Two of the NFL’s most successful and recognized franchises face off to open their 2014 seasons, as the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys are set to meet this afternoon on FOX. The 49ers are looking to dethrone the Seahawks in the NFC West and get back to the Super Bowl, while the Cowboys desperately want to end their four-season playoff drought.
Dallas has gone 8-8 in each of the past three seasons and seems far removed from the glory days of the 1990s when the Cowboys won three Super Bowls in a span of four years. The pressure is on head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo to get this team back into the postseason. San Francisco is just two seasons removed from its last trip to the Super Bowl and will have to overcome some key personnel absences early in its quest to get back to the big game and take care of some unfinished business.
This will be the 34th meeting all-time, including playoffs, between these two franchises, which have each won five Super Bowls. Fittingly, the series is tied 16-16-1 with San Francisco holding a 14-11-1 edge in the regular season and Dallas leading 2-5 in the playoffs. The last time these teams met was back in Week 2 of the 2011 season in San Francisco, a game the Cowboys won 27-24 in overtime.
San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: San Francisco -5
Three Things to Watch
1. San Francisco’s Depleted Defense
The 49ers ranked among the top five defenses in the NFL last season in yards, points, rushing yards and passing yards allowed, as well as turnover differential. While this unit remains largely intact this season, it will be without some key pieces initially. All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman will start this season on the PUP list as he continues his recovery from the horrific knee injury he suffered in the NFC Championship Game loss to Seattle, meaning he will be out at least the first six games. Fellow linebacker Aldon Smith will sit out the first nine games due to a suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct and substance abuse policies. That coupled with the loss of defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey (torn biceps) means three of the expected starters will not be suiting up against Dallas. San Francisco still has All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis anchoring the unit with plenty of proven talent elsewhere, but this is a defense that won’t be operating at anywhere near full strength. And while the Cowboys have their own issues (i.e., the defense), there are enough playmakers at the skill positions and a solid enough offensive line that the home team could give the visitors fits when it has the ball, especially if the 49ers’ defensive fill-ins struggle early in their new roles.
2. Dallas’ Decimated Defense
San Francisco’s defense may be depleted, but it’s still in far better shape than its counterpart. For starters, the 49ers were a top-five unit last season while the Cowboys gave up the third most yards in NFL history. Even though San Francisco will be missing a couple of All-Pros for this game, there’s still plenty of talent left among the two-deep. Dallas, on the other hand, bid farewell to both their all-time (DeMarcus Ware) and last season’s sack leader (Jason Hatcher) in the offseason, lost their best linebacker (Sean Lee) to a season-ending injury early in training camp, and will be down at least two defensive linemen in Anthony Spencer (knee) and second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence (broken foot). On top of that, starting cornerback Orlando Scandrick is suspended the first four games for a violation of the league’s policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. To put it another way, every level of this defense has already been impacted in a significant way, and remember this was a unit that gave up more than 415 yards and 27 points per game in 2013. Last season was bad enough, but this season could be even worse for the Cowboys’ defense.
3. 49ers’ Offensive Approach
With Dallas’ defense seemingly ripe for the pickings, the question becomes how does San Francisco go about attacking it. The 49ers were extremely effective in running the ball last year, finishing fourth in the NFL in that category, but wound up near the bottom (30th) in passing. Put the two together and you get the 24th-ranked offense in terms of yards and 11th in scoring. Head coach Jim Harbaugh is old school in his approach; so don’t expect much deviation from that. Frank Gore has rushed for more than 1,100 yards in each of the last three seasons and the team has added second-round pick Carlos Hyde to the mix. However, the passing game also will look a little different this season with top wide receiver Michael Crabtreee healthy (although he's officially listed as Questionable with a calf injury) and former Buffalo No. 1 wideout Stevie Johnson joining Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis as primary targets. If the 49ers want to become even tougher to defend on offense, they need to let quarterback Colin Kaepernick throw the ball more than the 26 attempts he averaged per game last season. With the weapons seemingly in place and the appealing matchup against Dallas’ decimated defense, is this the game San Francisco finally decides to air it out a little more?
Dallas head coach Jason Garrett enters this season squarely on the hot seat and, unfortunately, things have already gone against him. The NFL’s worst defense last season has been decimated further by offseason changes, injuries and suspensions. While Tony Romo and the Cowboys should be able to put plenty of points on the board, the defense will likely outpace the offense on a consistent basis. And that’s not a good thing. Meanwhile San Francisco has its sights set squarely on knocking Seattle from its perch atop the NFC West and potentially spoiling their archrival’s hopes for a repeat Super Bowl title. The 49ers won’t be at full strength on defense for this one, but they have too much talent on both sides of the ball and should face minimum resistance in AT&T Stadium against the overmatched Cowboys.