drives of the game, those count. Those aren’t warmups. Seven points on the first [Green Bay] drive. Fourteen points, now, the deficit after the second drive. And then you leave yourself in a 21-3 hole. The beginning of the game is just as important.

NICK: You and I have talked about the resting in Week 17. It’s not being talked about a lot this week because the Cowboys played so great after being down 21-3, and they damn near won the game. It took a great performance by the greatest quarterback in the league, Aaron Rodgers.

But you think if they maybe didn’t take the foot off the gas in Week 17, that it doesn’t take them a 21-3 hole to really get going in this game?

CRIS: Absolutely. I think they basically gave away the first 22, 23 minutes of the game. And we have seen that in the last five, 10 years, as far as the No. 1 seed or No. 2 seed not going into the game with momentum. Green Bay, on the other hand, won six games coming into the playoffs, have won two more since then, so now they’ve set themselves up. Momentum is a great thing to have.

Wright has been saying for weeks that the Cowboys should have rested their starters in Week 16, not 17, then played at full speed in the final game to have the best of both worlds: a rested squad that’s firing on all cylinders headed into the playoffs.

Yet resting in Week 17 wasn’t the only mistake Dallas made — nor even necessarily the biggest.

We all know that the Cowboys blew it by spiking the ball on first down in the closing moments of their loss to the Packers, but Wright and Carter want to make sure we appreciate just how poor a decision that was:

NICK: The Cowboys were worried about running out of time, and I think that’s what led to the biggest mistake they made all season. They spiked the ball on first down with 49 seconds left, a timeout in their pocket, the ball around the 40-yard line. To give some context, prior to that play, there had been 68 spikes in the league this year. Only one other one was more than 45 seconds with a timeout left. It was an aberration. Teams usually don’t spike the ball there.

If you’re a.) trying to score a touchdown to win and b.) trying to make sure if we don’t get a touchdown, our field goal is the final crucial play of regulation, that spike there is so costly. You’re just giving up first down. … That was an enormous play that I think’s not talked about enough.