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Michael Zagaris / Contributor

My how the mighty have fallen. In the spring, when you saw this matchup on the NFL calendar, you grabbed a big red marker and circled it as many times as you could. It's now December and nothing is as anyone expected it to be, with both teams having been ravaged by injury in a season also dominated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. So, no, there will be no Jimmy Garoppolo shooting it out with Dak Prescott, or offensive coordinator Kellen Moore trying to outsmart Nick Bosa and the best defensive line in all of football, etc. etc. That doesn't mean there isn't reason to watch though, because there is, even if it's not the usual pomp and circumstance.

Having been flexed out of primetime and into the noon slate of games, both teams have had to change their preparation a bit for this game, and both need a win in order to remain somewhat viable in the playoff hunt. A loss by the Cowboys eliminates them completely from playoff contention, and the 49ers would love nothing more than to be the reason their age-old rival gets buried and sent into an early offseason. The same goes in the inverse for the Cowboys though, knowing a win against San Francisco and a win or tie by the Arizona Cardinals will force head coach Kyle Shanahan to begin prepping for free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft.

Two legacy franchises that entered the season with Super Bowl aspirations and expectations -- the 49ers having literally played in the last one -- are now on football life support, and only one is escaping alive on Sunday afternoon. With the fight now moved to early afternoon, you'll need the info below to not miss a second of the action.

How to watch

Date: Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020 | Time: 1 pm ET
Location: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
TV: CBS | Stream: CBS All Access
FollowCBS Sports App

Preview

Not having Garoppolo in tow might not truly matter when the 49ers walk into AT&T Stadium, for a couple reasons.

The most prevalent is the fact the Cowboys statistically have the worst defense in the history of professional football, which has defensive coordinator Mike Nolan on a seat hot enough to melt his pelvis. The unit is known for having both execution and effort issues, and they often allow the opposing running game to tee off early and often. If running back Raheem Mostert (ankle) can go, it'll put the Cowboys in a tough spot, but running backs Jeff Wilson, Jr., Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon might be plenty to get the job done against a defense that is allowing an average of 162.7 rushing yards and per game at 5.1 yards per carry -- the worst in the NFL in both categories. Also tied for third-worst in the league with 17 rushing touchdowns allowed, it's likely the 49ers will establish the run with or without Mostert, making things easier for quarterback Nick Mullens.

Although he still won't have All-Pro tight end George Kittle (foot), who isn't ready to return to action yet.

What won't be easy for Mullens is facing DeMarcus Lawrence, Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory off the edges though, because all three have proven they can get after the quarterback. It's a bit of a revenge game for Smith and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula -- both having a good bit of history with the 49ers -- and although Smith won't view it as such, it's hard to fathom him not having an added oomph when he lines up against the red and gold. This will be the key to the Cowboys potentially winning the game: hurrying, hitting and sacking Mullens, along with hoping the pressure forces him into mistakes that could turn into takeaways.

The Cowboys were beneficiaries of three found fumbles against the Bengals last week and hope to keep that rolling this Sunday, with some help possibly being on the way in the secondary -- by way of safety Donovan Wilson (groin), Chidobe Awuzie (Reserve/COVID) and rookie second-round pick Trevon Diggs potentially returning from injury. As for Mullens' counterpart in Dallas, Andy Dalton, it'll be about not underestimating defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.

Saleh is one of, if not the, best defensive mind in the NFL and has his patchwork defensive unit playing with a ton of fire and belief, so they'll look to take advantage of a porous Dallas o-line from the first snap to the final one, in ways that could ground Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. This contrarily could also make for a long day for Ezekiel Elliott, the two-time NFL rushing champ having the added handicap of a nagging calf bruise, facing a group who's still top-10 in stopping the run, even without their superstars on the field.

Saddle up, folks.

Predictions 

Latest Odds: Dallas Cowboys +4

All told, it'll likely be a close game, even if it isn't a high-scoring one (and nothing indicates it will be a barnburner). 

The Cowboys are underdogs on their own field though, and that can't feel great for "America's Team," but it's not the first time it's happened this season. The 49ers are narrow three-point favorites to end Dallas' season, per William Hill Sportsbook. With an over/under of 45, the question becomes which team will avoid the one or two mistakes that will torpedo their chances. Those could come from anywhere -- offense, defense and/or special teams -- in a game where both clubs are taking a last deep gasp before the season concludes. 

Pick: 49ers 20, Cowboys 17