Cowboys vs 49ers preview, prediction: A historic rivalry reignited

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It’s starting to feel an awful lot like the ‘90s in the NFC playoffs.

For the second consecutive season, we’re setting up for a Cowboys-49ers showdown. The only way this could feel more vintage is if this was the NFC Championship Game, rather than the divisional round. Still, we’ll take what we can get — and with postseason meetings in consecutive years, maybe we’re truly seeing this classic rivalry renewing after so many years off. Last year’s wildcard meeting saw the 49ers advance in a 23-17 win after a frantic Dallas rally fell short.

Given the star power between the two teams, it’s fair to hope the 2023 rendition will be even better. To get to the bottom of the matchup (Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), we’ve asked FOX Sports NFL writers David Helman and Eric Williams to weigh in.

David Helman: I’ve got to say, Eric, this current Niners squad reminds me a little of the 2016 Cowboys team that finished 13-3 and No. 1 in the NFC — a talented, veteran-heavy squad propelled by a confident, play-making rookie quarterback. Granted, that Cowboys team was lacking a bit in defensive talent, whereas San Francisco boasts a league-best defense stacked with generational stars. I’ll admit I’m being slightly tongue-in-cheek when I ask this, but with everything we’ve seen the last two months it feels warranted: do the 49ers even have a weakness?

Eric Williams: It’s hard to find one. The 49ers have playmakers all over the field on offense in running back Christian McCaffrey, tight end George Kittle and receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. Led up front by All-Pro Trent Williams at left tackle, the 49ers have averaged 34.6 points a game since rookie Brock Purdy took over for an injured Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 13.

Defensively, San Francisco held opposing offenses to just 16.3 points a contest during the regular season, No. 1 in the league. And they finished with a league-best, plus-13 turnover differential. That said, the last team to defeat San Francisco, the Kansas City Chiefs, protected well enough up front to allow Patrick Mahomes to attack the 49ers and their vulnerable secondary. With Dak Prescott and the offense humming, the Cowboys could follow Kansas City’s blueprint on offense.

Speaking of playmakers, Prescott had perhaps the best performance of his pro career in the postseason in a road win against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. What was the key to Prescott’s success last week?

Helman: The frustrating thing about the Cowboys is that Monday’s performance was well in line with what we’ve seen all season. They’re inconsistent, and Monday’s effort was among their cleanest. The Cowboys boast a top-five scoring offense, and Dak has been averaging two touchdown passes a week since he returned from his thumb injury, which puts him right up there among the league leaders. The obvious problem has been those pesky interceptions, which have been a combined result of forced decisions by Prescott, miscommunications with his receivers and bad ball luck — dropped passes and tipped throws that turned into takeaways. 

Against Tampa, all those problems went away. Dak was decisive, the offense was crisp and all of his receivers made big plays, from contested catches to clean routes. It was a reminder of how good things can work when the offense is on its A-game. There are just two obvious problems: for starters, we haven’t seen the Cowboys manage to do this with much consistency. Keeping it up against the league’s best defense also promises to be another level of difficulty.

I think a big part of that challenge is going to be fending off the 49ers’ ferocious pass rush long enough to give Dak time, which was an obvious issue for the Cowboys in last year’s playoff game. We all know about the challenge Nick Bosa presents, but I’m curious what the rest of San Francisco’s plan to get pressure might look like.

Williams: Certainly, San Francisco’s pass rush starts with Bosa and his league-leading 18.5 sacks this season. But edge rusher Charles Omenihu had two sacks in a win over Seattle, including a strip sack of Geno Smith in the second half the helped break the game open.

Arik Armstead remains a solid interior pass rusher at defensive tackle, and linebacker Fred Warner can create havoc as a blitzer. But what makes the 49ers effective is their ability to get home with just four pass-rushers while playing sticky coverage. San Francisco tied for the NFL lead in interceptions during the regular season with 20, and many of those were caused by pressure coming from Bosa and the front four. According to Next Gen Stats, the 49ers have generated the sixth-highest sack rate (7.4 percent) when in zone coverage this season.

While San Francisco can rush the passer, Seattle did have some success with Ken Walker III running the football early on. Could the Cowboys look to slow down Bosa up front by giving him a steady diet of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard?

Helman: I’d be awfully worried about running the ball if I were the Cowboys. Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott combine to make one of the best duos in the league, but the Cowboys very quietly haven’t been running the ball all that well down the home stretch of the season. 

From the time right tackle Terence Steele went down in mid-December, the Cowboys have failed to average four yards per carry as a team in their last five games. They did rush for a respectable 128 yards in Tampa, but their two star running backs managed just two carries that went further than nine yards. Against the second-ranked run defense in the league, they’re likely in for tough sledding. 

Obviously, they don’t want to abandon the run game entirely, but it’s going to call for some creativity on offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s part. He might need to call the quarterback’s number a few times. Prescott only carried the rock five times for 25 yards on Monday night, but one of those scored a touchdown and another picked up a key third down. Every little bit helps.

On a related note, I’m curious about San Francisco’s offensive line. We all know Trent Williams is one of the best left tackles in the game, and we know how well the Niners have run the ball under Kyle Shanahan. I also can’t help but notice that several teams have had success sacking Brock Purdy during his time as the starter. If there’s a vulnerability Micah Parsons and the Cowboys can take advantage of, what would you guess it is?

Williams: One of Purdy’s strengths is his ability to move outside the pocket to create chunk plays down the field. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey has struggled at times this year, giving up six sacks and a team-high 27 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. McGlinchey is tied for the team lead with 10 accepted penalties called on him during the regular season.

The 49ers also have proven vulnerable to pressure up the middle. Left guard Aaron Banks has given up a sack and 25 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. And at right guard, San Francisco continues to split starting snaps between rookie Spencer Burford and Daniel Brunskill.

Why Kyle Shanahan deserves the most credit for 49ers’ success

The San Francisco 49ers have won 11 games in a row and seven with Brock Purdy under center. Who is most responsible for the Niners’ hot run? Nick Wright credits Kyle Shanahan for the team’s hot play.

There’s been discussion nationally about San Francisco’s two days of extra rest because the 49ers played on Saturday last week and Dallas took the field Monday night, along with the Cowboys having to travel to the West Coast. Have any Dallas players or coaches addressed the scheduling as a fairness issue?

Helman: Privately, I’m confident the Cowboys coaches and players aren’t happy about the situation, but this goes with the territory when you’re America’s Team. Take it up with Jerry Jones, who undoubtedly loved the publicity that comes with a Monday night game. 

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that these guys have played plenty of games on short rest this season. In addition to the usual Sunday-Thursday turnaround, the Cowboys also took part in a Sunday-Saturday week for Christmas, and then they followed up that Christmas Eve game with a second appearance on Thursday. They should be used to this. And if they need inspiration, look no further than last year’s L.A. Rams, who played the Monday night wildcard game against Arizona, then turned around and flew east to Tampa, where they won to advance to the NFC Championship Game. 

With all of that said, it’s prediction time. What do you see happening Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium?

Williams: Like the last time these two teams met in the playoffs, I expect a close game. Dallas has the offensive firepower to match scores and big plays with San Francisco. Where I have concerns for the Cowboys is their ability to take care of the football and control the game in the fourth quarter.

I don’t think the moment will be too big for Purdy, and I expect San Francisco’s playmakers in Samuel and McCaffrey to have big games. I’ll take San Francisco, 27-24. 

Helman: Lord forgive me for buying into the Cowboys, but I do think this matchup is too close to be a unanimous decision. The Niners  offense is loaded, and Purdy has been fantastic to this point, but I can’t help but note that they have only faced one defense ranked in the top half of the league to this point. Perhaps the Cowboys can make life a bit more difficult on him. And if Dak Prescott can come close to replicating his heroics from last week, the Cowboys are good enough to sneak out of Santa Clara with a 28-26 win.

David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.

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