In a season that hardly looked destined for a playoff appearance after a week one loss to the Buccaneers that also saw the Dallas Cowboys lose starting quarterback Dak Prescott, the team is in the familiar position of preparing for a playoff bout against the 49ers for the second year in a row. They started doing so immediately after beating those same Bucs on the road to conclude Super Wild Card weekend, their first ever win against Tom Brady and first road playoff win since 1992.
This landmark win has Cowboys Nation cautiously optimistic for the team to reach the NFC Championship for the first time since 1996, where waiting for them will be an NFC East rival in the Giants or Eagles. Just as the Cowboys often find themselves as big favorites in divisional games because of the QB advantage Prescott gives them, the team should feel good about their matchup against seventh-round rookie Brock Purdy making just his seventh start.
That is, if it wasn’t also Kyle Shanahan’s offense that Dallas and Dan Quinn must be ready for. With a stellar cast of weapons and an elite ground game that’s been lifted by mid-season acquisition Christian McCaffrey, Shanahan has simply asked Purdy to be a point guard in an offense that alleviates pressure off the quarterback like none other in the NFL.
While it’s true this year’s Cowboys team has been at their best against the top teams, with both the revenge factor and momentum from the Wild Card working in their favor on Sunday night, they haven’t faced an offense this dynamic in weeks. Will the defense that possibly ended Tom Brady’s time in Tampa Bay show up again, or the one that lost to Sam Howell at the conclusion of the regular season?
Making Purdy look like the last pick in the draft starting in the Divisional Playoffs doesn’t sound like too lofty a goal after Monday night, but it will take every bit as much of a master gameplan from Quinn and execution on both sides of the ball by Dallas.
The Cowboys turned uncertainty in the secondary into a strength against the Bucs, playing mostly dime defense and asking Israel Mukuamu to make a rare appearance as a slot defender. Listeners of Hidden Yardage will know how troubling of a matchup the Bucs passing offense against the Cowboys safeties looked on paper, but it was the backend of this defense that took away all hope from Tampa Bay. Forcing Brady to consistently throw into tight coverage against multiple defenders resulted in his first red zone turnover with the Bucs, and in the end a career-high 66 passing attempts. It was the type of off-night that even a 45-year-old future Hall of Famer doesn’t just have without the defense having their say, which the Cowboys did all night with Micah Parsons leading an inspired front four.
The problem with taking a similar game plan into San Francisco this weekend is the multitude of ways the 49ers offense can move the ball on the ground. Tampa Bay presented almost no threat in the run game, allowing Quinn to play these shell coverages. If there was any hope for the Bucs to run the ball, something they did uncharacteristically well in the regular season meeting versus Dallas, it was taken away once Prescott and the Cowboys offense got rolling and scored on four straight possessions following consecutive three-and-outs to start the game.
The Cowboys issues in run defense have been well-documented this season, and it’s no secret their best plan here has been to force opponents to throw by building a lead themselves. In the second half of games against Dalvin Cook, Saquon Barkley, and Jonathan Taylor, these elite backs the Cowboys have faced combined for 30 carries and 171 yards in four total games. When Kellen Moore’s offense puts the pressure on, the defense follows with pressure of their own in the form of all-out blitzes without worrying about the run, and a turnover streak that can be infectious (see: Sunday night vs. the Colts).
It will be hard to discourage the 49ers from keeping the ball out of harm’s way though, with a laundry list of plays that serve as extensions of their power run game. Be it jet sweeps, screens, misdirection, option reads, or bootlegs, the 49ers will test the Cowboys discipline in every way possible with full belief they can reach the NFC Championship with a rookie QB for the first time in history. Only AFC teams in the Jets with Mark Sanchez, Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger, and Ravens with Joe Flacco have seen rookie QBs get within a win of the Super Bowl. All of those teams happened to have strong defenses to help their young QBs too, much like this current 49ers squad.
San Francisco caught Dallas unprepared for this challenge in the Wild Card last year, running the ball 38 times for 169 yards. The 49ers average distance-to-go on third down was just 6.5 yards, a mark that keeps the defense honest with Jimmy Garoppolo converting 10 first downs through the air, the team running for seven more, and being handed four by Cowboys penalties.
While it feels slightly ridiculous, even by the any given Sunday standards that the NFL has seen all year, a Mike McCarthy quote from September of the 2021 season feels relevant to how Dallas could approach this game against an offense like San Francisco. When asked how they would prepare for a road test against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, McCarthy had this refreshing outlook to offer:
In fact, when McCarthy was asked today if he doesn’t want to score too quickly because he wants to keep Wilson on the sideline, he said he will always take his offense scoring fast.
“We want to score as fast as we can, and as many times as we can as far as the start of the game and throughout the game,” McCarthy said.
The Cowboys prepared for that game to be a shootout, and answered all but three scoring drives from the Seahawks with points of their own. One came with seconds left in the half and the final was a touchdown in the final two minutes that led to a Prescott game-ending interception. The Cowboys had much better end of half execution against the Bucs, both in the first 30 minutes to control the game, and to put it away without any threat of a comeback down the stretch.
Feeling the same sense of urgency on both sides of the ball against the 49ers is the best way the Cowboys can win consecutive road playoff games for the first time since 1975. Having already done something they haven’t accomplished since beating these same 49ers en route to Super Bowl XXVII, this rekindled rivalry in the Divisional Round features two teams with zero shortage of confidence. The Cowboys have the taste of a playoff win against Brady fresh in the lion’s mouth, while the 49ers are off an equally satisfying home win versus the NFC West rival Seahawks. Trailing 17-16 at the half, the 49ers proved they won’t be an easy out no matter who’s at QB with Purdy leading a 25-6 second half run to win comfortably 41-23.
The Cowboys also showed against the Bucs they have fresh personnel to help them deal with the run game, as Leighton Vander Esch and Jonathan Hankins made an immediate impact in their returns. Whether or not Dallas plays with Hankins on the field and stacks up against the run, or plays coverage and tries to tighten down on Purdy in the red zone, is the chess match to watch for very early in this game. If the Dallas defense does start fast and get the ball back to the offense, all this game could come down to is Prescott proving he’s the best quarterback on the field once again for the Cowboys.