Concerns and Confidences About this Wild Card Matchup

Concern: Will this offensive line be able to hold up against the excellent 49ers pass rush?

The offensive line this year is what skeptics have pointed out the Cowboys seem to be: an entity with a big reputation that can beat up weaker competition but always seems to fold when it matters.

That may be an exaggeration, but there is no question that this unit is not what it once was. I am a firm believer that their sloppiness set the tone for the disappointment that was the Cardinals game. Every time we had a good running play that got a drive going with some momentum, it got called back due to holding on seemingly everyone in that game. 20+ yards of field position squandered, and it forced Dallas to repeatedly go to a one dimensional approach. If they played with more discipline, I think Dallas wins that game by about 7 points and we are feeling much better about this team.

Even if those penalties are fluky, or were ticky tack and not really on the players, the line has also been yielding more pressure in the passing game and less results in the run game. The passing game struggles in particular are my main concern here. While I believe it isn't all on them (Moore could help with some quicker pass plays and Dak needs to stop checking out of them, start checking into them, and start processing coverages after the snap with more consistency), I still haven't seen enough to feel great about them overall heading into this matchup against one of the toughest defenses in the league.

Confidence: Dan Quinn will be a huge boost to us in this game in particular.

Dan Quinn and Kyle Shanahan used to both coach on the falcons. They know each other very well. Quinn's defenses would go up against Kyle's offenses in practice every day. After Shanahan left, they met as opposing head coaches just once: a 2019 game during San Francisco's super bowl year. A December game, the Falcons (4-9) were pretty much out of the playoff running, but the Niners (11-2) were still were fighting to lock up the #1 seed. AND it was a home game for San Francisco... it didn't matter. Atlanta won, 29-22.

The most encouraging thing about that game? Dan Quinn limited the San Francisco rushing attack. At first glance, the numbers are middling: 27 carries, 120 yards, 4.4 YPC, 1 touchdown. It looks like San Francisco had success. But really they only broke one long run of 37 yards. Other than that? 26 carries, 83 yards. 3.1 YPC. Their second longest run? Nine yards.

As for passing, they forced Jimmy G to drop back 37 times. Twice he scrambled, once he was sacked. His 34 pass attempts went for just 200 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT's. Deebo Samuel did have one catch for 29 yards (I haven't seen it but knowing Jimmy G I just assume it was a 0-to-3 yard completion that Deebo destroyed people after the catch on) and George Kittle had 13 for 134 with a long of 21 and another that went for 20.

4 big plays that literally accounted for 1/3 of their total offense! The other 58? 3.6 Yards per play. As for the 49er's two touchdown drives, one got extended by a roughing the passer call on an incomplete pass during 3rd and 19 at the ATL 40, and the second one was after a muffed punt that set them up on the ATL 2. San Francisco only had three drives all game that went for fifty yards or more. It was an incredible defensive effort against a Shanahan system at its best.

This is a game that the Niners were up by 9 in with ten minutes to go as well, so it's not like game script took away the run or anything like that. It was just Quinn shutting down the 49ers with a subpar defense. Now, San Francisco has some pieces that weren't there in 2019. Elijah Mitchell is a good back, but is he any better than 2019 Raheem Mostert? Deebo Samuel is a monster and much better now than in his rookie season, but Kittle has taken a small step back. Brandon Aiyuk is great, and Jauan Jennings is emerging for them, but are they any better than Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne were in 2019? The whole thing still centers around Jimmy Garoppolo, who isn't as healthy now as he was back then. In that game, he was sacked once and hit twice. I like Dallas' pass rush a lot more than that Atlanta Falcons one. Also? Very confident that if he drops back to pass 37 times this week, he won't escape without a pick. Not the way he has been playing this year.

Last thing on this point: you might think it goes both ways, that sure, Quinn knows Shanahan's tendencies and in theory can exploit them, but that's also probably true for Shanahan about Quinn. If we were talking about this heading into the season for some reason, I would agree with you. But this year Dan Quinn has shown a willingness to completely reinvent himself to coach to the strength's of this Cowboy defense. This style looks a lot different than what he ran in Seattle and Atlanta, so Shanahan isn't as familiar with it as you might think. On the other hand, this Shanahan system is still essentially the same system as it was in 2019. Will it be easy to stop? No, but Quinn has slowed it down tremendously before with much less talent. Why shouldn't he be able to do it again?

Concern: Ezekiel Elliott will be continuously run into a brick wall.

I'm not going to spend too much time on this one... we all know Zeke has just not been very explosive this year. There are a myriad of potential reasons why, but that's the bottom line. He is still an overall good player, but against this front seven, I'm worried 90% of the handoffs to him will end up being wasted downs. Dallas has not been good when dealing with long conversion situations this year, and I'm worried this game might be Dallas' version of whatever Seattle was doing in the 2018 playoff matchup: Their passing game worked, their run game did not, and they didn't fully pivot until it was too late and the game was over. It's not a pleasant thought, so hopefully I will end up being way off on this.

Confidence: Dallas has the better quarterback, and he will be ready.

Based on what I've written out above, I have a hunch this game will feature two running games that struggle to really get going. If that's the case, it will come down to which quarterback can make the throws to win the game. In that scenario, give me Dak every time. Both quarterbacks have struggled with consistency this year, but an inconsistent year for Dak is 37 Touchdowns, 10 picks, and big performances against teams like the Patriots and the Buccaneers. A Jimmy G inconsistent year is 20 touchdowns, 12 picks, and two wins against a tough division rival. Dak had one more game played. They had similar average depths of target this season, and Dak had a 0.5% completion percentage advantage, but Jimmy G had a full yard per attempt more. What does this mean? The numbers show Dak is a better quarterback, but Jimmy G is in a more efficient system. In games that turn into quarterback duels, it often becomes less about the system and more about the players. Give me Dak.

At this point, some might point to Garoppolo's playoff "success" over Dak as a counterpoint to the case laid out above. But I am here to tell you not to be fooled by his 2019 playoff run. He passed for a combined 191 net yards in the two wins, including throwing just 8 passes for 77 yards and no touchdowns in the conference title game. He was carried, plain and simple. And when he had to deliver on the biggest stage of them all? He overthrew a wide open receiver on what would've almost surely been the clinching score.

Dak, meanwhile, has almost the exact opposite story. Better play, but worse results. He has started three playoff games as well. In his first one, he went toe to toe with NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and brought the team back from being in an 18 point hole. I just re-watched that entire game yesterday, and Dallas being in that hole was due to a lot of things: An illegal substitution cost us 37 yards of field position, and that combined with an ensuing drop resulted in a second drive punt. Garrett wasted two timeouts due to trying to substitute against Arron Freeplay Rodgers. Consequently, a potential end of half drive starting from midfield with 40 seconds left never happened because we had no timeouts. A defense that gave up 3 touchdowns on the first three drives. Linehan called an obvious screen pass that Green Bay read from the start, picked off, and took to midfield, killing a potential Dallas scoring drive. The list goes on. (Watching it back, the Cowboys were so unprepared for that game. We absolutely could have and should have won. Other than Rodgers, we were EASILY the better team, and I was reminded why Garrett was long overdue for getting canned, but I digress.) Prescott wasn't one of those things.

Was he perfect? Of course not. He did underthrow a ball on the opening field goal drive that got deflected and a better ball might have been a touchdown, and the second half featured one errant deep throw that probably should have been picked off. The rest of the time? He was money. He just happened to go against an all-time great who put on the greatest single game playoff performance I have ever seen. Prescott played well enough to win in the other two playoff games as well. The Cowboys ended up winning one and losing one on a historically bad day defending the run. But in each of those games (against NFC West teams, too) he was the better QB. He's been here before, and he has not disappointed. I believe he will come through again.

I'm not going to go into any depth on these last few points, because this post became much longer than I was anticipating when I sat down to right it 90 minutes ago, but here are the rest of my concerns and confidences.

Concerns: Is Kellen Moore capable of exploiting matchups against San Francisco's corners, or will we see more stale play calling in the biggest game of the year? Will Trevon trust his good man coverage skills, or will he grow impatient and start hunting a pick leading to a big bust against guys you do not want to let run free after the catch? Will this be a game where penalties, either called stupidly or not called when they should be, hurt the Cowboy's chances? And if it is one of those games, will the Cowboys show grit and overcome them anyways like against New England, or whine and let them be the difference like against Arizona and Las Vegas? Will Greg the Leg miss yet another extra point? Will Deebo Samuel crush my hopes and dreams?

Confidences: Micah Parsons will be great. Our safeties should be able to limit Kittle at least somewhat. If we get up by multiple scores, we won't fold like the Rams did. If Greg is called on to make a late FG, or any FG when the numbers say it makes sense to kick one, he will be reliable. The Cowboys, in a vacuum, will be the better team on the field Sunday afternoon.

That's all I've got. If you've read this far, thank you for reading. I love to write and I love this team, so I'm glad I could share my passion with you. I will leave you with this... GO COWBOYS!

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