Two of the NFL's signature franchises will face off on Sunday in the NFC Wild Card Round at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The surging San Francisco 49ers (10-7) and the Dallas Cowboys (12-5) have had their share of epic battles in the playoffs over the years, and Sunday promises to provide another dramatic chapter in this rivalry. It has been a while since these two teams met in the postseason, as in 1995 when Steve Young and the 49ers defeated the Cowboys' "Triplets" (Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin) 38-28 in the NFC Championship Game in Dallas.
This season, San Francisco punched its ticket to the playoffs in style as the 49ers rallied from a 17-0 deficit to defeat the Los Angeles Rams 27-24 in overtime at SoFi Stadium. Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers continued their ownership of the Rams, who they have beaten six consecutive times. Jimmy Garoppolo completed 23 of 32 passes for 312 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. Elijah Mitchell led a punishing running attack with 85 yards, and Deebo Samuel had 140 all-purpose yards. Brandon Aiyuk had six receptions for 107 yards. This type of balanced offensive attack is a recipe for success in the playoffs. The defense stepped up, with Ambry Thomas effectively ending the game late in overtime by intercepting Matthew Stafford. They also settled in after a tough first half as they limited the Rams to just seven points over the nearly 40 remaining minutes of the football game.
Dallas heads into the playoffs with some swagger after dispatching Philadelphia 51-26 last Saturday night. One of the main objectives for the Cowboys in that game was to have the offense generate momentum. Well, Dak Prescott took care of that by completing 21 of 27 passes for 295 yards and five touchdowns. Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 87 yards to secure another 1,000-yard season on the ground. The defense did some nice things as they kept Gardner Minshew in check, for the most part, throwing the ball. They also created a couple of turnovers and registered three sacks on the night. The hire of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has proven to be the right one — he's a prime candidate for several head-coaching jobs — as this unit has improved a lot in 2021. The Cowboys allowed 21.1 points per game, which ranked seventh in the NFL, and led the league with 34 turnovers forced.
NFC Wild Card: San Francisco (10-7) vs. Dallas (12-5)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 16 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Cowboys -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the 49ers' offense play keep away from Dallas?
San Francisco should not lack confidence this week on offense. The 49ers survived the annual grind of the NFC West to make the playoffs. The NFC West was 40-27 overall with three playoff teams. Head coach Kyle Shanahan will set the tone by running the ball with Mitchell and Samuel. The offensive line must turn this into a physical battle by absolutely dominating the Cowboys' defensive front. George Kittle and Aiyuk's role in the game will be to make those big chunk plays that keep the chains moving and grind the clock to limit the number of possessions. Garoppolo must take what the defense gives him throwing the football and not force anything this week. Now, the question is whether Garoppolo will accomplish that and not give the ball away. It will be intriguing to see how he responds once again on the big stage after leading the Niners to the Super Bowl two years ago.
2. Will the Dallas offense rise to the occasion in the postseason?
Prescott should be a lock for Comeback Player of the Year honors after returning from a broken ankle and shoulder injury to finish top-10 in passing yards (4,449, seventh), passing touchdowns (37, tied-fourth), and passer rating (104.2, third). The challenge for Prescott this week will be getting rid of the football quickly since the 49ers will come after him. Look for quick passes to Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb and heavy use of screen passes out of the backfield. Running the football is non-negotiable this week, as Dallas had issues in a 25-22 loss to Arizona two weeks ago when it was limited to 45 yards on the ground. The primary running back combination of Elliott and Tony Pollard will need to see a combined 25 touches this week if the Cowboys are to advance to the Divisional Round next week.
3. Will the 49ers defense step up when needed this week?
Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans will have a fantastic opportunity this week to put together a game plan resulting in a big-time performance by the defense. The defensive line led by Nick Bosa must lead the charge this week and dominate the Cowboys' offensive line. Even if the 49ers don't register multiple sacks against Prescott, they must get him off his spot in the pocket and rush his passes at every opportunity. The 49ers will surrender some yards between the 20s to Cooper and Lamb. But they must replicate what they did against Cincinnati back in early December to win this week. In the win over the Bengals, San Francisco allowed Joe Burrow to throw for 348 yards and two touchdowns, but it held Cincinnati to just one touchdown on five red zone trips in a 26-23 overtime win. Another underrated key to success for the defense this week will be their ability to capitalize on the crowd noise generated by 49ers fans in AT&T Stadium. Last week at SoFi Stadium, the fans made their presence felt for 60 minutes, which caught the Rams off guard. If a large contingent of San Francisco fans heads to Arlington, it could create a boost for the defense, which in turn will disrupt a Dallas offense that led the NFL with 31.2 points per game and 407.0 yards per game.
The guys in the desert seem to expect this game to be a tight one-score affair on Sunday. Twists and turns will be a part of this game since there is not a ton of separation between these two teams. Garoppolo and Kittle will connect on two key explosive wheel routes in the second half that will propel the 49ers into the lead late in the fourth quarter. However, Prescott won't back down without a fight as this game will come down to the final drive but will end with a clutch interception by San Francisco. The win by the 49ers would set up a fun showdown at Lambeau Field in the Divisional Round next weekend. As for the Cowboys, it would set up another long offseason of frustration for Jerry Jones and their loyal fans all over the world.