FRISCO, Texas --  The Dallas Cowboys 2023 season has been headlined by their dominant defense, their defense's adjustment to life without Pro Bowl cornerback Trevon Diggs and how All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons continues to climb to new heights. However, their offense is worth covering too after it made major changes this offseason: making Tony Pollard their lead back after letting Ezekiel Elliott go, trading for veteran 1,000-yard receiving expert Brandin Cooks and head coach Mike McCarthy taking over the play-calling reigns from departed offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. These tweaks to their offense have the Cowboys feeling like they can expect a new result in their third matchup with the San Francisco 49ers in the last 18 months.

The 49ers have been the team to slam the door shut on their path to the Super Bowl in each of the last two years. First, there was the 23-17 defeat in the 2021 NFC wild card round at AT&T Stadium. Last season, it was a 19-12 slip-up in Santa Clara, California, at Levi's Stadium in the divisional round. Dallas now has an opportunity to avenge the losses on "Sunday Night Football" in Week 5 as they return to the Bay Area to face their playoff nemesis. Both teams only scored one touchdown in the last meeting, but between Prescott taking much better care of the football, with four touchdowns and only one interception through four games, and having more receiving options -- Pro Bowl receiver CeeDee Lamb, Cooks, a healthy Michael Gallup, tight end Jake Ferguson and a healthy Pollard to name a few, Dallas feels like they have an improved ability to move the football on San Francisco's defense. Prescott threw a combined two touchdowns to three interceptions in the two postseason losses to the 49ers in the 2021 and 2022 seasons. 

"We're confident in what we've got," Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said Thursday. "There's a lot of good that's going to come from this and come from the changes versus the past year of playing against these guys. One is my play. Simple as that. Go back and turn on that tape. I wasn't my best in either of those games and wasn't close to it. The last one, two or three plays away from winning that game and a game being a different score. We've got to go out there and execute the game plan that the coaches have for us and they've got a great one. Confident as hell in what we've got."

The turnovers are what killed the Cowboys offense last time around with Prescott throwing a critical red zone interception at the end of the first half as well as a pick inside the Dallas 25. In 2023, Dallas only has one giveaway, tied for the fewest in the NFL along with the 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks, while running McCarthy's Texas Coast offense, a combination of what the Cowboys ran under Moore plus some concepts and plays that were staples of the head coach's various offenses over the years, including his Super Bowl-winning stop with the Green Bay Packers.  

"That's huge, that's kind of what we're hanging our hat on in the first to start off with and starting off this season is taking care of the ball defense, getting the ball when you play a team like this, that has a powerful offense that has a fundamental defense, you can't give them any extra plays," Prescott said.  "So just as meaningful as any other game or if more meaningful when you think about the explosiveness that they have on the other side of the ball. So, yeah, going to continue what we've been doing covering finishing and taking care of the ball on our end."

Being able to run a multiple-dimensional offense and not put the entire offense on Prescott's right arm will also be key, something that should be easier with the return to health for Pollard, who suffered a fractured fibula just before halftime of last postseason's defeat. With the game tied 6-6 and under two minutes left in the first half, Pollard caught a checkdown from quarterback Dak Prescott for 8 yards down to the San Francisco 18, just inside the red zone. He was tackled by then-49ers safety Jimmy Ward and after Ward came off of him, Pollard could only crawl. Instant replay revealed Ward had landed on the back of the running back's left foot/ankle area, and the forced applied on that impact resulted in a devastating injury. The play after Pollard's injury resulted in a Prescott interception as he tried to squeeze a pass to top receiver CeeDee Lamb. His pass was tipped by Ward and then picked off by 49ers All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner

"Yeah, Tony is special, and just watching that game last year, obviously, when he went out, I don't want to say things changed for our offense but not having that explosive weapon could have helped, could have damn sure helped," Prescott said. "When you've got a guy like that who's one broken tackle, two broken tackles from 30 yards, 50 yards, a big touchdown or a long run you know what I mean? That's huge."

One could also argue Prescott's insistence on forcing the football to Lamb almost exclusively also cost the Cowboys the game in their last go at the 49ers. Lamb had a game-high 13 targets that went for 10 catches and 117 yards, tight end Dalton Schultz had 10 targets that went for five catches, 27 yards and a touchdown while no other wide receiver had more than Michael Gallup's three targets. Prescott's second interception of the game occurred because he attempted to squeeze a pass to Lamb in double coverage, and he missed what could have been an easy touchdown to receiver T.Y. Hilton because he has locked on to Lamb in the third quarter. Facing third-and-5 from the 49ers' 40, Prescott took a deep shot down the middle intended for Lamb who lined up in the slot to the right of the offensive line. San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Fred Warner, a 2022 First-Team All-Pro, anticipated the throw as he dropped back into deep zone coverage and knocked the ball away. Dallas then took a delay-of-game penalty and punted the football away. The 49ers scored their only touchdown of the night on their ensuing possession. 

The issue with this play is that Hilton, who lined up in the slot on the left side of the formation, was WIDE OPEN. As in, nobody was in Hilton's zip code as the 49ers dropped back into zone coverage with Hilton blowing past his defender to where a safety hadn't rotated over. Had Prescott seen this, Hilton would've had one of the easiest receiving touchdowns of his 11-year career. 

Perhaps now that Cooks, a player whose six career seasons of at least 1,000 receiving yards are tied for the third-most in the NFL since 2014, trailing only Buccaneers wideout Mike Evans (nine seasons) and Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (seven) in that statistic, is a Cowboy, Prescott will feel more comfortable looking away from Lamb and keeping the 49ers defense honest.  

"A guy that has had a lot of success throughout this league," Prescott said of Cooks. "He understands what a game like this means, and the importance of in Week 5. He is a special player, and his big day is coming to come, maybe this week. He is going to win his one-on-ones. He is going to be open when that look is advantageous, and they give him one-on-ones. So for us, it's just about featuring him and getting it to him."

The 30-year-old only has eight catches for 66 yards in three games this season, missing Week 2 against the New York Jets with a knee sprain, but another element to his humble stat line is three of the Cowboys' four games have been monster blowouts: Dallas has outscored the Giants, Jets and Patriots 108 to 13 in their three victories this season. That means McCarthy has been able to button up his play-calling and go with a more conservative, vanilla approach in the second half of games so far this season. The Cowboys feel that also means they have many more explosive plays up their sleeve that the league hasn't seen in 2023. 

"A good bit, yeah, a good bit," Prescott said of how much of their offense they have yet to utilize this season. "Offenses are always evolving and growing. Especially when you have different coaches, coaches that have done things different ways in the past and had success on other plays. There are a few plays we haven't used yet and we're always bringing in new plays each week that we feel like benefit us versus a different scheme or the particular scheme we're playing that week."

Lamb is chomping at the bit for McCarthy to air out their offense going forward this season. Against a fellow NFC contender, he may get his wish. 

"I've been comfortable since training camp," Lamb said of McCarthy's new offense Thursday. "You had all the summer, all the spring, to wind down if you will. Love the aggressiveness and still feel like we could take more shots with the players that we have in this receiver room and have full confidence in, I know they're very capable of doing that. Having TP [Pollard] and Rico [Dowdle] and Deuce [Vaughn] back there running the ball, obviously with the tight ends helping and playing a factor, it's easy on us as receivers. I know at some point if they're gonna call on the receivers and we need to step up."

The 49ers defensive front is led by 2022 Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa, whose 18.5 sacks led the NFL last season. His 90 quarterback pressures were tied with Parsons for the most in the NFL. This season, the 49ers are generating pressure on 39.4% of opposing quarterback dropbacks, the seventh-highest rate in the league. Knowing the challenge upcoming this week, the Cowboys pass-catchers know they have to get in and out of their breaks on their routes ASAP on Sunday. 

"It's fast," Lamb said of the internal clock players need to have against the 49ers. "You have guys like Nick [Bosa] and [Arik] Armstead. They're the bell cows of that defensive line. You have to account for those guys. They have done a great job of being as disruptive as they have been these last couple years. You really have to lock in. It comes with watching film. Keep watching film and you get a feel of maybe max 3.5 seconds, not four. So, get in your route, get open, create separation and be in your spot."

One spot the Cowboys have yet to create separation in is their red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns when their offense gets inside the opponent's 20. They are tied with the Buffalo Bills for the most drives that have reached the red zone, 19, but they only have seven touchdowns on those 19 drives, giving them a red zone touchdown rate of 36.8%, the third-lowest in the red zone. However, Dallas does lead the NFL in third-down efficiency, 51.6%, this season. These numbers, plus just missing two more red zone scores in their 38-3 win over the New England Patriots last week have the Cowboys optimistic that the tide will begin to turn in this critical area. 

"We've got to keep working first and foremost, but numbers and all that are great," Prescott said. "What leads me to know that those struggles will be overcome or the coaches and the players that we have and the way that these guys and myself attack the preparation and just continue to get better. I mean, you just look at last week, two mental errors [Prescott's and Pollard's botched handoff on third and goal from the one]  and a touchdown an inch away from being in the red zone [CeeDee Lamb's 20-yard touchdown] ,and this is a whole different story. So, yeah, we're going to continue to get better, hold ourselves to that high standard in wanting to be the best and every statistic I guess you can name, but it's not the other areas of success that we have that leads me to that [thinking the red zone offense is going to turn around. It's the way that these guys approach this game."

The Cowboys approach to this Week 5 showdown with San Francisco is different than others this season since success on Sunday could prove to the football world and themselves that Dallas truly is a team to reckon with come January. 

"This game has a lot of good that can come from it," Prescott said. "It means more than just one game. You have to treat it as one game and at the end of the day, it would be just one game. Understanding these guys are undefeated, you fight for a one seed always, trying to get every game you can. You don't go into any game thinking we don't need this one or this one isn't as big as that one, but from a team that's been consistent in the past few years, knocked us out of the playoffs the last two years, there's a lot we can gain from this win that makes it definitely more than just one game."