The heart of the season for the Dallas Cowboys starts this weekend as they fly out to face the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners are clearly the most formidable team the Cowboys have faced so far, and this will have significant ramifications for the playoff race. Our David Howman and Tom Ryle take a look at this game, and the challenge beyond that for Dallas.
Tom: This is shaping up to be a heavyweight bout in the NFC. (Apologies to Nate Tice of Yahoo Sports for falling back on the same metaphor he used this week in his excellent article.) The winner of this game has a big leg up in the race for the number one seed in the conference. Losing this one would drop the Cowboys to 3-2, which is not good, but it is hardly the end of things with a dozen games still to follow. Right now, it looks like the big four in the NFC are the Cowboys, the 49ers, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Detroit Lions - and Dallas faces Philadelphia and Detroit later this season. Even if they don’t win this one, they still have an opportunity to make up ground later. But is that looking at things the wrong way?
David: Seasons are rarely won or lost in the first week of October, but this game still has massive implications. The Cowboys haven’t really played any good teams thus far, and they’ve won their three games in decisive blowouts. The one loss is most easily attributed to the team overlooking their opponent. But in the end, we’re left with a 3-1 team that we know very little about. Can they contend with the class of the NFC, or are they just good enough to beat up on the little guy?
Coincidentally, the 49ers are in a bit of a similar situation. They’re 4-0 but against teams with a combined record of 6-10 so far. The difference is nobody really doubts this 49ers team after they reached the NFC Championship Game each of the last two years. The Cowboys haven’t had such luck, which is why this game is being billed as a must-win for them. A loss won’t mean the season is over, but it will certainly cast doubt as to whether or not this year’s team is any different from the last two years when they failed to reach the NFC Championship Game.
Tom: Let’s be honest. This is just part of the environment when you are America’s Team. Casual fans and the click-driven media types will never give Dallas credit. Even if they hoist the Lombardi, there will be a lot of mental gymnastics to explain how they really don’t deserve it.
But some very good analysts, like in the Tice article I linked above and the latest results from the science lab of Patrik Walker at the mothership, think that this is just as big a challenge for San Francisco as it is for the Cowboys, and that there are clear paths to a Dallas win. I think that is very logical if the Cowboys can avoid giving the ball away and committing a ton of penalties. It looks very much like this team and the Texas Coast offense were built with beating the 49ers as one of the main objectives. One of the keys is getting the ball out quickly to avoid the pass rush led by Nick Bosa and Javon Hargrave, and so far, Dak Prescott has been excellent at that. San Fran seeks to limit gains by the offense and force teams to string together plays to move down the field, at which Dallas is perhaps the best team in the league. And we know what this defense can do as long as they stay disciplined against the run.
I really have some optimism that the Cowboys can pull this one out. But even if they don’t, it is vital they play a good game. The most likely path to the big game in February is through San Francisco, and the biggest thing I think we have to have is Dallas being able to go toe to toe with them, because this may just be the preview.
David: I do think that if the Cowboys manage to beat the 49ers this week that there will be a 100% chance these teams meet again in the playoffs, just because we can’t ever have nice things. I think you’re on to something about the team having to at least look good in this one. Losing will invite plenty of narratives regardless, but losing a nail-biter is a lot different than getting blown out. Even losing the way this team has their last two games against the 49ers would be tough to stomach.
Still, though, this is very much a team that was built to beat the 49ers. They made a concerted effort to get tougher after the 2021 season, and the offense’s inability to move the ball in last year’s loss very likely was the straw that broke the Kellen Moore’s back. I have a hard time believing that Mike McCarthy takes over play-calling if the offense had played well enough to win that one.
So, in many ways, this game is an inflection point for this team. Are they tough enough to win in the trenches? Is McCarthy the play-caller enough of an upgrade to move the ball in this one? And can this team finally beat the 49ers, even with lesser stakes than a playoff game? If the answer to all of these questions is no, it won’t really matter how they lost. There will be legitimacy to questioning whether McCarthy really is the guy to get the Cowboys back to the promised land.
Tom: I’m glad you mentioned the trenches, because it looks like this could finally be the game we see the full starting offensive line on the field for Dallas. (Excuse me while I get some ice for the hand I injured knocking fiercely on wood.) That should have so many positive effects, Better protection for Prescott, better lanes for the running backs, and less futility in the red zone all should come about. This also looks to be the healthiest overall the team has been all season for a game, and I strongly suspect they have been managing the health of the players the past four weeks just to get as many hands on deck for this one as possible.
I’m cautiously optimistic this can be the game the Cowboys break another bit of a jinx, just as they breezed past that 28-3 thing against the New England Patriots last week. If they can do so, they will fear no one remaining on the schedule.
But even if they come up short, they are hardly out of the playoff picture. The Eagles are undefeated at the moment, but have not been overly impressive against teams they were expected to handle easily. With the New York Giants and the Washington Commanders having their struggles, the division is not at all out of reach even if they fall to 3-2.
Enough of that, though. It’s time to take care of business in the Bay Area. I think they can get it done.