4:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: Cowboys -3, Over/Under: 51
Wild Card Weekend rolls on with a renewal of acquaintances between two of the National Football League’s most historically enduring franchises, as the San Francisco 49ers battle the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs for the first time in over two decades, with this latest chapter taking place from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Though it may not seem like it now, this season was always set up to be a crucial one for the 49ers (10-7, 3rd in NFC West), who after advancing all the way to Super Bowl LIV two years ago, slumped to a disappointing 6-10 finish in 2020 courtesy of a roster ravaged by injuries. However, after getting off to a slow 2-4 start, San Francisco has caught fire, winning eight of their final eleven games of the regular season, including a triumphant 27-24 come from behind victory over (bitter rival) Los Angeles in the finale. This particular affair perfectly encapsulated the campaign for the Niners, who came into last weekend’s showdown at SoFi Stadium needing to sweep the season series with the Rams for a third consecutive year in order to return to the playoffs. After falling behind 17-0, thanks to a pair of punts and a (veteran Quarterback) Jimmy Garoppolo (68.3%, 3,810 YDS, 7.6 NY/A, 20 TD, 12 INT, 52.6 QBR) interception, the visiting side managed to cut into the deficit right before halftime as Garoppolo swiftly drove his team sixty-one yards downfield in six plays, teeing up (veteran Kicker) Robbie Gould for a 42-yard field goal. Coming out of intermission, (Head Coach) Kyle Shanahan’s charges immediately established their dominance, stringing together back-to-back lengthy touchdown drives, the first traveling seventy-five yards in seven plays and the second encompassing seventy-one yards in eleven plays, with (Pro-Bowl Receiver) Deebo Samuel (77 REC, 1,405 YDS, 18.2 Y/R 6 TD) capping the former with a 16-yard rush into the end zone, while (Rookie Wideout) Jauan Jennings (24 REC, 282 YDS, 11.8 Y/R, 5 TD) took a shocking 24-yard pass from Samuel to the house. Squared away at 17-17, both teams would trade punts and turnovers before the hosts would retake the lead with a short touchdown from Matthew Stafford to Cooper Kupp leaving just under ninety seconds for the visitors to save their season. Spoiler alert: they did. Starting from his own 12-yard line, Garoppolo completed three consecutive passes culminating with a 43-yard strike to Samuel, before spiking the football within the red zone. After missing Samuel on a short toss over the middle of the field, the 30-year-old found Jennings on a similar throw for a 14-yard jaunt into the end zone forcing overtime. The 49ers would win the ensuing coin toss and receive the football at the start of the extra period and proceeded to march sixty-nine yards downfield in twelve plays, chewing off 7:12 of game time as the aforementioned Gould nailed a 24-yard field goal attempt. With an opportunity to match, Los Angeles would travel no further than their own 38-yard line, as Stafford’s attempt deep downfield to Odell Beckham Jr. was picked off by (Rooke Cornerback) Ambry Thomas (23 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PD), ending the affair altogether and punching their ticket to the postseason. In the end, Shanahan’s troops piled up 449 total yards on twenty-three first downs, rushing for 135 yards on thirty-one attempts, while Garoppolo completed 23-of-32 passes for 316 yards, a touchdown and a pair of interceptions. San Francisco’s youth served them well in this contest, as Jennings hauled in six receptions for ninety-four yards and two scores, while (Sophomore Receiver) Brandon Aiyuk (56 REC, 826 YDS, 14.8 Y/R, 5 TD) added a team-high 107 yards on six catches, along with (Rookie Tailback) Elijah Mitchell (207 CAR, 963 YDS, 4.7 Y/A, 5 TD), who racked up eighty-five yards on twenty-one carries. With that said, the star of this production was the aforementioned Samuel, who continued to be the Niners’ all-purpose weapon with four catches for ninety-five yards, eight carries for forty-five yards and a touchdown along with that 24-yard strike to Jennings to square things away in the second half. No player has embodied their recent string of success more so than the versatile 25-year-old, who over the last eight games has reeled in twenty-eight receptions for 523 yards and two scores, while becoming a much more pronounced part of the rushing attack with another 343 yards and seven touchdowns on fifty-three carries. Altogether, the newly minted Pro-Bowler has accounted for a whopping 1,794 yards from scrimmage and fifteen total touchdowns, averaging an explosive 13.0 yards per touch. All in all, 2021 has proven to be a vindicating campaign for many figures within the organization, including (General Manager) John Lynch, who has seen many of the young players that he’s drafted over the past few years emerge into key contributors, along with Garoppolo, who fended off competition from (2021 no. three overall pick) Trey Lance (57.7%, 603 YDS, 7.84 NY/A, 5 TD, 2 INT, 33.6 QBR) despite a late hand injury to pilot San Fran back into the postseason. And then there is Shanahan, who resisted the urge (on multiple occasions) to bench Garoppolo in favor of Lance, while daring to insert Samuel into a depleted backfield. And now they face the Cowboys, rekindling a long-dormant rivalry that served as the NFL’s darling of the early nineties. San Francisco and Dallas met in three consecutive NFC Championship Games from 1992 to 1994, with the 49ers finally getting over the hump and into Super Bowl XXIX where they hammered the San Diego Chargers (49-26) to win their fifth and most recent Lombardi trophy. Of course, the history between these marquee franchises runs much deeper than that, with the 1982 NFC Title Game featuring arguably the most indelible play in the history of the league dubbed simply The Catch; trailing by six points late in the fourth quarter, (legendary Quarterback) Joe Montana rolled out to his right and found Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone to secure a definitive 28-27 victory, setting up a decade of success for the Niners, who would go on to win their first Super Bowl in franchise history two weeks later followed by another three Lombardi trophies. Since arriving in San Fran back in 2017 with designs on restoring the franchise to its glory years, Shanahan is 0-2 in two meetings with the Cowboys including last season’s 41-33 encounter in Arlington; with both teams ravaged by injuries, the game was tied at 24-24 heading into the fourth quarter, which featured three 40+ yard touchdowns, with the hosts outscoring the visitors 17-10 in that span. Garoppolo has never started against Dallas, for he was on injured reserve with ankle and knee sprains during last year’s affair.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys (12-5, 1st in NFC East) also bounced back after a disappointing campaign devastated by injuries, winning their division for the first time in three years and returning to the playoffs. Make no mistake the pressure is PALPABLE in Big D coming into today’s contest, but then again, that is typically the case when it comes to Dallas, who are desperate to enjoy postseason success, for after all, their history demands it. Like their opponent today, this is a franchise that has served as one of the NFL’s finest, winning five Lombardi trophies, while competing for two more, with a long and hallowed list of Hall of Famers traveling through their gates, leading (longtime Owner) Jerry Jones to famously proclaim his darling team as America’s Team. However, there are whole generations of fans that weren’t around when they last tasted Super Bowl glory, for the ‘Boys last hoisted a Lombardi back in Super Bowl XXX, a 27-17 triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers back on January 28th, 1996. Since then, this is a franchise that has largely fizzled out in January, advancing to the playoffs just eleven times over the ensuing twenty-six years and compiling a disappointing 4-10 record along the way, with nary a single appearance in the NFC Championship Game to show for their efforts. So, with that said, is this current incarnation of the Cowboys any better-suited for postseason success than any of their predecessors? Well, that’s a tough question to answer for a variety of reasons. Dallas dominated the NFC East in rare fashion, becoming the first to sweep its division brethren since 2004 and the first time that they had managed that feat since 1998. However, the rest of NFC East was once again rather mediocre (20-31), with fellow playoff qualifier, Philadelphia opting to rest virtually all of their starters in last weekend’s 51-26 primetime romp in the City of Brotherly Love. With an opportunity to climb up to the third seed, (Head Coach) Mike McCarthy’s charges were all too happy to lay a beatdown on the Eagles, leading 30-17 at halftime, before running off twenty-one unanswered points in the fourth quarter to break the game wide-open. In the end, the visitors compiled 475 total yards, including 171 rushing, while (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Dak Prescott (68.8%, 4,449 YDS, 6.88 NY/A, 37 TD, 10 INT, 54.9 QBR) punctuated his comeback campaign following a broken leg that ended his 2020 run, with a 295-yard, five-touchdown performance. One look at this group and you’ll notice that they are NOT short on talent; the Cowboys became the first team in NFL history to field a 4,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher, and a 1,000-yard receiver, along with a player amassing ten or more sacks and another with at least ten interceptions. Together McCarthy and (Offensive Coordinator) Kellen Moore have curated the top-ranked offense in the league, averaging a franchise record 31.2 points per game (1st Overall) on 416.5 total yards (1st Overall). They also managed to fix the worst defense in franchise history, appointing Dan Quinn as Defensive Coordinator and going on to lead the NFL in takeaways for the first time since 1987 with THIRTY-FOUR (1st Overall), which was also the most in franchise history. Led by (Sophomore Cornerback) Trevon Diggs (52 TKL, 11 INT, 21 PD, 2 TD) and his ELEVEN interceptions, Dallas boasts a healthy Plus-14 turnover margin, forcing multiple turnovers in twelve of their eighteen games this season. Furthermore, (Rookie Linebacker) Micah Parsons (84 TKL, 20 TFL, 30 QBH, 13.0 SK, 3 FF, 3 PD) has emerged as not only the overwhelming frontrunner for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors but is among the leading candidates to win Defensive Player of the Year; the twelfth overall pick in last Spring’s NFL Draft, Parsons flourished as Quinn utilized him as an edge-rusher, amassing thirteen sacks, twenty tackles for loss, thirty Quarterback hits and forty-seven pressures. Granted, that’s an awful lot to be proud of, but as is the case with each of the contenders within the NFC, this is a team with flaws. As gaudy as their numbers have been, the bulk of the Cowboys’ outbursts this season have come against bad teams. Only one of Dallas’ twelve victories have come against a team with ten or more wins, with just five coming against those with winning records, two of which came against the aforementioned Eagles, who went all season without besting an opponent above .500. In their twelve wins, McCarthy’s troops averaged 35.0 points on 430.2 total yards, and forced twenty-eight turnovers en route to amassing a healthy turnover differential of plus-15 against opponents with a combined win percentage of .444. However, in their five losses they could muster averages of just 21.8 points on 351.0 total yards, with only six takeaways (four of which came in the season opener at Tampa) leading to a differential of minus-1 against a field of opponents sporting a vastly superior win percentage of .640. Furthermore, the attack hasn’t been quite the same since Prescott missed a few weeks due to a high ankle sprain. Sure, they erupted for a combined 150 points in wins over Atlanta, Washington, and Philadelphia, but apart from those three outings they could muster just 22.1 points on 333.1 total yards in the other seven games. And then there is the matter of self-inflicted wounds, for no team in the NFL has been penalized more so than this group, drawing 127 penalties (1st Overall) for 1,103 yards lost (2nd Overall), with thirty-one of which leading to a first down for the opposition (16th Overall). At this point of the campaign, this is something that is almost impossible to clean up, meaning that the coaching staff must trust that their players refrain from shooting themselves in the foot, for you never know when one of those red flags will completely change the course of a contest. Coming into today’s encounter with the 49ers, the Cowboys narrowly lead the all-time series 19-17-1, winning four of the last five meetings and each of the last three, while posting a 5-2 advantage in the postseason, including each of their two affairs in Arlington. Prescott is unbeaten in two career meetings with San Fran, completing 68.4% of his attempts for an average of 239.5 yards with six total touchdowns and zero turnovers. Lastly, something else to keep an eye on will be the game within the game between the aforementioned Quinn and Shanahan; the Niners’ Head Coach served as Quinn’s Offensive Coordinator in Atlanta from 2015 to 2016, with the tandem leading the Falcons to an NFC Championship before infamously collapsing in the second half of Super Bowl LI. Both Dallas and San Francisco run variations of the Seattle Cover-3 scheme, though the 51-year-old, who is also receiving a wealth of requests to interview with other teams for their respective head coaching vacancies, has gone a long way towards introducing different concepts, including many more man principals. So, the question remains who took more from the other: Quinn or Shanahan? The answer to that question will likely go a long way towards deciding today’s outcome.