The stage has been set. Exactly a year after the Cowboys endured an embarrassing loss to the 49ers in the Wild Card round, they took the first step in exorcising those demons by dominating the Buccaneers for a win in this year’s Wild Card round. That earned them a date with that same 49ers team, and the opportunity for revenge is staring Dallas in the face.
Of course, this 49ers team isn’t the exact same as they were last year. Christian McCaffrey was acquired during the season, and he’s been on a tear ever since joining the team. San Francisco is also down to their third different starting quarterback of the year in Brock Purdy, the last pick of the draft this past year. Surprisingly, Purdy has been the best of the three quarterbacks that head coach Kyle Shanahan has called plays for this year, at least statistically speaking.
Purdy walked into a great situation. Shanahan might be the best offensive play-caller in the NFL, and his supporting cast - McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle - is one of the best in the league. Still, Purdy has been far more consistent than either Trey Lance or Jimmy Garoppolo. He hasn’t been asked to do much, which is the norm for a quarterback in Shanahan’s offense, but Purdy has understood the assignment. Through six starts now, including the playoffs, Purdy has completed 66% of his passes for 1,706 yards and thrown 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
Here’s the rub with Purdy, though: he hasn’t faced any good defenses yet. More specifically, he hasn’t faced any good pass rush units yet. Statistically speaking, the only above average pass rushes he’s played in his six starts were the Commanders and Cardinals. Those two games were the only ones of Purdy’s six starts where he was sacked multiple times and, coincidentally, they marked his two lowest EPA/play outputs so far as well.
Like most young passers, Purdy has shown a tendency to get flustered when he’s pressured. His completion rate drops from 71.6% to 50% and his yards per attempt goes from 9.1 to 7.0 when pressured. However, Purdy is being pressured on just 17.6% of his dropbacks, sixth lowest in the NFL. Part of that equation, though, has to do with the lack of elite defenses he’s faced so far.
That will change this week. Dallas has been an elite pass rushing group all season. They finished third in both sacks and pressure rate, powered by an electric Micah Parsons. And while there had been some concerns about the pass rush tailing off in recent weeks, the Cowboys certainly looked like their usual selves against Tom Brady. The quarterback was pressured 24 times in that game, by far the most he’d faced all season, and it played a big role in the Buccaneers offense looking so inept.
Of course, stopping Purdy is only part of the equation for Dan Quinn and this Dallas defense. Shanahan and the 49ers are known for fielding an elite ground game, and McCaffrey has only made it harder to stop. When he joined the team, San Francisco was actually ranked 25th in EPA/rush, but the team is third in EPA/rush since McCaffrey was added to this squad.
The Cowboys have quietly become really good at stopping the run, and they were aided by the return of both Leighton Vander Esch and Johnathan Hankins last week. They finished the year ranked fifth in run defense DVOA and fourth in EPA/rush allowed, and that was without those two players for the last few games of the year. That said, few offenses run it the way San Francisco does, and this defense will surely be tested.
On the other side of the ball, things aren’t much easier. The 49ers defense has kept pace with Dallas in terms of production and efficiency, and they have their own star pass rusher in Nick Bosa. In fact, San Francisco and Dallas were the only defenses to finish the season ranked inside the top five in both run defense DVOA and pass defense DVOA. They also ranked first in scoring, second in yards allowed, and second in takeaways. This defense is really, really good.
Prescott and the Cowboys offense are red hot coming off their thrashing of Tampa Bay, though. That makes this matchup all the more exciting. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans tends to rely on his defensive line to get pressure, rarely blitzing, and pairs that with exceptional coverage on the back end. It’s the same formula that flustered Prescott a year ago, but this is the same quarterback who just destroyed a Tampa Bay defense that similarly flustered him in Week 1 of this year. Simply put, all bets are off.
This is the marquee matchup of the divisional round of the playoffs, and for very good reason. The Cowboys and 49ers are two very similar teams: both have elite defenses, physical offenses with a long list of playmakers, and quarterbacks who are both looking to prove themselves for various reasons. There’s also the added element of this game being a rematch of last year’s surprisingly tight battle.
The difference this time is that the 49ers enter as favorites. Vegas is currently favoring them by four points, which is the smallest line for any game this weekend. A year ago, the Cowboys were favored by three, and we all know how that turned out. Mike McCarthy has already declared this season that the Cowboys are no one’s underdogs, so they’ll have a chance to double down on that in this game.
Beyond just getting revenge over the 49ers, a win this week for Dallas would also send them to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since the 1995 season, which was also the last time they won the Super Bowl. If the Cowboys can reach that next game, they’d face a very familiar foe in either the Eagles or the Giants. All the cards have been arranged for a storybook ending to the Cowboys’ 2022 season. All that remains is for this team to go out there and do the job.