Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers are two years removed from winning the NFC Championship, entering their first playoff game since blowing a fourth-quarter lead in Super Bowl LIV. San Francisco survived the gauntlet of the NFC West to advance to the playoffs, riding the strength of their rushing attack to win seven of their last nine games. 

San Francisco finished third in the NFC West at 10-7, as Jimmy Garoppolo avoided being replaced by Trey Lance during the season. Garoppolo had a bounce-back year from injury, finishing with a 68.3 completion rate for 3,810 yards with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The 49ers have a winning combination with Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan, compiling a 33-15 record when Garoppolo starts (8-28 when any other quarterback starts). When Garoppolo plays the majority of the year, the 49ers make the playoffs.

The 49ers have a tough task this week in facing the Dallas Cowboys, who won the NFC East yet went just 6-5 outside the division. San Francisco and Dallas have a deep playoff history, meeting in the NFC Championship Game four times -- including three consecutive years from the 1992 to 1994 seasons. Sunday will be San Francisco's first playoff matchup with Dallas since the 1995 NFC Championship Game, as both teams look to break their playoff stalemate. 

How can the 49ers go into Dallas and upset the Cowboys? San Francisco may have the edge in this one: 

49ers run offense plays into Cowboys weakness

The 49ers' bread and butter is their run game, a unit that finished seventh in the league in rush yards per game (127.4) and fifth in rushing touchdowns (22). The 49ers ran the ball 48% of the time this season, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. San Francisco is committed toward running the football to set up the passing game, using it to wear down opposing defenses. 

San Francisco has averaged 3.3 yards post contact per rush this season (third in the NFL), this in spite of their 4.3 yards per carry average. The 49ers have found creative ways to run the football with Eli Mitchell and Deebo Samuel, who have combined for 13 touchdowns on the ground. Samuel being utilized as a wideback in space led to a 6.2 yards per carry average and eight touchdowns -- the most ever for a wide receiver in NFL history. 

The Cowboys will be tested against the 49ers' consistent pursuit of keeping the football on the ground. Dallas has allowed 4.5 yards per rush (10th-most in the NFL), but they have allowed just 2.5 yards post contact per rush -- which may neutralize the 49ers gaining a few extra yards -- and 13 rushing touchdowns (tied for seventh-fewest in the NFL).

Dallas hasn't faced a relentless rushing attack at full strength like San Francisco, which will test the Cowboys aggressive defense.

Target Trevon Diggs 

Diggs finished with 11 interceptions this season, the most for any defensive player since Everson Walls in 1981. Even though he was a First Team All-Pro and a turnover machine, the 49ers would be wise to target him often. Diggs allowed 1,016 yards in coverage this year (the only player in the NFL to allow over 900 coverage yards in 2021) and 18.5 yards per catch (also the most in the league). Diggs also allows 425 yards after the catch, which is the third most by any player in the league. His 11 penalties this year are tied for the most amongst NFL defensive backs. 

The 49ers would be wise to target Diggs throughout the game, especially since Jimmy Garoppolo is second in the league in yards per attempt this season (8.6) and had the second highest on-target throw percentage in the league at 81.5%. Garoppolo can find the middle of the field, as 48% of his passes were thrown between 10 and 19 air yards downfield -- the highest in the NFL (and only quarterback over 40% this year). 

Garoppolo also averaged 10.2 yards per attempt off of playaction, the highest in the league. If the 49ers can get the run game going, Diggs will be in trouble as the pass offense will be looking his way.

Big-play offense

The Cowboys defense has turned things around since DeMarcus Lawrence returned in Week 13, allowing opposing passers to compile just a 63.4 rating (best in NFL) with 89 pressures (third in NFL), as opposing quarterbacks have just 2.4 seconds to throw the ball (fourth in NFL). 

The 49ers can counter thanks to Garoppolo giving rid of the ball quick (one of 10 quarterbacks averaging fewer than 2.4 seconds of pocket time per pass) and his ability to get the ball downfield. San Francisco has the highest completion percentage of 20-plus yard throws of any team in the league and ranked in the top ten of 20-plus yard rushes in the league. The Cowboys also allowed the second-most 20-plus yard runs in the league, so the 49ers can use the run to create a big play. 

The Cowboys have an aggressive defense, but the 49ers can counter by getting them to overpursue. A few big plays will set San Francisco up for easy scores.