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Your guide to 49ers-Cowboys, and why San Francisco should reach NFC Championship

© Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight year, it’s 49ers-Cowboys in the playoffs. What more could you want?

That matchup last season shook this rivalry from its dormancy. We are lightyears from the stakes and rarified air this matchup breathed in throughout the 90s. But the embers from those games still have a little heat in them, and there’s more fuel coming on Sunday.

What’s different

Before discussing about anything else, it’s important to recognize how both teams have changed. For Dallas, rookie Tyler Smith has taken Tyron Smith’s spot on the left side, while the latter shifted to the right following right tackle La’el Collins’ departure to Cincinnati.

With Jason Peters out, Connor McGovern will slot in at left guard; last year it was Connor Williams there.

Amari Cooper is gone and has been replaced mainly by Noah Brown, with T.Y. Hilton coming in late in the season. Tony Pollard has out-snapped Zeke Elliott… just barely, as the lead back. It’s basically a 50-50 split that benefits teams when Pollard is off the field.

On defense, Dallas lost Randy Gregory, but added Dante Fowler and rookie Sam Williams on the edge. Da’Ron Bland starts opposite Trevon Diggs as opposed to Anthony Brown.

San Francisco had substantially more turnover.

On offense, Brock Purdy is at the helm, with Christian McCaffrey in the backfield, and Elijah Mitchell behind him.

Everyone but Trent Williams is different on the offensive line. Mike McGlinchey returned from injury as opposed to the 32-year-old Tom Compton. Spencer Burford is alongside him, with Jake Brendel taking over for the retired Pro Bowler Alex Mack, and Aaron Banks having an impressive first season and replacing Daniel Brunskill.

Defensively, the front seven is the same except for Javon Kinlaw replacing D.J. Jones. The secondary is completely different, though Jimmie Ward, moved from safety to nickel, is still there depending on if you consider the 49ers’ base personnel nickel or 4-3.

Everything else back there is different. The ghost of Josh Norman has vanished; Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir have replaced Emmanuel Moseley and Ambry Thomas, who has not played much of a role this season and who has been ruled out with an ankle injury.

Tashaun Gipson Sr. and Talanoa Hufanga are the “erasers” at safety, as the 49ers like to call them.

Cowboys offense vs. 49ers defense

The Cowboys’ operation, or at least the engine of it, is Tony Pollard. It’s objectively funny and a bit maddening to see that he and Zeke Elliott are splitting carries when Pollard is damningly better than the spark-devoid power back Elliott is at this point.

Dallas has had a decent rushing game, though it hasn’t been exceedingly effective. They were eighth — one slot behind the 49ers — in total rushing yards, but at 4.33 yards yards per carry, ranked 18th in per carry average (the 49ers, at 4.68 yards per carry, were 10th).

They can be stifled, and against the stingiest run defense in the league — albeit one which has shown some susceptibility recently, like in the first half to Las Vegas and Seattle — could very well have issues. Teams that have caused sustained problems for the 49ers defense have benefitted from play action, and taking advantage of getting the aggressive wide nine front upfield.

If Dallas can’t do that, they face the prospect of becoming predictable.

Dak Prescott had his best game of the season last week against Tampa Bay, but they got 5.1 yards per carry from Tony Pollard against a middle of the pack run defense. Pollard is extremely explosive, but his vision leaves a little bit to be desired at times.

Dallas’ offensive line is not exceedingly athletic, and relies on heavy inside zone run dosage. The blocking it gets from skill position players is not superb.

Let’s talk about Prescott. He’s solid, for the most part.

He generally plays with excellent anticipation and accuracy. He loves getting the ball out quick, but also thrives — like most quarterbacks — when he has time to survey the field and deliver.

His off-schedule touchdown to Dalton Schultz — his most preferred target next to CeeDee Lamb — was outstanding. He looked confident and decisive.

But he’s shown real areas of weakness, especially in a disastrous 26-6 Week 18 loss to the Washington Commanders — a team with an impressive front with some similarities and physicality like the 49ers, but who the 49ers crushed 37-20 two weeks prior.

Prescott went 14 of 37 with 1 INT in that game. If he gets pressured, he can get frazzled and start making scatterbrained decisions.

When he’s on, his processing is excellent. But he can struggle to track post-snap defensive back rotations when he gets out of a rhythm and start doubting his pre-snap assessments.

There’s also an arm strength concern that exacerbates some issues.

When people talk about arm strength, the minutiae gets ignored. You can have enough arm strength throw the ball deep downfield, but how quickly does it get there?

Prescott has the capacity to make just about every throw on the field, but he’s not exactly throwing lasers. He relies more on anticipation and a belief that he knows what coverage he’s attacking to get to the right spot than he does powering the ball into tight windows. There are some wobblers.

And that can be fine. But if he’s wrong in his identification of the coverage, and the ball takes a half tic longer to get there than it would with someone else, he can get punished, and has.

He had 15 interceptions in 12 games this year; four of which, at least, were on his receivers, so call it 11. He’s susceptible to turning the ball over.

As for his athleticism, he clearly is mobile enough for an NFL quarterback. He can run some reads and be effective. But he’s not exactly a dynamic runner for the most part; he’s a pocket passer first and foremost.

If this sounds like a disparagement of Prescott, it’s not intended to be. He’s a solid quarterback and has a longer track record of performance than Brock Purdy.

His playcaller in Kellen Moore is substantially less incisive than Kyle Shanahan. The Cowboys skill position players are good, but they are nowhere as deep as the 49ers’ corps.

It is a dangerous offense, but if Dallas can’t Pollard going, you’ve got Nick Bosa — who was concussed in the first half of the last matchup — and Arik Armstead going against an offensive line with some big, but aging names like Zack Martin and Tyron Smith.

The range and pass coverage chops of Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw will give Dallas serious issues if they can’t get solid skill position or second level blocking. The ability of Arik Armstead, T.Y. McGill and even Kinlaw to hold double teams consistently is part of why the defense is so stingy on the ground (averaging an outrageous 77.7 rushing yards allowed per game).

San Francisco was also tied for the the NFL lead in interceptions this season with 20. This is a game where if Prescott has to continually drop back, they’re going to get at least one. Dallas needs the best from Prescott and to be able to get some consistency on the ground to be effective.

That said, Mooney Ward had an objectively poor game against D.K. Metcalf last week and Deommodore Lenoir isn’t exactly lockdown. Talanoa Hufanga has also shown himself to have coverage deficiencies, with DeMeco Ryans openly saying a few weeks ago that he needs to improve his eye positioning.

They’re not going to shut Dallas out of this game, and there’s a path for the Cowboys to cause them major problems. So much of that rests on Prescott’s shoulders.

49ers offense vs. Cowboys defense

With Dallas, it all comes down to their front. Losing Randy Gregory hurt, but adding Dante Fowler, Sam Williams and getting another year of experience for Micah Parsons and Dorance Armstrong has improved their group.

They can, above anything else, create pressure, finishing tied for the 3rd-most sacks in the league at 54, and leading the league with 17 fumble recoveries.

The 49ers were the only team with a better turnover differential, at +13. Dallas was +10. These are two dynamic, ball-hawking defenses.

Micah Parsons is absolutely absurd as a pass rusher and Demarcus Lawrence, and the rotating cast behind him are no slouches.

Dan Quinn has been impressive at disguising coverages to look like man, but rotate into zone, especially with zone match principles.

That said, if the 49ers have a solid plan for Parsons, it may be moot. This is the best the Shanahan offense has ever looked, and if they run effectively, it’s hard to see them failing to put up points.

They’ve scored 37-plus points in four-straight games. That’s no coincidence. It’s a domineering run blocking line with buy in and blocking talent from the skill positions.

The 49ers should be able to run outside zone effectively against a secondary that’s pretty poor at tackling.

And Parsons, for as absurd as he is as a pass rusher, is not yet a complete player. Trent Williams pointed to the fact that he hasn’t completely filled out his frame yet, and he’s inconsistent at setting the edge in the run game.

Kyle Shanahan is also exceptionally skilled at taking advantage of antsy, hyper-aggressive players. He crushed Tariq Woolen last week and Trevon Diggs’ tendencies are well known. He’s talented but still obsessed with ballhawking opportunities.

That said, the Cowboys are going to have opportunities to get to Brock Purdy. If Parsons gets him in space, Purdy needs to be smart.

He probably can’t shake Parsons the way he has some other players, and will need to be smarter about playmaking, and maybe take some sacks.

The only thing that can truly cripple the offense, barring a total collapse from the offensive line, is Purdy turning the ball over. So far, he’s been excellent, throwing four INTs to 16 TDs with a pair of rushing touchdowns. If he continues to display the poise he’s shown so far, the offense will continue to score effectively.

Special teams and the, er, kicker situation

There’s been so much talk about Brett Maher and the dichotomy of his misses with Robbie Gould’s perfect playoff record that it almost feels jinx-ey.

Special teams, especially in the playoffs, always operates under an auspice of voodoo. It rubs shoulders with the occult, suggesting an inclination towards absurdity that doesn’t exist nearly to the same extent in the regular season.

The fact that Robbie Gould is literally perfect in the playoffs — 25 of 25 on field goals and 37 of 37 on extra points — is almost unnerving.

Meanwhile, Maher missed four extra points (and five-straight dating to Week 18) before knocking in the last one.

The heebie-jeebiness (good luck with that one, Merriam-Webster) of special teams was belied by the Cowboys’ special teams coach, John “Bones” Fassel, who joined Papa and Lund on Thursday.

He talked about the yips and mentioned a few minor things — the scoreboard in Tampa showing live All-22 tape in his sight line, a white indicator strip that was removed pre-snap by a ref (Fassel said he’d never seen that before) — in addition to Maher being a little lazy with the swing of his leg on one of the kicks, as affecting him. The 49ers do the same thing with their scoreboard.

Sure, that’s probably all legitimate. The man’s been coaching special teams for close to two decades. He knows better than I.

But it’s also damning evidence of how fickle and finicky the life of a kicker is. They can get thrown off by one thing and start to question themselves.

This is a recognition of the weirdness of kicking and special teams, and that nothing can be taken for granted.

That said, Gould — who consistently kicks during breaks, in between cheerleaders, dancers and other acts — vs. Maher, is a decidedly positive matchup on paper.

Both teams also have explosive returners in Kavontae Turpin for Dallas and Ray-Ray McCloud for the 49ers. There’s potential for field-altering plays there, and the 49ers certainly looked iffy against Godwin Igwebuike on kickoff coverage in the first half last week. But if it comes down to kicking, San Francisco — special teams tomfoolery aside — will feel pretty good.

The rub

Here is the reality; if Brock Purdy plays how he has since taking the reins against the Dolphins, the 49ers will win this game. Period. Full stop.

He has had some ugly misses. Sure. His lack of arm strength shows up and in concert with a desire to take shots, can create situations that put him in danger of turning the ball over. While he has taken care of the football, he leaves some sketchy plays out there and Dallas is a ball-hawking defense.

The Cowboys (+10) are behind only the 49ers (+13) in turnover differential with 16 interceptions and a league-leading 17 fumble recoveries. There will be opportunities for them to steal the ball from Purdy.

That said, Purdy has shown an ability to execute Kyle Shanahan’s offense at a reliably effective level, and has, without question, the most talented skill position group in the NFL at his disposal. He had to carry the load at Iowa State. He doesn’t have to carry the 49ers, just deliver to the usually wide open man; he has done that, usually in rhythm.

But his aggression, and desire to look for the deeper targets, compared to Jimmy Garoppolo’s hesitancy, makes an already brutal to defend offense impossibly tough.

He’s less predictable. He takes shots and usually hits them. It doesn’t matter if it’s schemed open by Shanahan. He’s making the open throws. Garoppolo often missed them.

And when there’s nothing there, Purdy adjusts. He escapes pressure with an innate, last-second panache reminiscent of a younger Russell Wilson.

His athleticism is by no means elite, but he’s a quick-twitch player with outstanding feel and instincts. He keeps his eyes up while under pressure and is consistently looking downfield, aware of where his targets are. It allows him to be a constant threat to an offense already composed of threatening players.

To have Shanahan scheming incisively with a litany of elite weapons at his disposal and a quarterback who can create when, on those rare occasions, nothing is available… is a maddening proposition for a defense.

As Chris Foerster said this week, Shanahan is always, “… just looking; where’s that dagger?”

He’s trying to smother defenses. He’s not pulling off the gas like he may have in the past.

We’re at a point where the 49ers defense, which has so often carried this team, and will be called upon throughout this game to be better than it was in the first half against the Seahawks, Cardinals, and for the duration of the Raiders game, is no longer the lynchpin.

Under Purdy, the 49ers put up points.

It took 10 games to score 239 points with Garoppolo. It took (slightly less than) 7 games to score 239 points with Purdy. They’re averaging 34.1 per game with the rookie.

The 49ers are the arbiters of their own destiny. Yes, Dallas is good. San Francisco is objectively better.

Turnovers, Purdy turtling, or Prescott going thermonuclear are the Cowboys’ avenues for success. San Francisco are more talented and schemed more effectively. There are more scenarios for them to win than for Dallas.

It’s also important to remember the 49ers, without McCaffrey last season, with Nick Bosa concussed in the first half, and a hobbled version of Jimmy Garoppolo throwing embarrassing interceptions, still beat the Cowboys.

Prediction: 49ers win 34-24

 

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