It will be an offseason of deja vu for the Dallas Cowboys, one that begins now as their season ended 19-12 at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers in the Divisional playoffs. Their second straight postseason loss to the 49ers will force the team to ask themselves the familiar question of how to get past the 49ers and reach the NFC Championship for the first time since 1996.
For the final time this season, here are a few notes on the latest loss Dallas will have months to reflect on.
- In what could be Dan Quinn’s final game as the Cowboys defensive coordinator, a coach known for getting players to run through a wall for him got an inspired effort in the game against Purdy. Micah Parsons single-handedly wrecked the 49ers’ first possession, pressuring Purdy on first down and taking away his first read on a screen the next play which created a Osa Odighizuwa sack.
Unfortunately, a defense playing on a short week never got enough support from the offense to put San Francisco away, and the team paid the price as Kyle Shanahan’s offense played ball control in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys response to last season’s Wild Card loss to this 49ers team was to get more physical on defense, and for the most part they accomplished this with better play from the defensive interior and bounce-back season from Leighton Vander Esch.
Not having an answer in the middle of the field hurt them against George Kittle and the 49ers inside passing game; safeties Donovan Wilson and Jayron Kearse weren’t up to the challenge while also worrying about the 49ers’ downhill run game.
- An early turning point in this game was Dak Prescott’s first interception on a throw intended for Gallup, and the ensuing field goal drive by the 49ers. While it was a win for the Cowboys defense to not give up a touchdown on a short field, they did concede a third-and-16 to Brandon Aiyuk with a 17-yard catch against Daron Bland.
Bland’s best trait as a rookie has been having a short memory at a position it’s needed at, shrugging off negative plays to create turnovers and consistently be around the ball. Mike Shanahan’s offense picked on Bland regularly without the fifth-round cornerback having help underneath, and did it in a way the Buccaneers were never able to do in the Wild Card round. The cornerback position outside of Trevon Diggs was a major point of concern going into the playoffs, and against one of the best play-callers in the league it allowed Brock Purdy to do just enough to advance his team to the NFC Championship.
Even Diggs was involved in a crucial play in this game, dropping an interception that he normally converts easily as the ball fell right through his hands. Back-to-back defensive holding calls on Donovan Wilson and Jonathan Hankins set the 49ers up to take the lead on a walk-in Christian McCaffrey touchdown to start the fourth quarter, putting Dallas on their heels with the first lead of more than a field goal in this game.
- The 49ers defensive line against the reshuffled Cowboys offensive line was an expected mismatch in this game, and early on it led to some pressure on Prescott. Kellen Moore’s scheme simply couldn’t adjust on the fly in the same way Demeco Ryan’s defense won the game, proving why he’s one of the hottest head coaching candidates this offseason. The Cowboys initial plan did a great job getting CeeDee Lamb in the slot, but the 49ers were more than ready to take away any space he normally finds from this spot.
By trusting their front four to get pressure, the 49ers could help with a safety over the top of Lamb, and even had linebacker Fred Warner turning and running in coverage with Lamb down the field. Forcing pass catchers besides Lamb to make plays was the clearest path to victory for any Dallas opponent this season, and with the season on the line they managed just two field goals on six second half possessions.
- Quick personal note: As a first season BTB’er, it was a pleasure connecting with Cowboys fans everywhere again, be it here or the Hidden Yardage podcast. The wait until next season may feel like forever right now, but I look forward to helping count down the days with free agency, the draft, and offseason work to prepare for. Thank you for being the best fans in football and bringing out the best in me.