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Cowboys vs 49ers: Writer predictions for Wild Card playoff matchup

Can Mike McCarthy win his first playoff game in Dallas?

San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The playoffs are back in Dallas as the Cowboys are preparing to take on the 49ers. San Francisco bounced back from a rough start to the season and won seven of their final nine games to clinch a Wild Card playoff berth. The last time this 49ers team made the playoffs, they went all the way to the Super Bowl.

Things are different this time around, though. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is playing through a torn ligament in the thumb on his throwing hand, and they have to face a Cowboys team that’s been red hot this year in AT&T Stadium. Still, the 49ers are one of the better bets for an upset win this week, so how do our writers feel about this one?

When San Francisco has the ball

Maintain gap discipline

Jimmy Garoppolo wasn’t playing all that well even before he tore a ligament, but the 49ers offense still thrived because of their extremely efficient run game. Head coach Kyle Shanahan calls the plays, and he may be the best run game designer in the NFL right now.

As he goes up against Dan Quinn, who hired him to coordinate the offense for the Falcons back in the day, Shanahan meets a defense whose weakness is stopping the run. San Francisco is fifth in rushing DVOA while Dallas is 16th in run defense DVOA. That favors the 49ers and their run-heavy attack, especially with Garoppolo not at 100%.

A big part of this run game’s success is its misdirection. Pre-snap motion and hybrid plays on offense get defensive linemen and linebackers out of position easily in this system. This might be a game where Micah Parsons needs to play off-ball linebacker more often simply because of his recovery speed, especially now that Keanu Neal won’t be playing in this one. If the Cowboys can avoid biting on all the misdirection, they can create enough stops against this offense and force an ailing Garoppolo to try and beat them.

When Dallas has the ball

Get Dak Prescott rolling early and often

If the Cowboys think they can take away the 49ers’ run game by simply gaining a lead, they’re wrong. San Francisco remained committed to the run despite being down 17-0 at one point against the Rams this past week. Dallas will need to score a whole lot of points and do so relentlessly to get the 49ers to put the ball in Garoppolo’s hands.

Since the 49ers rank second in run defense DVOA, pounding the rock right back isn’t going to work. That means Kellen Moore needs to get Dak Prescott rolling early. It helps that Prescott is coming in hot off of his record-setting performance against the Eagles.

It also helps that San Francisco is 16th in pass defense DVOA and has problems at cornerback. They benched Josh Norman two weeks for drawing one too many pass interference penalties, which meant a starting trio of Dontae Johnson, Emmanuel Moseley and rookie Ambry Thomas. Moseley is the only defender on this team currently allowing a passer rating under 90, although Week 18 was his first game back after missing four with injury. This all sets up for Prescott to have his way through the air, and that might be just what this Cowboys team needs to counteract the 49ers’ strong run game.

Now onto the predictions from your BTB writers...

Tom Ryle:

San Fran is a more formidable opponent than the Eagles were. I still think the Cowboys are the better team. I expect it to be close at halftime, with a couple of takeaways in the second half providing a bit of a margin. Of course, my prediction last week was way off. I did get one thing right, however, so I’ll predict it again.

Greg Zuerlein will miss another XP (but hit his only FG attempt) in a 30-20 win for Dallas.

Terence Watson:

The meeting of two historic franchises is about to happen this Sunday as the Dallas Cowboys battle the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL Wild Card Round renewing an age-old rivalry. Both teams are going into this game as healthy as they have been all season and with an even playing field this game could go either way, though the Cowboys are favored by 3.5 points. For the Cowboys to pull out the win they are going to need to make sure that they contain the 49ers effective ground game on offense and for Jimmy Garoppolo and his injured thumb to beat them through the air. Micah Parsons return from Covid will most certainly help after the Cowboys had issues stopping the run in his absence.

The Cowboys pass rush must get to Garoppolo early, getting in his head and shaking his confidence, the secondary must not fall for any double moves as you can expect head coach Kyle Shanahan to dial those up this week to exploit their aggressive style on defense. On offense, the Cowboys needs to get out to a fast start and will do so behind the arm of quarterback Dak Prescott in order to force Garoppolo to win the game. Prescott needs to be accurate and have great pocket awareness this week with a blitz-happy 49er defensive front coming at him from all sides. In the end, I have the Cowboys jumping on the 49ers early allowing DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Parsons to put pressure on Garoppolo and this running game. It will be a close one in the end though.

Dallas Cowboys 27, San Francisco 49ers 23.

Matt Holleran:

When it comes to playoff games, it’s hard to make an unbiased prediction. But, I do think this is a game the Cowboys should, and will, eventually win. While there’s been a lot of talk about how both defenses will preform, I see the offenses being the highlight of this game. Deebo Samuel and Amari Cooper both have big days, and Jimmy Garoppolo and Dak Prescott match each throw for throw until the fourth quarter. In the end, Garoppolo makes one key mistake, giving the Cowboys a chance to win the game.

Give me the Cowboys on a walk-off Greg Zuerlein field goal, 30-27.

Darreck Kirby:

The match-up this week is nothing short of a slugfest. The vulnerabilities of the Cowboys are strengths, in many respects, of the San Francisco 49ers. However, Dallas does have the talent and has shown the intestinal fortitude to slug it out against physical opponents, even if it’s been inconsistent about it throughout the season. In New England and Minnesota, Dallas rose above the physicality to overcome great odds. Against Denver and Arizona, and even Las Vegas to some extent, they did not.

But if they can swarm to the ball and make sure tackles, they’ll have every opportunity to make the plays necessary to win the game. Jimmy G will give defenses two or three opportunities per game to take the ball away. For a defense that forced more turnovers than any other across the landscape, that’s a golden opportunity to flip the field and spoon feed the offense good looks for easy points. There’s no doubt in my mind this will be a difficult contest, but Dallas’s talent is too great to overlook. If they play to their potential, they handle their business.

Cowboys 26-20.

Aidan Davis:

There is nothing as terrifying yet exciting as playoff football, especially in a matchup entrenched in history. While the Cowboys will struggle to get the ground game going against one of the best defensive lines in the league, if the offensive line is able to provide Dak with protection, the 49ers secondary can be exposed. Expect the game to open with passes close to the line of scrimmage with a few deep shots coming later in the game as the offensive line settles in.

For the defense, a lot has been made about the 49ers rushing attack. But what has been largely ignored is San Francisco’s ability to draw the defense closer to the line of scrimmage through the ground game, and then hit a shot over the middle of the field to Deebo, Aiyuk, or Kittle. If the linebackers and safeties do not over commit on rushing plays, Garopollo will make a mistake. In the Cowboys first playoff game, Dak will throw 35 times for 300+ yards, with Cedrick Wilson being the leading receiver. The defense will be able to contain the run, and Micah Parsons leaves this game with his first career interception. Dallas wins despite a Greg Zuerlein missed PAT.

Dallas 34, San Francisco 23.

Tony Catalina:

Playoff football is finally here. The Dallas Cowboys will renew a rivalry on Sunday that many of us, myself included, grew up on. This game just means more and I fully expect the Cowboys to answer the call. This game will be a slug fest and a true fight for 60 minutes. I love the fact that everybody is doubting the Cowboys, there’s nothing like adding gasoline to an already lit fire.

I expect this game to be a tight one, but one that I see the Cowboys winning 24-20 as they look forward to keeping their season alive.

Brian Martin:

I have a bit of an internal battle going on this week as to whether or not the Dallas Cowboys can overcome a very talented San Francisco 49ers team in the Wild Card Round. It’s almost like my guts are having a tug-of-war with one another and neither is gaining any ground. That’s pretty much how I envision this game going between two one-time bitter rivals.

The 49ers have a lot of players on both sides of the ball who can be trouble, but with the hometown crowd at their backs cheering them on I’m going to give the slight edge to America’s Team. The Cowboys are much different team on their home field turf and I’m hoping it’s enough to advance them further into the playoffs. It may be a close, tough and hard-fought game, but I’m going to predict Dallas does enough to squeak by with a victory Sunday afternoon.

Score prediction: 27-23, Cowboys.

Danny Phantom:

I expect this one to be a back and forth game. Both teams will play well, but the Cowboys will miss out on some opportunities that will make this a little more frustrating than it needs to be. Once they settle in a bit, the Cowboys will start putting more pressure on the 49ers figuratively and literally. Look for DeMarcus Lawrence to come up big and Kellen Moore’s offense to come through with a little bit of extra pizzaz from Cedrick Wilson and Tony Pollard.

I can see this game being tied in the final quarter and even the 49ers going ahead late, but just like what happened 40 years ago when these teams met in the playoffs, the home team will come through in the end. Dak Prescott finds the acrobatic CeeDee Lamb in the endzone as a new version of “The Catch” is witnessed by millions and the Cowboys pull off an epic comeback.

Cowboys 31, 49ers 27.

David Howman:

I see this game going one of two ways. Either Dak Prescott and the offense performs like they did against the Eagles last week and we see a blowout win for Dallas, or they perform like they did against the Broncos or Cardinals and we see the 49ers win a narrow one. In other words, the Cowboys offense will dictate this one.

That makes it hard to predict, considering the variance we’ve seen for this bunch. But Dak has something to prove and Kellen Moore will want to look good in front of all the NFL teams that are requesting to interview him. With that flimsy logic as a basis, I’m predicting good things for this offense as Mike McCarthy beats the 49ers into the ground.

Cowboys win 43-24.