Cowboys. 49ers. Who can forget their historic NFC Championship Game matchups in the early 1990s? Troy Aikman vs. Steve Young, two Hall of Fame quarterbacks duelling in consecutive years. Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith on one side, G.O.A.T. Jerry Rice on the other. The Cowboys bested the 49ers in both matchups, the penultimate step in their journey to back-to-back Super Bowl victories.
Someone needs to tell those stories to Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott. Why? At the start of those back-to-back contests, the Dallas starting quarterback wasn’t even born.
That startling reality tells you how far removed these franchises are from their former glory. Neither one has won a Super Bowl since the Cowboys did it in 1996. Prescott, 23, will get the start Sunday, playing against 26-year-old QB Blaine Gabbert, one or both may not be starting in two months. The 49ers’ backup, Colin Kaepernick, once started a Super Bowl but is known more for his national anthem protests lately than play on the field. Youngsters named Ezekiel Elliott, Carlos Hyde and Jeremy Kerley form key cogs for both offenses as they transition into a new generation of up-and-coming talent.
Each team will look to keep finding their identity Sunday while also remaining relevant in their respective divisions. Dallas, seemingly toast when starting Tony Romo got hurt could move to 3-1 without him. A victory for San Francisco puts the 49ers at 2-2 in what is currently a wide-open NFC West with Arizona and Seattle stumbling early. Another way to put it? These are two teams battling for the right not to be forgotten.
Dallas at San Francisco
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 2 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Dallas -2.5
Series History: San Francisco leads 17-16-1 (Dallas leads 5-2 in postseason games)
Three Things To Watch
1. Chip Kelly, Move Over... the Dallas Offense is in Town
The poise of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys’ rookie QB/RB combo was in full force last Sunday versus the Bears. Prescott threw his first career NFL touchdown, ran for another and remained turnover free. In a year where young quarterbacks have shined his leadership has kept this team on track where last season they folded in the face of Tony Romo’s injury issues.
As for Elliott? He rushed for a career-high 140 yards and scored for a second straight week. His 71 attempts and 274 yards both lead the NFC; only LeGarrette Blount (Patriots) has gained more yards on the ground. Most importantly, Elliott recovered from a two-fumble performance in Week 2 and made it through the Bears game brimming with confidence.
This 1-2 punch has led the way for an offense scoring 25.7 points per game so far this season, good enough for 11th in the NFL. The early positive results from Prescott and Elliott have helped to mask the biggest issue with the Cowboys’ offense thus far.
2. The Dez Bryant Saga
Bryant has been reduced to a bit player, so much so the recent drama surrounding his knee injury has been reduced to distraction status. Three games in, Bryant has fewer catches than fifth-year teammate Cole Beasley; and 102 of Bryant’s 150 yards came in one game.
That’s left Bryant fading into the background with the exception of his bizarre hairline fracture. The injury itself wasn’t the problem; it was Bryant virtually disappearing from team meetings and MRI opportunities because of his fear it was far more serious. He deliberately skipped out, delaying the prognosis and leading to an admission, “I could have done a way better job.”
While head coach Jason Garrett called the incident “well intentioned” it served to cloud the accomplishments of this 2-1 team trying to mesh together instead of spending time answering a bunch of messy questions about Bryant. How silly the star receiver is causing a bit of a circus when the self-described team player should be thrilled about the way things have transpired with Romo sidelined.
Will the Cowboys miss Bryant if he sits Sunday? Sure. Should he get benched considering the injury and his actions this week? Absolutely. But to be honest, the more these young Cowboys play you start to wonder how long they’ll stick with the old guard anyway before dispensing with distractions and injury-prone veterans. In this “win now” world it could be sooner than you might think – even in the land of owner Jerry Jones.
3. A Chip Off the Old Block... or the New One?
Chip Kelly has tried to bring his college offensive mind to the NFL. Oh, has he tried. But three weeks into his tenure at San Francisco there are more questions than answers about his scheme.
It’s already bad enough the 49ers’ defense has given up 35-plus points in consecutive weeks. But at least you could say that was to playoff-caliber opponents in Seattle and Carolina. The offense? It’s stumbled through those games, Blaine Gabbert throwing three picks and barely completing 50 percent of his passes. No bona fide receiving threat has emerged; Jeremy Kerley has some stats but no one on the roster is genuinely scaring a secondary.
Carlos Hyde has been the lone bright spot; his 225 rushing yards is good for fourth in the NFC. But Kelly knows one man won’t make an offense, especially one he wants to make as powerful as his days at Oregon. The quick-play, fast-striking game plan is put in place to score 40 points, not 18 like we saw last week versus Seattle.
This team has appeared to play hard for Kelly in the first three games. That’s important for a franchise in a rebuilding phase. But can the players actually fit into this scheme? How can Kelly adapt to lesser talent? That’s a question better answered this weekend after getting smacked around by the NFL’s elite.
In this crossroads game between two young teams it’s the Cowboys who appear to be on the rise. Chip Kelly hasn’t quite caught on in San Francisco yet and he doesn’t have the personnel in place to be competitive.
Expect a hard-fought game but one that ends with another display of offensive firepower by a Dallas team that’ll continue to prove it can succeed on the road.
Prediction: Cowboys 31, 49ers 17
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.