The Philadelphia Eagles are solid, but just 9-8. The Arizona Cardinals started great but then lost four of five to finish the season.
If the three NFC division winners playing this weekend could secretly pick their opponent, nobody would prefer to play the San Francisco 49ers. They’re the hottest wild-card team, probably in either conference.
Which means the Dallas Cowboys got the toughest game they could have had in wild-card weekend.
Dallas was the one win Arizona got down the stretch, so maybe that’s the team the Cowboys didn’t want to play. But they couldn’t have felt great about getting matched up against the 49ers.
49ers have been on a roll
After losing at home for the Colt McCoy-led Cardinals, the 49ers were 3-5. They looked nothing like a playoff team at that point.
Then, like we see often in the NFL, it just changed for no specific reason. The 49ers beat the Los Angeles Rams 31-10 the next week and that started a great 7-2 streak. They won at the Bengals. They beat the Rams again. The defense became really good. They gave up 278 or fewer yards six times in that streak, never allowing 400. They ran the ball well and playmakers Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle took turns having massive games.
The 49ers didn’t get a ton of buzz late in the season. In their highest profile game of the second half, Jimmy Garoppolo had his worst game of the season and threw some bad interceptions in a Thursday night loss at the Tennessee Titans. That kept San Francisco under the radar. It was still just a 20-17 road loss to a team that got the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Not too bad.
If the 49ers can get to Dak Prescott — they had 49 sacks this season, fifth in the NFL and more than the hyped Cowboys pass rush — it could be a tough day for Dallas’ offense. The Cowboys’ offensive line could be the key to the game, not just in giving Prescott time but also getting a running game going to provide some balance.
The problem for the 49ers is they didn’t get a great matchup either.
Cowboys are one of NFL’s best teams
Do the same picking game for the wild-card teams. If they could choose their opponent in the wild-card round, they’d probably pick a banged-up Tampa Bay Buccaneers team or the up-and-down Los Angeles Rams over the Cowboys.
Dallas had moments this season in which it looked like a Super Bowl favorite. The offense can explode and the defense just needs to produce a few big plays a game, which it usually does. The Cowboys have had a couple shots at making their first NFC championship since the end of the 1995 season, and this is one of their better teams since then. They also are looking at a possible path of facing the hot 49ers, the defending Super Bowl champs in Tampa only to get a date against the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field.
The NFC championship game seems a long way off. The Cowboys have to get out of the wild-card round first. That’s far from a guarantee.