6:30 PM EST, FOX – Line; 49ers -3.5, Over/Under: 46.5
It seems that the NFL has saved the best for last, as the final entry in this year’s Divisional Round of the Playoffs features the continuation of a classic rivalry, with the Dallas Cowboys battling the surging San Francisco 49ers with a place in next weekend’s NFC Championship Game on the line in this matchup from Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. This affair marks the ninth time that these two classic franchises have crossed paths in the postseason, and the second year in a row following last January’s fateful encounter at AT&T Stadium, which is one that the Cowboys (12-5, 2nd in NFC East) would prefer to forget altogether. Of course, no team entered these playoffs with more pressure on their shoulders than Dallas, though we could say that just about any year that they advance to the tournament. Since winning their last Lombardi Trophy in 1996, this proud franchise has posted a dismal 5-11 postseason record, with nary an appearance in the NFC Championship Game to their credit. That is thirty-three years of failure for Big D, and (outspoken Owner) Jerry Jones has been adamant that this group needs to make noise in this tourney, lest sizeable changes could be on the horizon. However, following last Monday Night’s 31-14 drubbing of the Buccaneers (much more on that one shortly), could it be that they’re finally poised to break their proverbial playoff ceiling? Three years into his tenure in Northern Texas, (Head Coach) Mike McCarthy has arguably the most talented and balanced roster that we’ve seen in Big D over the last ten years, what with an explosive Offense buoyed by the most opportunistic Defense in the league. Despite missing (Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Dak Prescott for six weeks with a broken thumb, the Cowboys ranked fourth in scoring (27.5), eleventh in total offense (365.3), fourteenth in passing yards (230.1), and ninth in net yards per attempt (6.41), while finishing ninth in rushing yards (135.2), fifth in third down percentage (45.5%), and number one overall in red zone efficiency (71.4%). As for the 29-year-old passer, this season has been far from the easiest, particularly after suffering that broken right thumb midway through the season opener, with lingering effects possibly playing into his NFL-high fifteen interceptions. Make no mistake, there is no HC-QB pairing under more scrutiny in this postseason than McCarthy and Prescott (pictured below), with the latter expected to raise his level of play above the eggs that he’s laid in playoffs past. Prior to embarrassing the Bucs’ Defense last Monday, Prescott was just 1-3 in the postseason, completing 60.9% of his passes for an average of 262.0 yards on 6.71 net yards per attempt, with six touchdowns opposed to three interceptions, including a particularly ugly showing in last year’s 23-17 loss to the Niners on Wild Card Weekend. In that fateful affair, Prescott completed just 23-of-43 passes for 254 yards with a touchdown and an interception apiece, with five sacks and a fumbe, while rushing for twenty-seven yards and another score to boot, though much of that production came following an uninspired first three quarters that featured five punts and an interception as the hosts fell into a 23-7 hole. Self-inflicted wounds were a MAJOR theme in this one, as McCarthy’s troops were penalized FOURTEEN times for a whopping eighty-nine yards in lost yardage. No longer a young overachieving Quarterback who has grossly outperformed his contract playing largely complementary football to a dominant ground game, these are the games that Dallas is paying him to win, particularly now that he is one year into a $160 million contract extension. Fortunately, he has plenty of help, with (Sophomore Receiver) CeeDee Lamb selected to his second consecutive Pro-Bowl, while (unheralded Tailback) Tony Pollard has emerged as an explosive counterweight to (veteran teammate) Ezekiel Elliott, with 1,378 yards from scrimmage and a dozen total scores. Furthermore, the Defense is once again a major factor for the Cowboys. Retaining the services of (Defensive Coordinator) Dan Quinn was a coup for Jones and McCarthy, for the 52-year-old has worked wonders with a unit that was statistically the worst in franchise history prior to his arrival. Quinn, who is once again attracting plenty of interest on the coaching market, simplified the scheme and brought in quicker, faster personnel, while making use of arguably the deepest rotation along the Defensive Line to dramatic results; Dallas has led the NFL in takeaways in each of the last two seasons, amassing SIXTY-SEVEN during that period, including thirty-three this year with nine games featuring multiple turnovers. For the second season in a row, (Cornerback) Trevon Diggs and (Edge-Rusher) Micah Parsons are Pro-Bowlers, with the former snaring fourteen interceptions with thirty-four deflected passes since 2021, while the latter followed up his Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign with 13.5 sacks, fourteen tackles for loss, twenty-seven QB hits, forty-one pressures, and three forced and recovered fumbles apiece. However, as overwhelming as they can be on this side of the football, they can be susceptible to bigger, more physical opponents. As we touched upon, this group is predicated on speed and quickness to create havoc and rally to the football, but they have struggled against teams who can outmuscle them in the trenches; Quinn’s troops rank twenty-second against the run (129.3) on 4.4 yards per carry (17th Overall), and in their five losses they’ve shipped an average of 167.6 yards on 4.68 yards per rush. This will likely be the deciding factor in this evening’s matchup with the Niners, who in last January’s affair dominated time of possession (33:59) on the strength of 169 rushing yards on thirty-eight attempts, leading to favorable down and distance situations and a healthy 6-of-13 performance on third down. Granted, Dallas will be facing a rookie in the form of (Mr. Irrelevant) Brock Purdy instead of the battle-tested Jimmy Garoppolo (we’ll cover San Fran’s QB rollercoaster shortly), so if they find a way to put the youngster into more obvious passing downs, then they could begin to pin their ears back and tee off.
When we last saw the Cowboys, they completely dominated a frequent adversary, the Buccaneers, in a watershed 31-14 victory in last weekend’s Wild Card affair. With the pressure nothing short of palpable, the visitors certainly rose to the occasion, particularly their Quarterback as Prescott authored what was could very well go down as a defining postseason performance. After going three-and-out on their first two possessions, Dallas turned the tables in picking off Tom Brady in the end zone of what was a 14-play, 70-yard drive, with Prescott in turn marching his side eighty yards downfield in just eight plays, handing it off to Elliott to finish it with a short touchdown run. This started a period in which McCarthy’s charges outscored the hosts 24-0, with the only blemish being FOUR missed PATs from (veteran Kicker) Brett Maher. In the end, this game was a perfect example as to why this team annually receives so much hype; the ‘Boys amassed a whopping 425 total yards, converted 7-of-thirteen third downs, including each of their two attempts on fourth, highlighted by a scoring run from Prescott on a key fourth-and-one midway through the second quarter. No. 4 was in the zone throughout this contest, completing 25-of-33 passes for 305 yards and four touchdowns, while adding another twenty-four yards and that aforementioned score, shredding a Bucs’ Defense that gave him all kinds of problems in their previous encounter in the season opener. Pollard rushed for seventy-seven yards on fifteen carries, while (young Tight End) Dalton Schultz led the way in the receiving game with seven receptions on eight targets for ninety-five yards and a pair of touchdowns. Defensively, Quinn’s troops made Tampa utterly one-dimensional, with the bulk of their 386 total yards coming via the pass in garbage time. (Veteran Safety) Jayron Kearse picked Brady off in the end zone, while Parsons was a persistent threat in the backfield, with a sack, two tackles for loss, and a pair of hits on the Quarterback. Looking to this evening’s matchup with the 49ers, the Cowboys hold a narrow lead in the all-time series (19-18-1), though saw a three-game winning streak come to a close with that aforementioned defeat in last year’s Wild Card. In three career meetings with San Francisco, Prescott is 2-1 with a completion percentage of 62.0% for an average of 244.3 yards on 6.77 net yards per attempt, with six touchdowns and an interception, while rushing for another 18.7 yards and two scores to boot. From a betting perspective, the Cowboys have split their last ten games against the spread regardless of the venue and are 6-4 in that regard in their last ten trips away from AT&T Stadium. Being an underdog has served them well, as they’ve covered seven of their last outings when getting points from the oddsmakers, along with two of their last three in that role against the Niners. With that said, Dallas is 0-3-1 against the spread in their last four contests following victories both straight-up and against the spread, which is the case today. On the injury front, the aforementioned Kearse is listed as questionable with a bulky knee, while the Offensive Line will be without (veteran Tackle) Jason Peters, who has been battling a hip injury of late. This could be a sizable issue for McCarthy & Co, for the 40-year-old was signed early in the campaign to fill the void on the flank left by (All-Pro Left Tackle) Tyron Smith, who missed the first thirteen games with a knee injury. Peters rotated to the right side of the line following Smith’s return, with absence paving the way for the club’s 2022 first round pick, Tyler Smith, to kick outside and face the NFL’s top-ranked Defense.
Meanwhile, this current incarnation of the 49ers (13-4, 1st in NFC West) may look awfully familiar to their predecessors but make no mistake this group couldn’t be more different than the one that sent the Cowboys fishing last January. Sure, they’ve rolled into these playoffs like thunderstorm, winning each of their last eleven games, including last weekend’s 41-23 drubbing of the Seahawks (more on that one in a bit), just as they did a year ago when they nine out of eleven to reach their second NFC Championship Game in three years. However, that’s where the similarities are going to end, for this San Francisco side has been nothing short of a master of improvisation en route to claiming their second division title since 2019. Believe it or not, this season was supposed to be a transitional one of sorts for the Niners, who were expected to part ways with (longtime Quarterback) Jimmy Garoppolo, paving the way for (2021 third overall pick) Trey Lance to take over as the franchise QB. However, (Head Coach) Kyle Shanahan and (General Manager) John Lynch could find no takers for Garoppolo, whom they re-signed to a one-year deal to backup Lance, only for the Sophomore to suffer a broken leg early in the second game of the season, thrusting Jimmy G back into the fray. San Fran would go on to win seven of their next ten games, though the 31-year-old, who led them on their run to Super Bowl LIV, would see his season end prematurely due to a broken foot suffered early in a Week Thirteen tryst with the Dolphins. With both Lance and Garoppolo on the proverbial shelf for the rest of the campaign, many thought that the 49ers’ championship hopes were shattered, though Shanahan had a different outlook as he turned the reins over to (Rookie Quarterback) Brock Purdy, who has been nothing short of a revelation. Now, Purdy (pictured below) was selected with the 262nd overall pick in last Spring’s NFL Draft, making him this year’s Mr. Irrelevant, making the fact that the team hasn’t missed a single beat with him in the saddle all the more remarkable. Since taking over for Garoppolo, the 23-year-old has led San Francisco to seven consecutive victories, in which they’ve outscored and outgained the opposition by considerable margins of 16.4 points and 62.0 total yards. As for Purdy, he’s done a tremendous of job of simply managing the game within Shanahan’s ever-effective scheme, completing 68.3% of his attempts for an average of 218.0 yards on a healthy 7.60 net yards per attempt, with a staggering thirteen touchdowns in comparison to just three interceptions, while rushing for another score to boot. Furthermore, his passer rating through his first five starts (119.3) is the highest of any Quarterback in NFL history since Kurt Warner back in 1999, a season that ended in an MVP award and Lombardi Trophy for the Hall of Famer. So, what in the name of Joe Montana has gotten into this id, you ask? Well, if there was ever a team tailormade for a rookie passer to succeed with, it is definitely these Niners. In addition to Shanahan being an elite playcaller and developer of Quarterbacks, this Offense is absolutely LOADED with talent. (All-Pro) Deebo Samuel remains a physical and versatile threat despite missing five games with a bulky knee, reeling in fifty-six passes for 632 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while rushing for 232 yards and another three scores. (Pro-Bowl Tailback) Christian McCaffrey is another versatile chess piece that Shanahan deploys in a variety of ways, with the 26-year-old amassing 1,210 yards from scrimmage and ten total touchdowns since arriving from Carolina via midseason trade. Furthermore, the Offensive Line has paved the way for one of the most imposing rushing attacks int he NFL, churning out 138.8 yards (8th Overall) on a healthy 4.7 yards per carry (10th Overall), which are figures that have ballooned to 165.3 and 5.1 since Purdy took over. Oh, and forgive us for taking so long to mention the most dominant Defense in the league; San Fran yielded the fewest points (16.3) and total yards (300.6), including a scant 77.7 yards versus the run (2nd Overall), with (Defensive Coordinator) DeMeco Ryans’ unit racking up the second-most takeaways (30). Much like his counterpart in Dallas, Ryans is receiving a wealth of attention on the coaching market, with the 38-year-old all but assured to be leaving the Bay Area in a few weeks’ time. Constructed in a similar fashion to the Cowboys, this unit is predicated on speed and quickness, though they are a more physical, particularly in the trenches where (All-Pro Edge-Rusher) Nick Bosa looks like the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year honors; the three-time Pro-Bowler led the league with 18.5 sacks, along with forty-eight hits, nineteen tackles for loss, and fifty-six pressures. Furthermore, (All-Pro Linebacker) Fred Warner is constantly around the football, while (Safeties) Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson are bonafide ballhawks with a combined NINE interceptions. So, yeah, the table is set for Purdy, or just about any Quarterback to succeed in San Francisco, right? While there may still be doubters among the rest of the NFL, the Niners seem convinced as word out of their camp is that the man that they’re now dubbing as Mr. Relevant will be QB1 to begin the 2023 campaign (barring a spirited effort from Lance, of course).
When we last saw the 49ers, they hammered the Seahawks in a 41-23 blowout win, marking their third over their division rivals this season. This one was competitive throughout the first half, with the two rivals trading blows over two quarters, with a late field goal just before intermission putting Seattle up 17-16. However, it would be all San Francisco in the second half, as the hosts ran off TWENTY-FIVE unanswered points after the break, before the visitors tacked on a meaningless touchdown in the waning moments of the affair. Though this one was close for thirty minutes, the Niners dominated on the offensive side of the football, amassing a whopping 505 total yards on twenty-four first downs, rushing for 181 yards on thirty-three carries, and converting 6-of-11 third downs along the way. Shanahan’s outfit scored on all but one of their first eight drives of the afternoon, while the Defense, apart from conceding a few chunk pays through the air, looked as good as ever. Purdy quelled any concerns over the performing in the playoffs, shredding the Seahawks for 332 yards and three touchdowns on 18-of-30 passing, while rushing for sixteen yards and another score to boot. McCaffrey needed just fifteen carries to accumulate 119 rushing yards, while hauling in one of Purdy’s touchdown passes. Ditto for Samuel, who appeared as healthy as ever with 133 yards and a score on six receptions, including 74-yard touchdown early int eh final stanza to put the game well out of reach. Looking to this evening’s clash with the Cowboys, the 49ers have won just two of the last eight meetings between these two classic rivals, though do own bragging rights from their most recent encounter, that aforementioned 23-17 victory in Arlington last January. In that showdown, Shanahan’s troops started off HOT, dominating time of possession throughout the first half, scoring on each of their first four possessions, though only the first resulted in a touchdown. With that said, his gameplan to keep the ball out of Prescott’s hands worked to perfection, as the league’s top-ranked Offensive held possession of the football for just 26:01. From a betting perspective, the 49ers have absolutely feasted during this eleven-game winning streak, covering the spread in all but three of those outings. They’ve covered the line in eight of their last ten affairs at Levi’s Stadium, though have failed to do so in their last two encounters with Dallas in Santa Clara. Furthermore, being a favorite has been good for San Francisco, who has covered five consecutive contests when favored between 3.5-10 points, while the same can be said about the Divisional Round, where they are riding a five-game winning streak both straight-up and against the spread. On the injury front, the Niners are as healthy as they’ve been in quite a while, with the only notables on the injury list being (young Receiver) Jauan Jennings and (young Cornerback) Ambry Thomas, with the former dealing with a nagging ankle malady, while the latter has been ruled out with an ailing ankle of his own.