It might be a cliché, but playoff football is truly different from regular season football. For starters, in the regular season you’re competing directly against the other three teams in the division. That means that a good team in a bad division can coast to the playoffs while a good team in a great division can struggle just to make the postseason.
That was the case this past weekend when the Cowboys and 49ers played. Both were good teams, but Dallas had the better record. Looking at the state of the NFC East, they should have. However, San Francisco was arguably better equipped for playoff football because they faced better teams in their own division. That experience paid off when it came time to take on the Cowboys.
Another aspect that helps in the postseason is quality in the trenches, both on offense and defense. Since 2016, four of the five Super Bowl winners featured offensive lines that finished the season ranked in the top ten in either adjusted line yards or adjusted sack rate, or both. Similarly, four of the five Super Bowl winners since 2016 had defensive fronts that were top ten in either adjusted line yards or adjusted sack rate, or both.
There may not be any one thing that best predicts a Super Bowl team, but being fundamentally sound in the trenches is certainly one indicator of, at the very least, being able to win playoff games. The 49ers defense, for example, was second in adjusted line yards and fifth in adjusted sack rate. Their offensive line was just outside at 11th in adjusted line yards, although they were 17th in adjusted sack rate. Taken together, that’s a team that’s very well built in the trenches.
By the same metric, the Cowboys should have been able to say the same, at least on offense. They’re second in adjusted line yards and ninth in adjusted sack rate. However, if you’ve followed along in our weekly roundup of various Cowboys analytics this season, you know that the offensive line performed with a high amount of variance, just as the offense as a whole did.
In other words, they were inconsistent all year long, and on Sunday against a stout 49ers defensive front, they looked like a shell of themselves. Our own Tom Ryle already broke down the need for improvements along the offensive line, and the unit’s inconsistency was certainly a problem for Dallas at points throughout this season.
The defensive front, on the other hand, was more consistent in their deficiencies this year. They came in at 13th in adjusted line yards and 12th in adjusted sack rate. Micah Parsons was a dominant pass rusher all season long, but Dan Quinn struggled to get much going without him. Things got better when both DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory returned from injuries, and that gave Dallas confidence heading into their matchup with the 49ers.
The issue, though, is that the 49ers’ outside zone running game is well-equipped to take those edge players completely out of the game. And once they did, the rest of the Cowboys defense was left to be exposed and exploited.
As has been a recurring theme for a few years now, run defense has been an issue in Dallas. The Cowboys took steps to remedy that this year by signing Brent Urban in free agency and drafting Quinton Bohanna to be a nose tackle. The early returns were good, with Dallas ranking eighth in run defense DVOA heading into their bye week. But Urban got injured and never returned, and Bohanna was limited to early downs. He was also inactive for the 49ers game, taking away their space-eater on first and second downs where San Francisco gashed them the most.
It’s worth asking how good the run defense ever really was if the loss of two rotational players led to such a drastic collapse. We saw flashes of good run defense from the likes of Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, and Carlos Watkins; even Dorance Armstrong Jr and Tarell Basham contributed from the edge. But none of it was enough, and the Cowboys entered the playoffs with glaring weaknesses in both trenches that the 49ers expertly exploited.
We know Dak Prescott is capable of elite quarterback play, and we know he has an embarrassment of riches at the skill positions. We know that Trevon Diggs is an interception machine and that Micah Parsons can do just about anything. But if things are leaky upfront, all of that other stuff can be neutralized long enough for bad things to happen. And on Sunday in the playoffs, bad things happened over and over.
A year ago at this time, it was obvious that Dallas needed to shore up its defense. They made a concerted effort to do so, and it worked out well. Now it’s become clear that they need to address these weaknesses along the offensive line and defensive front. Anything short of that will only lead to more early exits from the postseason.