The first postseason hurdle was cleared with surprising ease by the Dallas Cowboys. They put the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and a whole laundry list of things that had plagued them for years, away in a game they led the entire way and were never really pushed from the moment they intercepted Tom Brady in the end zone. However, many point out how the Buccaneers got into the playoffs with a losing record and that Brady was being asked to do far too much on a team that had many issues surrounding him. Now they face the San Francisco 49ers, the hottest team in the league with an eleven-game winning streak despite having to start rookie Brock Purdy at quarterback.
It is going to be a much more formidable task. Or is it? Our David Howman and Tom Ryle take a look at the upcoming opponent to try and figure out just how much of a challenge they will be on Sunday.
Tom: An argument has been made that the entire NFC is lacking any truly dominant teams this season. I think that is a reasonable conclusion. San Francisco swept their division. The Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams were both just bad, and the Seattle Seahawks squeaked into the wild card round with a 9-8 record. The Cowboys faced a much more formidable slate in what surprisingly turned out to be the best division in the NFL, with three teams still alive in the playoffs and the Washington Commanders just missing out on making it into the postseason.
Give the 49ers credit, they racked up some impressive margins of victory down the stretch. Kyle Shanahan has done a superb job putting Purdy in a position to succeed, and Purdy, the last player taking in the 2022 draft, has outplayed his draft status to a tremendous degree. But just as they represent one of the biggest challenges Dallas has faced, the same can be said for what they must now contend with. While San Francisco has been on a long hot streak, the Cowboys were white hot against Tampa Bay. When you look at the way the coaches were handling injuries, it appears they were willing to approach the last few games of the regular season in order to be at peak performance in the postseason. That worked brilliantly. There is a real argument to be made that they are better than any team the 49ers have beaten.
David: I would go a step further, Tom, and say the Cowboys aren’t even in the same stratosphere as any team the 49ers have beaten this year. For starters, they swept a pretty terrible division. Outside of that, though, the 49ers had a 7-4 record. Three of those four losses came to teams that finished the year with double digit losses of their own. The one other loss was to the Kansas City Chiefs, who blew San Francisco out of the water.
Then you look at the teams that the 49ers did beat, and it’s not impressive either. They beat the Seahawks twice, the Los Angeles Chargers, Buccaneers, and Miami Dolphins. That’s four teams who made the playoffs, but three of them were clear underdogs in the Wild Card round while the other blew a 27-point lead. San Francisco may have finished the season with the best point differential in the NFL, but it seems a lot of that is due to beating up on bad teams. They were only 1-1 against teams who won at least 10 games this year. Meanwhile, Dallas was 3-1 in that category, and the lone loss came with Cooper Rush under center.
Tom: I agree. One thing I think is important is that the Cowboys have a defense that comes at you with a ton of weapons while the Niners are more reliant on their one big star, Nick Bosa. He led the league in sacks during the regular season, but accounted for 42% of the team’s total. Dallas has Micah Parsons, but come after the quarterback with multiple rushers, and had ten more total sacks with Parsons only accounting for 25%. And even when they aren’t getting home a lot, the pressure affects the opposing quarterback, as we saw happen on Monday night. I think this is one way the Cowboys have a clear advantage. Purdy is going to be tested in a way he has not, and he has so little experience.
On the other side, if Dallas can find a way to slow Bosa, Dak Prescott has shown absolute mastery in avoiding the sack and making plays. Tyler Smith faces a big challenge against Bosa, but with the return of Tyler Biadasz, the protection has really seemed to sort itself. The battle between pass rush and quarterback really favors the Cowboys, I believe. It may be the key to winning this game.
David: You raise a good point, and the Cowboys do have a lot of talented players to attack the 49ers with in all three phases of the game. Even on special teams, KaVontae Turpin has shown he can be dangerous on returns. Simply put, this is the best team the 49ers will have faced since that Chiefs game, when they got run over.
I mentioned the 49ers’ gaudy point differential earlier, and I want to go back to that. The Cowboys finished with a +125 point differential on the season. For context, the Chiefs were +127. The 49ers had just three wins all year over teams that finished the year with a positive point differential: two of those were the Seahawks (+6) and the other was the Chargers (+7). The only other team they played all year with a positive point differential was the Chiefs, and it was their most lopsided loss of the year.
Point differential is often a good indicator of overall team strength, although it’s obviously not perfect. That the 49ers lost their only game against a team with a really good point differential while going 10-3 against teams with a negative point differential should speak volumes. Of course, the flip side is that the Cowboys haven’t beaten a team with as high a point differential as the 49ers, but they do have some impressive wins over the Eagles (+133), Bengals (+96), and Lions (+26). Either way you slice it, the Cowboys figure to be the toughest team the 49ers have faced all year, especially for the rookie Purdy. That has to be considered an advantage for Dallas.
Tom: It is a real switch for me after I had so many concerns going into the wildcard game, but I feel a lot of confidence about this one. It will likely come down to who has the fewest mistakes. Outside of that annoying kicker situation, the Cowboys made very few. One area that San Francisco is clearly a better team than Tampa Bay is coaching. But give props to the Dallas staff. They had a great game plan last week and Mike McCarthy has an aggressive streak that you need in playoff football. This is an exciting matchup and represents another hurdle for this Cowboys team to clear to finally end a quarter century of frustration. I think they are ready and able to take another step.
David: I might be more bearish on the 49ers than anyone else right now, but I do think they’re still one of the best teams in the (largely underwhelming) NFC, and this game represents a clash of the titans that won’t be easy for either team. But the Cowboys come in with two distinct advantages in a contest where these teams are pretty even in everything else: Dak Prescott is the significantly better quarterback, and the Cowboys have experience beating good teams this year. Does that guarantee anything? No, of course not. But it does explain why Dallas has the best odds to win of any underdog this week.