Back when the schedule was announced and everyone saw the Cowboys and 49ers on Sunday Night Football in Week 15, it made sense. San Francisco was coming off a loss in the Super Bowl, while Dallas had high expectations for Mike McCarthy’s first year back in the NFL.
But Week 15 is here, and the game has been flexed out of the primetime slot. That’s because the Cowboys (4-9) and 49ers (5-8) have rarely made for good football this season, largely because both have been ravaged by injuries. Both teams lost their quarterbacks, tight ends, and a variety of other impact players throughout the year, casting a dark cloud on their season.
Of course, the 49ers have shown more recently that they deserve patience; a Super Bowl appearance the prior year will do that. The Cowboys, on the other hand, have no such leeway with the fans and media. Rumors have swirled about the job security of both McCarthy and his defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, and several players that were once fan favorites have become the target of all blame.
Looking past outside perception, though, these teams are fairly similar right now. They’ve each shown in recent games that they’re capable of beating bad and average teams - Dallas notched wins over the Vikings and Bengals, while the 49ers’ last two wins have come on the road against the Patriots and Rams - but tend to falter against the good teams. For example, the Ravens and Steelers both beat this Dallas team, while the Bills, Saints, Packers, and Seahawks all made easy work of the 49ers. And both teams have come up empty against the Washington Football Team.
For Dallas, it’s been a real rollercoaster each week. Their win over the Vikings looked like a complete game as the defense made stops when needed and got takeaways, and the offense put up points, but they followed it up with two lopsided losses in a row before dominating the terrible, terrible Bengals. But things have been trending upward, albeit in a very quiet fashion for America’s Team.
For example, Andy Dalton is on a hot streak right now. Since returning from the COVID-19 reserve list, Dalton has completed over 68% of his passes for an average of 222 passing yards a game with eight touchdowns and just three picks. In those four games, he’s also led the offense to 30+ points twice, something this offense hadn’t accomplished since losing Dak Prescott earlier in the year.
Dalton’s steady play has coincided with the improvement in the offensive line’s performance. After suffering through an unsustainable amount of turnover on the line, the pass protection has looked noticeably better as of late. Against Minnesota, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, Dalton was sacked four times; in his two starts before getting injured, Dalton was brought down six times. Part of this trend has been due to the sudden continuity on the line, as each of these starters have been playing with each other for a good chunk of time by now. Most of these linemen were thrown into the fire, but they’ve emerged stronger because of it.
The Cowboys have even seen improvements on defense, although it would be easy to miss them. On Sunday in Cincinnati, the Cowboys were forced to start Rashard Robinson and Saivion Smith - neither of whom were on the active roster in Week 1 - at both outside cornerback spots, and Darian Thompson was inserted back into the starting lineup with Donovan Wilson out. Despite that, Dallas gave up just 208 passing yards on the day. The defense also came up with three fumble recoveries in the game, another noticeable trend: this defense has tallied 11 takeaways in their last six games. For contrast, they had just three in their first seven games of the year.
Of course, these improvements haven’t turned the Cowboys into a good team, which is why they’re 0-6 against teams with a winning record right now. But the 49ers don’t have a winning record, and are coming off a two-game losing streak in which backup quarterback Nick Mullens has struggled mightily. More than that, the 49ers have turned the ball over at least twice in each of their last seven games, and that’s been a big reason why San Francisco is 2-5 over that stretch. Now having to face a defense that’s figured out how to be opportunistic and one that is likely getting back Wilson, Trevon Diggs, and Anthony Brown this week, that can’t be a good matchup for Kyle Shanahan’s beleaguered offense.
Of course, both of these teams have made a habit of losing games just when we think they’re ready to play well again. To that end, the unpredictability of this matchup should make for interesting television. But the implications of this game, where both teams are technically still in the playoff hunt, likely has more to do with draft order than playoff berths.