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2022 NFL season: Five things to watch for in Cowboys-49ers in NFC Divisional Round

Dallas Cowboys
2022 · 13-5-0
San Francisco 49ers
2022 · 14-4-0

A legendary rivalry is renewed for another season.

After a 27-year hiatus, the Niners and Cowboys will meet in back-to-back postseasons.

A year ago, the San Francisco 49ers, behind Jimmy Garoppolo, jumped out to a big lead, earning a 10-0 first quarter that included a 110-7 yardage edge. The Cowboys screamed back into the game in the fourth quarter, closing it to a 23-17 gap and getting the ball with 32 seconds remaining. Then the infamous QB designed run with 14 seconds left and no timeouts ensued, ending Dallas' season in dramatic fashion.

This time around, it's rookie Brock Purdy helming a Niners offense that is on an 11-game winning binge. During their streak, San Francisco has scored more than 22 points in all but three games. DeMeco Ryans' menacing defense has allowed more than 24 points just once during that span.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys authored their second consecutive 12-5 season under Mike McCarthy. After ending the campaign on a horrid note with a humbling loss in Washington, Dallas bounced back on Super Wild Card Weekend, trouncing Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.

Can the Cowboys make it back to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 1994, or will Kyle Shanahan's Niners make it back to the championship tilt for the third time in four seasons?

Here are five things to watch for when the Cowboys visit the 49ers on Sunday:

  1. Will Brock Purdy stay perfect or suffer his first NFL defeat as a starter? Even if the Niners were confident in the seventh-round rookie's skill set taking over for Jimmy Garoppolo, they would have to admit his play has been beyond expectations. San Francisco is 6-0 with Purdy starting. Four of the six have been runaway blowouts. Since becoming the starter in Week 14, including playoffs, Purdy leads the NFL in passing touchdowns (14), yards per pass attempt (9.4) and passer rating (121.4). The rookie has shown the ability to make plays out of the structure of the offense, something San Francisco didn't get much of with Jimmy G under center. Yes, there are still hills to climb. Purdy tends to bail backward too often under pressure and has missed a handful of throws high. But his ability to bounce back from first-half struggles in the Wild Card Round displayed mental fortitude from the rookie. Kyle Shanahan's scheme helps the young quarterback plenty. Last week, Purdy threw for 179 pass yards to wide-open receivers (as defined by five-plus yards of separation), the third-most in a playoff game by any QB in the Next Gen Stats era. Shanahan can lead any QB to water, but they must drink. Purdy has guzzled gallons in the nascent stage of his career. He will have a stiff test against a Cowboys pass rush that can discombobulate even the most veteran of passers, as it did versus the 45-year-old Tom Brady on Monday night. But if Purdy keeps his head on, there are plays to be had against the Dallas secondary.
  2. Dak Prescott must be great. If the Cowboys are to make it to their first NFC Conference Championship Game since the Bill Clinton administration, Prescott needs to dazzle. Let's be frank, the Niners enter the game with most of the advantages. No. 1 defense in yards allowed. No. 1 scoring defense. No. 1 in fewest big plays allowed. No. 2 rush D. No. 2 in turnovers forced. No. 4 in yards per play. Tied-ninth in sacks. Prescott could pivot things in the Cowboys' favor by rifling passes through a secondary that can give up yards. Dallas should pull a script from the Seahawks last week. Seattle grounded the Niners' run D and supplemented it with shot plays. The combo worked until Geno Smith turned it over twice, and the Niners deluge took effect. Prescott can light up any defense when he is on, making pinpoint throws in tight spaces. When he's off, well, it can look a lot like Week 18 in Washington. I'd like to see Kellen Moore get Prescott on the boot-action early to test the edges of the Niners defense and help slow Nick Bosa and the rush. It's cliché to say it all comes down to the quarterback. But Sunday, if Prescott stumbles, the Cowboys will have no shot. If he's great, Dallas becomes dangerous.  
  3. Which pass rush gets home? Bosa is the Defensive Player of the Year favorite with his 18.5 sacks and propensity to come up with massive game-changing plays. Bosa had 13 games with at least 1.0 sack in 2022 (tied for second most all-time), plus two forced fumbles with one fumble recovery, including playoffs. Even when he's slowed for stretches, when the Niners need a play, Bosa delivers. Add in Arik Armstead's freakish ability in the middle and a surging Charles Omenihu, and the Niners can make life miserable for Prescott. On the flip sits Micah Parsons and a Cowboys pass rush that led the NFL with a 34.3 QB pressure percentage, including playoffs. Dallas' 8.3 sack percentage trailed only the Eagles in 2022. Last year, when Dallas faced the Niners in the postseason, Parsons rushed on just 10 of 56 snaps. This season, Parsons rushed on 48.5 percent of his snaps, per Next Gen Stats. San Francisco is about to face a whole different Parsons than it saw a year ago. If the Cowboys are to bamboozle Purdy, it'll be because the defensive front caused havoc.
  4. Kyle Shanahan's O versus Dan Quinn's D. The former Atlanta Falcons coaches nearly won a Super Bowl together. Now they face each other for the third time since that run. Can Quinn's defense slow a dynamic Shanahan scheme in the rubber match? We know that Shanahan has stressed Quinn's defense to the breaking point in the past. Now he brings a devastating combo of Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. The Niners' ability to play positionless football makes life a nightmare for opposing defenses. And each player's ability to run after catch makes life easier on the quarterback. McCaffrey (47.9), Samuel (42.3) and Kittle (35.2) each have averaged the most yards after the catch per game at their positions since entering the NFL (minimum 10 games played). The 2022 Cowboys allowed 5.7 YAC per reception, the 11th highest in the NFL. If Quinn's defense doesn't tackle well Sunday, we could see more short catches go the distance in San Francisco. In the past two matchups against Shanahan, Quinn's defenses have held the Niners to 22 and 23 points, respectively. In last season's wild-card loss, the Cowboys shut San Francisco down in the fourth quarter to help the failed comeback. Can they slow Shanahan's offense for four quarters, or will CMC, Deebo and Co. run wild?  
  5. Brett Maher and the yips. The Cowboys kicker missed four extra points in the wild-card win over Tampa Bay, the first to botch that many in a regular or postseason game since the stat was first tracked for individual players in 1932. The disastrous performance came after Maher enjoyed an excellent season, connecting on 53 PATs, tied for most in the NFL. He went 29-of-32 on field goals with a long of 60 and made all 14 attempts inside 40 yards -- three of four misses were from 50-plus. But the yips can rip a kicker's confidence and the coaching staff's willingness to trust him. In a close contest, will Mike McCarthy have faith Maher can put points on the board? Will it change the Cowboys' game plan on the fringes of field goal range? Or might Maher offer a redemption arc worthy of the 2022 postseason? Contrast Maher's postseason struggles with 49ers kicker Robbie Gould, who is as solid as ever. Gould made 53 of 54 PATs in 2022, including playoffs. The 40-year-old Niner has never missed a kick (PAT or FG) in the postseason, going 25-of-25 on field goals and 37-of-37 on PATs. In what could be a tight tussle, the Niners enter with a lot more confidence in their kicker situation than Dallas.

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