This is it. This is what we’ve all been waiting for since the schedules were announced. The Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers, on Sunday Night Football. It feels weird to talk up a Week 5 game as the game of the year, but that’s already how this one feels. That’s for a few reasons.
First, there’s the history that comes from this rivalry. In the 70’s, the Cowboys dominated the 49ers, going 6-1 including consecutive NFC Championship games. In the 80’s, the tables turned. San Francisco went 5-1, including one win in the NFC Championship game that featured Dwight Clark and “The Catch.”
Then the Cowboys returned to glory under Jimmy Johnson in the 90’s, and once again rivaled the 49ers. They won four of nine contests against San Francisco during that decade, meeting three times in the NFC Championship Game. Dallas was 2-1 in those games, and the winner of each game went on to win the Super Bowl.
The rivalry hasn’t been much of anything since then, with both teams struggling until lately. That’s another big part of the appeal for this one: these are two of the best teams in the NFL right now. The 49ers are 23-11 in the last two seasons while the Cowboys are 24-10.
Kyle Shanahan’s reputation is growing among the top-tier coaches, having reached the NFC Championship game three times as a head coach and losing once in the Super Bowl. Mike McCarthy has a Super Bowl trophy already, and is fifth among active head coaches for career wins, but he’s trying to become the first head coach to ever win a Super Bowl with two different teams.
The 49ers enter this game undefeated, having scored 30 or more points every week against teams they were heavily favored over. The Cowboys are 3-1, their lone blemish an embarrassing loss to the same Cardinals team that just lost by 19 to San Francisco. However, the Cowboys have won their three games by a combined score of 108-13 and have the second best point differential in the NFL.
Of course, we all know the number one reason why this game is appointment television for any football fan. Each of the last two years, these teams have met in the playoffs and each of the last two years the 49ers have emerged victorious. McCarthy accomplished something the last five Cowboys coaches couldn’t do by posting consecutive 12-win seasons, but it didn’t matter to the 49ers.
The big change for Dallas this year? McCarthy is calling the shots on offense. Last year, San Francisco’s defense stifled the Cowboys, and they were unable to score when it mattered most. That led to Kellen Moore’s exit, and McCarthy infused Moore’s scheme - which had been good overall - with the West Coast principles he thrived with in Green Bay. So far, the Cowboys have been one of the best at moving the chains and avoiding turnovers, but they’ve struggled to score in the red zone.
San Francisco is also a different team than they were last year. First of all, Brock Purdy is now the unquestioned starter under center after Jimmy Garoppolo left for the Raiders in free agency and Trey Lance was traded to Dallas right before the start of the season. Purdy, who will make his 13th career start (including playoffs) this week, has been off to a great start. He’s in the top five in completion percentage and yards per attempt and leads the league in both EPA/play and QBR.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is the defense. DeMeco Ryans was the coordinator who shut down the Dallas offense each of the last two years in the playoffs, but he’s now running the Houston Texans. In his place is Steve Wilks, who finished last year as the interim head coach for the Panthers. Wilks has brought some fundamental changes to the 49ers defense, but they’re still in the top 10 in EPA/play allowed and defensive DVOA.
All of this is to say that both the Cowboys and the 49ers are still juggernauts, both of them competing for the title of the best team in the conference. The playoff battles between these two have been among the best games of the last two years, with each being decided by one score and ultimately coming down to a final drive from the Cowboys.
There is decidedly less riding on the outcome of this game, as both teams will still suit up to play the following week and in the months to come. That said, this is an early litmus test for both of these teams. Neither one has played especially good teams, so this will be the first chance for each to show what they can do against a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
For the Cowboys, most crucially, this is the chance to prove that they made the right decisions in the offseason. The defense remains elite under Dan Quinn, but McCarthy can earn plenty of validation by finally beating the 49ers in his first year calling the plays. This would go a long way towards vindicating that change, in addition to announcing the Cowboys as the team to beat in this conference.
If that doesn’t happen, though, and the Cowboys once again lose to the 49ers? Not only will they drop to 3-2 on the season, but it will become increasingly harder to argue that McCarthy is the coach to turn things around in Dallas. After all, this is his team and now his offense. If they still can’t get the Shanahan monkey off their back, how long until it’s time to look for someone else who can? Those are the kinds of stakes that make this game an absolute must-watch.