"Great Scott!" - Doc Brown
Don't look now, but the DeLorean has officially reached 88 mph in the lightning storm -- the Dallas Cowboys are hoping that means CeeDee Lamb will do the same on Sunday as one of what will need to be an onslaught of weaponry against the visiting San Francisco 49ers. The matchup is a blast to the past, a salute to the 1990s when the premier NFC rivalry was these two clubs beating the hell out of each other en route to owning the NFL with several championships. Those teams produced a laundry list of Hall of Famers and defined the conference for the better part of a decade before the tide turned to the dominance of other teams.
But fast forward to this January and the two will square off against each other in the postseason for the first time since the NFC Championship following the 1994 season, when the 49ers (13-3) hung a 38-28 final score around the neck of the Cowboys (12-4) en route to securing victory in Super Bowl XXIX over the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers. So yes, the 49ers struck the last blow in the once blazing-hot rivalry, but it was simply payback for what happened before.
One year prior, the Cowboys (12-4) thumped the 49ers (10-6) with a 38-21 drubbing and then went on to hand the Buffalo Bills a 30-13 loss in Super Bowl XXVIIi, invoking deja vu from the year preceding that one -- entering the postseason that year with a 13-3 record and walking past the 49ers (14-2) to hand the Bills a 52-17 obliteration in Super Bowl XXVII.
But wait, there's more, and much more of a history lesson than I can squeeze into this intro. They had everything, including the legendary broadcasting chops of the dynamic duo Pat Summerall and John Madden, the occasional "BOOM!" from Madden making you feel as if you were the one who got hit on a tackle.
There were also the cosmic postseason clashes of the 70s and 80s, including one that involved "The Catch," an infamous grab made by receiver Dwight Clark on a throw from Joe Montana that broke the Cowboys hearts during the conference championship to follow the 1981 season, the 49ers then defeating the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI. But, here again, that was payback for the Cowboys having defeated the 49ers in the NFC Championship in both the 1970 and 1971 season and, by now, you're starting to grasp why this coming matchup between the two organizations means so much to so many around the world.
It's bigger than who takes the field on Sunday, Jan. 16 but, at the same time, it's those very players tasked with adding another chapter in a rivalry book that will be dusted off and again thrust at the forefront of the NFL playoffs -- just like old times. And as the old is made new, the new is soon to be made old, which is to say someone has to lose this game and land on the wrong part of their franchise's history, because there are no ties in the NFL playoffs.
So, who takes it? Will Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense establish consistency after blasting the Philadelphia Eagles to end the regular season, or will Micah Parsons have to join Trevon Diggs and Co. in carrying them with an electric defensive effort? Will the latter be able to contain Deebo Samuel and Jimmy Garoppolo and, if so, can Nick Bosa lead the charge in leveling the playing field against a Cowboys offense that can explode at a moment's notice?
Let's discuss how the 49ers stack up against the Cowboys in the present, with the future on the line for both.
How to watch
Date: Sunday, Jan. 16 | Time: 4:30 p.m. ET
Location: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
TV: CBS / Nickelodeon | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)
Follow: CBS Sports App
Odds: Cowboys -3 | O/U 51
Cowboys (3rd seed): 12-5 overall, 10-2 conference
49ers (6th seed): 10-7 overall, 7-5 conference
Series record: 19-17-1, Cowboys lead
The first thing that stands out like a broken thumb in a cast here is in how dominant the Cowboys have been within the NFC, a category the 49ers nearly broke even in. The only two losses by the Cowboys in the conference came at the hands of Tom Brady and the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kyler Murray and the also playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals. It's also key to mention how the Cowboys could've arguably won both of those games as well, despite their struggles on offense, if kicker Greg Zuerlein didn't leave points on the field that could've altered the outcome and if not for controversial officiating. That said, while it's easily feasible the Cowboys could've done the impossible and gone undefeated in the NFC, the 49ers struggled to finish two games above .500.
Kyle Shanahan's group lost to Aaron Rodgers and the top-seeded Green Bay Packers, which is nothing to shake a stick at, and they were also swept by the aforementioned Cardinals but, more concerning, was in how they were swept by the playoff-less Seattle Seahawks who had been completely out of sorts the entire season. That said, sweeping the Los Angeles Rams counts for a metric ton, especially considering what they did to the Rams to punch their ticket into the postseason in Week 18.
You can count on this being a back alley brawl between the Cowboys and 49ers, but it's also to say the former mostly imposed their will upon NFC opponents in 2021, while the latter found themselves one NFC loss away from not being in this conversation at all, and that goes to my next point.
Emotional and playbook fatigue?
What the 49ers did against the Rams in Week 18 was spectacular, and that adjective still feels as if it discounts their accomplishment after falling behind 17-0 in the first half before rallying back to force overtime and an eventual 27-24 victory that had no impact on the division-winning Rams, but gave San Francisco a ticket to the tournament and emboldened them to believe they can defeat anyone in the conference; and that's true, they can, including the uneven Cowboys. There is something to be said for emotional and mental fatigue coming out of a battle like the one the 49ers just escaped though, and we've all seen how it can negatively impact a sports team as often (if not more so) as we've seen how it can galvanize them toward a championship.
Which will it be for the 49ers? That depends on a variety of factors.
The first will be the fact they will travel to face the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, where the Dallas offense averages a leviathan 36.38 points per game while allowing only 22.13 points on average by opponents, one week after having left it all on the field against the Rams on Sunday. That presumably includes most of their playbook, as Shanahan was forced to dig deep into his vault to buy a chance at the playoffs, which inherently gives Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn a ton of film to dissect that Shanahan otherwise would've preferred he didn't have. Contrarily, after easily handling the Eagles in the regular season finale and with rumors that offensive coordinator Kellen Moore might be sitting on a section of his playbook for the playoffs, things get very interesting here.
The 49ers will be juiced at kickoff after what they did to the Rams, but if the Cowboys get out to a fast start that also allows the defense to beat up on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo by negating the stellar rushing attack by using the scoreboard as a weapon, that juice could begin to become nothing more than pulp residue as a potentially emotionally-spent and playbook-thin Niners club runs up against not only the Cowboys on Sunday, but also their own mental fatigue. This makes it paramount for the Cowboys to steal hope early, and let potential exhaustion become the 13th defender (the 12th being the scoreboard).
'Jimmy the lock'
In other words, Garoppolo is the key and the Cowboys defense needs to make sure he never gets to the door to the divisional round to try and unlock it. This is a quarterback who has yet to prove he's a world-beater but, if given time in the pocket, can also matriculate the ball down the field (Maddenism, just go with it). Garoppolo's weakness is in that he folds under duress, something Prescott has proven he mostly does not do when noting Prescott's league-leading passer rating when blitzed/hurried (yes, he's made mistakes but one fact doesn't negate the other). Garoppolo threw only 20 touchdowns in the regular season but tossed 12 interceptions and fumbled eight times -- losing three of them -- and was sacked 29 times in 15 starts (1.93 sacks per game).
Yes, the 49ers offensive front has been mostly solid as of late, but a Cowboys front that features Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore (along with several notables like Trysten Hill, Carlos Watkins and rookie standout Osa Odighizuwa) will get their chances to put hands on Garoppolo or, at minimum, to make him extremely uncomfortable in and outside of the pocket.
This is where the minds of Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel might truly come into play, as both use a heavy dose of the run game to counteract the pass rush, as well as using do-it-all weapon Deebo Samuel as a neutralizer by way of short passes to the flat or underneath at the second level to help Garoppolo breathe.
Because if he can't, he'll give Diggs and the secondary plenty of chances at taking the ball away, something the defensive unit in Dallas as a whole leads the league in doing.
'That's my bike, punk!'
Speaking of Samuel, expect Deebo to try and go full Debo (see the movie "Friday" for reference here) against the Cowboys, as he did against the Rams and has done against teams since he entered the league. Samuel is a freak of nature, a wide receiver who's also a running back who, in a pinch, will also turn into a quarterback to keep the defense guessing every single snap. He'll line up on the outside, the inside, the backfield and probably the parking lot to throw off Quinn, so a defensive coordinator who's seen it all before will need to scheme well and use his homing missile known as Parsons to lock in on Samuel whenever he's in the backfield or slot, passing the duties off to the interception machine known as Diggs when he heads to the outside.
Diggs can handle Samuel downfield, but might struggle against the quick underneath routes against such a footster (new word), and that's where Parsons comes in to balance that scale.
The Cowboys also have the services of breakout new addition Jayron Kearse, assuming the week of rest did his hamstring well, who has been known to make gamebreaking plays against both the pass and the run. It'll all be needed against Samuel, who can almost literally do it all, making him the offensive version of Parsons. A player who can take a handoff for a 60-yard touchdown but who also has 1,405 receiving yards and six receiving TDs is simply a migraine to scheme against.
They can't get too keyed in on Samuel to the point they forget about George Kittle though, who is easily a top-two tight end in the league, and some would argue he isn't No. 2 on that list.
Kittle can wreck games, so it'll be incumbent upon linebackers like Leighton Vander Esch and Keanu Neal to help contain him, but mostly nickelback Jourdan Lewis, who has shown he can make a huge difference as he works through what has become a career season for him. Lewis is as physical as Kittle and equally as mentally aggressive, so that's a matchup to watch, to say the least.
Make no mistake about it, Kittle might still get away with a big play or two, but the mission is to make them matter very little over the course of the game. From there, you get back to the 49ers backfield and pay respect to Elijah Mitchell, who rushed for 963 yards and five touchdowns in 2021 but also, unlike Ezekiel Elliott and especially Tony Pollard, lacks the consistent threat of being a receiver out of the backfield, having only reeled in 137 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown this season.
So when he's lined up in the backfield, things are much more predictable than if it's Samuel; and if both are back there together, it's Samuel you'll need to worry about more (365 rushing yards, 5 rushing touchdowns).
If Quinn is wise, and he's proven he is, he'll look at how the Cardinals shut Samuel down in 2021 and use that blueprint, considering he has the personnel tools to actually execute it to equal success, if not more. A spy on Samuel would work, but not in totality, because it would remove a potential blitz threat against Garoppolo in the event the Cowboys can't get home with a three- or four-man front but, again, the 49ers offensive line has shown it will allow pressure against elite fronts. That could also, by default, make it difficult for full back Kyle Juszczyk to matter in this wild card matchup, and if Garoppolo is manhandled, it will have the added benefit of erasing another receiving threat like Brandon Aiyuk.
Garoppolo leads an offense that, while uber-talented in some areas, averages only 25.1 points per game, going against a Quinn-led defense that allows only 21.1 per outing. This alone feels exactly where the Cowboys want to be, mathematically speaking, assuming Prescott and the offense isn't sleepwalking for much of the game, and is disciplined enough to also sidestep drive-killing penalties.
Lastly, the 49ers make a living on yards after contact (2,251 receiving, 912 rushing), so remember this is tackle football and not two-hand touch. Take the right angle, break down and explode through the ball carrier, or be victimized on national television.
In the Nick of time
This game will be multicast across Viacom platforms and that includes on Nickelodeon, but that's not the slime the Cowboys have to concern themselves with. The one that might be bucket-dump to their playoff hopes is Bosa, the younger one, who enters the postseason with 15.5 sacks on his 2021 resume. The former first-round pick is as lethal as his older brother in LA, and the edges of the Cowboys often shifting offensive line will be put to a massive test with him on the field. For not only does he have 15.5 sacks, but also 42 quarterback hurries and 17 QB hits to boot, so right tackle La'el Collins better be ready for war -- as he often is.
Should Collins erase Bosa from the game like backup swing tackle Terence Steele did big bro in Week 2, it will make if more difficult for a player like Arik Armstead (6 sacks) and Arden Key (6.5 sacks) to do their job, but that is also contingent upon if All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith is back to full form and if an offensive interior that features Connor Williams (more than capable) and Tyler Biadasz (prone to mistakes) can also hold up. As for Zack Martin, well, it's Zack Martin, so let's move on.
Expect Moore to try and initially use screen passes to put Bosa and Co. on their heels, but they'll be expecting it, and will look to bat the ball in the air as the Cardinals were so successful in doing (hey look, the Cardinals provided intel on both clubs). And having lost wide receiver Michael Gallup for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL, the onus to produce as WR3 moves to Cedrick Wilson, who's hot off of a career day against the Eagles and could potentially deliver a similar impact on Super Wild Card Weekend in conjunction with Lamb, Amari Cooper, Dalton Schultz and a now-returned Blake Jarwin.
Running the ball with Elliott and Pollard could be a challenge at times against Bosa and the 49ers front, and they better be ready for punches at the ball, because the 49ers feast on it. It's a team that's forced 11 fumbles against the run so far, but if you get past that strength, you'll see they've allowed 18 rushing touchdowns and 1,760 rushing yards on four yards per carry, with 11 carries going over 20 yards. This will be an effective way of also making Bosa play honest and can't be abandoned, but should instead be used in unpredictable ways (ahem, not on successive first and second downs) to create the illusion of a pass before gashing the lanes and forcing linebackers Fred Warner and Azeez Al-Shaair to earn their money.
Warner and Al-Shaair alone can't save the day, especially with a porous secondary behind them while also having to account for Schultz and Jarwin in coverage. If they could've, the 49ers wouldn't have been in the position they were in heading into Week 18. Exploit the defensive backs to force them back before handing off the ball to tire out Bosa and to pull the linebackers forward again before throwing it over their head, again, yo-yoing this strategy all the way to victory.
No Joshing around
The above listed stars/standouts still present a ton of weaponry for Prescott and the Cowboys passing attack, and this is where they can truly dismantle the 49ers as long as the execution is there and that means not dropping good passes that would extend drives. The secondary in San Francisco leaves much to be desired, and they simply don't/can't take the ball away at any memorable rate. Jimmie Ward leads the unit in interceptions with only two through 17 games, followed by Josh Norman, who has only one and has often fallen out of favor with Shanahan.
If Norman takes the field in this fight (he presumably will), he's a glowing red bullseye for Prescott, after allowing four touchdowns and a passer rating of 110.6 when targeted this season (9.0 yards allowed per target and 7 missed tackles). In other words, Norman should be a bigger target for Prescott and Moore than the one that's in competition with Wal-Mart.
DeMeco Ryans, the 49ers defensive coordinator, might try to hide him on the field but that's not possible when literally every skill player for the Cowboys is a threat to make the big play. The 49ers allow an average of 7.1 passing yards per attempt and have only nine interceptions as a team -- for contrast, the Cowboys lead the league with 26 -- making for some possibly hearty eats for Prescott, a player who just set his franchise's single-season passing touchdown record (37) one week prior and who threw for 4,449 passing yards with the highest accuracy rate of his career (68.8% despite drops) and his second-highest passer rating (104.2).
The Cowboys led the league in points scored while averaging 31.2 points per game and 407 yards per game, marking the first time they've done it since the 1971 season, when they went on to defeat the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VI.
They'd certainly like history to repeat itself in that regard, as well as in the times they've shattered the Lombardi dreams of the 49ers, but they'll have to come to play on Sunday or they'll find themselves being punched in the mouth by a San Francisco team that, again, will be full of adrenaline at kickoff. A couple of early haymakers from a team that's better, at least on paper, should dizzy them into a K.O., but keep that left hand up though, because Shanahan has one hell of an uppercut.
It would also behoove the Cowboys to not help the Niners defense out by depending upon a shaky kicker in Greg Zuerlein, because that might end their postseason after only one game. Two takeaways by the Cowboys and timely offensive strikes turn the tide toward Dallas in what should be a fun chess match between all involved.
Prediction: 34-24, Cowboys