As far as week five regular season NFL games go, it seemingly doesn’t get much bigger than Sunday Night Football in San Francisco, where the 49ers will host the Cowboys at the site of last year’s NFC Divisional Playoffs. The 49ers won that game 19-12 to reach the NFC Championship game, setting off changes for the Cowboys roster and coaching staff in an all-out effort to get past Kyle Shanahan’s team and reach the championship game themselves for the first time since 1996.
The 49ers have claimed the top spot in nearly every power ranking by way of beating the Steelers and Rams on the road, and Giants and Cardinals at home. The Cowboys are still searching for league-wide respect on the merits of their three wins, falling a bit after their road loss to the Cardinals although their wins have been decisive. Being tested for four quarters in a close game could be exactly what this team needs, and they should expect nothing less against a team that’s beaten them in the playoffs by a combined 13 points in consecutive seasons.
San Francisco entering this game after beating the same Arizona team Dallas lost to go 4-0 may be seen as an ominous sign, but a closer look reveals that was a 21-16 game going into the fourth quarter until the 49ers closed it out at 35-16. Christian McCaffrey’s three touchdowns raced the 49ers out to a 21-3 lead, but a pair of Josh Dobbs to Michael Wilson touchdowns put the Cardinals back in the game.
This sets up an interesting game plan to watch on both sides of the ball for the Cowboys. James Conner and Josh Dobbs both averaged over four yards a carry against the 49ers, and the Cowboys will be eager to prove they can sustain a run game after losing Tony Pollard to a leg injury in their matchup with the 49ers last season. The quick passing game should be there as well though, with six different Cardinals receivers catching a pass, and four averaging at least seven yards per catch.
It was the Cowboys’ own passing game that was clamped down by the 49ers defense in what proved to be Kellen Moore’s last game as offensive coordinator in the playoffs last season. The 49ers return all but one starting member of that secondary for this game, but the Cowboys are coming off a win against the Patriots where multiple receivers outside of CeeDee Lamb got involved.
Just how pass or run heavy the Cowboys can be in this game of course depends on what their defense can do against Brock Purdy and the 49ers offense. With McCaffrey as the catalyst, Purdy has continued his winning ways in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. When McCaffrey scored on the first play of the fourth quarter in the Divisional game last year to break a 9-9 tie, Purdy would only throw the ball five more times the rest of the game. Dan Quinn’s defense flipping this script, hopefully with support from the offense scoring touchdowns instead of field goals, and letting their pass rush affect Purdy is how the Cowboys can get the better of the 49ers.
On the other side of the ball in that Divisional loss, Dak Prescott was 6-12 passing with a sack in a fourth quarter comeback attempt, made harder by a seven minute, 13-play, 64-yard drive for a 49ers field goal to push the score to 19-12 with 3:04 to play. Finding completions in the red zone may be the bigger talking point for the Cowboys offense this year, but this Sunday will be a test of how all of their pass catchers can step up. How tight ends Jake Ferguson and Luke Schoonmaker are used to both pass protect against Nick Bosa and a ferocious SF pass rush, as well as safety valves to keep the chains moving in the pass game, will be something to watch for early as these teams trade jabs looking for a knockout blow late.
Internally, both of these teams know how good they are, and while it may be the 49ers hearing it more from the media, even with a still inexperienced QB, they’re comfortable coming into games as favorites and taking care of business. They won’t get too high on improving to 5-0 against the Cowboys, sharing an undefeated record with the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season in the Eagles (assuming the Eagles win). For the Cowboys, they certainly could use the momentum of a revenge win against the 49ers, still having both meetings with the Eagles, road trips to the Bills and Dolphins, and a Monday night test at the Chargers ahead.
Make no mistake about it, this is much more than just an attractive regular season game in primetime, with Mike McCarthy looking for his first win over Shanahan since 2018 - his final season with the Packers, that game being his second to last win before being replaced by Joe Philbin. These are the games he’s been tasked with winning now as the play-caller for an offense that knows they let an opportunity slip away on this very field last year, with Dallas also bringing a revamped defense into this heavyweight fight.