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Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

A Game for the Ages - Matchups, History, and More Ahead of 49ers-Cowboys Divisional Game

Jan 21, 2023 at 6:23 PM--

Do you smell that? It's playoff football.

It's a time to celebrate. For a few more precious hours, every team in the tournament still has life, still has reason to hope. There are no more guaranteed games, but there's football to be played, and right now is the time to exult in it. No matter who you root for, you can imagine your team finding a way to win, a way to keep playing football, and filling your February with excitement and joy. Right now, there's nothing standing between your team and glory except the vagaries of chance and a well-fought effort this weekend, and hopefully the next.

And for those of you who aren't rooting for a team that's made it this far, never fear. 7 of the 14 playoff entrants this year didn't make it into the dance last year. The year before, 7 of the 12 teams in the pre-Super Wild Card playoffs hasn't made it the prior year. And a nod to the teams eliminated in that Super Wild Card weekend; though they may not have prevailed, each of them - Seattle, Baltimore, Minnesota, Miami, and the Los Angeles Herberts - showed glimpses of incredible potential throughout the regular season.

As a football fan, it's hard not to get excited. And of the teams that are left, each one has a legitimate reason to expect nothing less of themselves than a Lombardi Trophy. The Chiefs currently employ a man who still has an outside shot at becoming perhaps the greatest professional athlete of all time. The Jaguars endured a 2-6 start and the ghosts of Urban legends that they'd love nothing more than to exorcise. The Bengals have improved a team that came three points away from winning it all last season, and Buffalo became America's team after what happened to Damar Hamlin and everything else that rocked that city this year. The Eagles should rightfully consider themselves one of if not the best and most balanced teams in football, and the Giants are being coached up by Brian Daboll to carry chips on their shoulders large enough to make Sisyphus jealous.

And yet, as eagerly as one can look forward to any of those teams playing this weekend, there's one matchup that stands head and shoulders above the rest - Dallas at San Francisco. There are rivalries, and then there's this. Both teams brace behind top defenses anchored by top-3 DPOY candidates. Both teams sport a dazzling array of offensive weaponry, any one of whom can single-handedly take over a game. Both teams, somehow, are helmed by quarterbacks that have displayed incredible efficiency in the playoff crucible. And both teams want to beat the absolute crap out of each other.

For San Francisco, this is more of a formality. Their "YAC Bros" core of Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Christian McCaffrey makes broken tackles and broken spirits a standard component of their winning formula. For Dallas, though, this game is special. Cowboys QB Dak Prescott described their stunning Wild Card loss to the 49ers last year as "the focal point...that we carried into the offseason, carried into this year." It's a loss that's plagued them, torn at them, all the way through an otherwise highly satisfying 12-5 season. It's the kind of loss that stays with you for the rest of your life. Just ask the 49ers, who carry that same bitterness in them from their 2019-2020 Super Bowl loss.

In any case, the Cowboys have been looking for this revenge matchup all year. The fact that it comes during the playoffs, when they have a chance to earn just their second road playoff victory in the last 30 years of Jerry Jones' management, means that every play will have that much more anger, that much more vitriol to it. And it's a game the world will be watching. Last week, the Dallas-Tampa Bay matchup that saw the Cowboys pummel an aging Tom Brady into dust reached over 30 million eyes. A game like this, with exponentially higher stakes and a simmering cauldron of resentment that could boil over into a full-blown feud between two of the NFL's biggest franchises? Forget 2022's Bills-Vikings or Bills-Chiefs, this game is set up to be the best game the league's seen since 2017's KC-LA shootout. And you can bet that people all over the country will be tuning in.

Ahead of that emotionally charged Divisional round nightcap, let's take a second to go over the biggest matchups that will tip millions of fans into despondency as it launches millions more into the throes of unbridled joy.

Key Matchup 1: 49ers Kicker Robbie Gould vs. Cowboys Kicker Brett Maher

The first matchup is, on paper, the greatest disparity in talent between these two teams. That statement has to be taken with a grain of salt, of course, because Brett Maher followed up a great 2022 season (50/53 extra point attempts, 90.3% field goal success) with a bad Super Wild Card game. Unfortunately for him, it wasn't just a bad game. Maher's four consecutive extra point misses thrust him into football infamy, as the only player since 1930 to miss four extra points in a game, let alone a playoff game. Meanwhile, Robbie Gould has been perfect in his postseason career, making 25/25 field goals and 38/38 extra point attempts. If this game comes down to execution on kicking attempts, this could wildly swing the game San Francisco's way.

But it's important to highlight this disparity because of how little it's actually likely to play into the game's outcome. Special teams is the most volatile component of any team's game, and both kickers are well established. It's unlikely that Maher approaches the level of incompetency he displayed last weekend, and for what it's worth, he looked good several times in practice. If the 49ers count on 5-6 points being taken off the board due solely to repeated Maher misses, they'll be the ones in trouble. In fact, it's very possible that the kicking situation plays in Dallas' favor.

The 49ers have also been reluctant to use Gould on kicks of 50 or more yards, unlike teams with younger, stronger kickers. That could limit some of their scoring options as they cross midfield. Meanwhile, the Cowboys went 2-2 on fourth down against Tampa Bay, including a Dak Prescott rollout touchdown run that put Dallas up by two scores. Making the decision to eschew Maher entirely in the red zone could definitely tilt things in the Cowboys' favor if they continue to execute late-down plays with that kind of efficiency.

Key Matchup 2: Brock Purdy vs. Dallas' Pass Rush

The legend of Big Clock Brock (so named for his timely arrival, of course) continues to grow in Santa Clara. He's undefeated in his 7-game tenure with the 49ers, which has been a key to San Francisco's league-high 11-game win streak. But the fact that Purdy has been supported by high-end talent on both sides of the football belies the fact that the young quarterback hasn't actually had a bad game yet. His worst game came in Seattle, when he played through an oblique injury on a short week. He still threw 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. The fact that Purdy's worst game was a 117.0 passer rating laugher is nothing short of miraculous.

But the Cowboys are on a short list of the best candidates to hand Purdy his first real stinker. Dallas comes into this matchup with four players with at least 6 sacks in 2022: defensive ends Dante Fowler, DeMarcus Lawrence, Dorance Armstrong, and DPOY candidate Micah Parsons at outside linebacker. Altogether, the Dallas defense has amassed 54 sacks in the regular season, tied for third-best in the NFL. There's no team that's better than getting pressure on the quarterback, as their 35.0% pressure rate attests to.

A huge part of the drama in this game lies in the uncertainty in how this matchup will play out. Dallas gets to the quarterback like almost no other team, but Brock Purdy gives the 49ers athleticism at the QB position that they simply didn't have with Jimmy Garoppolo. 49ers' left tackle Trent Williams has been PFF's highest-graded lineman for two consecutive years now, and he'll have to absorb as much pressure as he can. He's part of the reason that the 49ers are a top-5 team in successfully blocking defensive stunts, a favored tactic of the Cowboys. The rest will be a matter of how consistently Dallas can find weaknesses in San Francisco's offensive line and how effectively Purdy can operate under constant pressure. There may be no more important matchup in this game, not just to determine who wins and who goes home, but whether the 49ers will rely on Purdy as their franchise quarterback going forward.

Key Matchup 3: 49ers Defensive Line vs. Dallas' Run Game

As two of the best and most complete teams in the NFL, it should be no surprise that the trenches are such an important factor in the outcome of this game. Smart teams invest in their ability to threaten the quarterback, and Dallas has done just that. On the other side of the ball, the 49ers' defensive line will occupy a massive portion of Dallas' offensive game planning. San Francisco boasted the best run defense in the league this year - opposing running backs averaged a meager 3.3 yards per carry against them all year. Dallas running backs Ezekiel Elliot (2.1 YPC last week) and Tony Pollard (5.1 YPC last week) will have their work cut out for them.

But as much of a strength as the 49ers' defensive front is, they've been gashed by mobile quarterbacks recently, starting with a Jarrett Stidham explosion in week 17: only 34 yards on 7 rushes, but he picked up enough key first downs and extended plays that he ended up with 365 yards passing and three touchdowns. Geno Smith and even Trace McSorley have made the 49ers pay for gap unsoundness since then, and Prescott is a much better athlete and overall quarterback than any of them.

Combining Prescott with an already dangerous Zeke-Pollard tandem will be huge for Dallas' chances in this game. Way back in week 6, the Atlanta Falcons showed that the 49ers are vulnerable if they can't stop the run. A few weeks later, the Chiefs built on that lesson by using those run threats to open up the passing game and scoring a season-high 44 points against San Francisco. That's the lesson that the Raiders reminded the league of, and it's the lesson that any team that wants to beat San Francisco must lean on. The Seahawks almost pulled it off against the 49ers last week, before abandoning the strategy amidst a second half collapse. If Dallas can execute well enough to jump out to an early lead and continue opening up space in the run game, they'll find completions, and points, dropping with ease against an otherwise dangerous defense.

Key Matchup 4: 49ers Cornerback Charvarius Ward vs. Dallas Wide Receiver CeeDee Lamb

Back in 2020, the 49ers had two picks near the middle of the first round of the draft. Needing a wide receiver and a defensive tackle to replace Emmanuel Sanders and DeForest Buckner, respectively, I advocated for San Francisco to select CeeDee Lamb and DE Ross Blacklock with those choices. Instead, they chose WR Brandon Aiyuk and DT Javon Kinlaw. It's hard to say if the results would have been, overall, better - undoubtedly, San Francisco is satisfied with Aiyuk and his 1,000+ yard 2022 season, even if Kinlaw has been largely boom-or-bust. But there's no question that Dallas is ecstatic that the 49ers passed up 2nd-team All-Pro CeeDee Lamb, who has quickly become a franchise cornerstone with plays that can only be described as Jeffersonian.

This year, Lamb racked up 1,359 yards on 107 receptions, along with 9 touchdowns. He's still on his rookie deal, but he's putting up superstar numbers. That's why the 49ers are likely to place Charvarius Ward, their recently acquired CB1, to stick on Lamb. Ward, only 26, has so far lived up to his billing as San Francisco's now-and-future cornerback. He's made a living sticking onto opposing team's #1 receiver, like he did against Seattle's D.K. Metcalf in their December matchup. That day, Ward allowed Metcalf only 55 yards on 9 targets, no touchdowns. But last week's clash against the Seahawks saw that strategy strain its effectiveness. Ward ended up allowing 7 receptions on 9 targets, this time for 105 yards and a touchdown. How effectively he can bounce back will determine if Dak Prescott has time to elude the 49ers' vicious pass rush.

If Ward struggles to cover Lamb, then the Cowboys could easily jump out to a lead that San Francisco might not be able to defend. We saw it happen when Trace McSorley of all people hit a double-covered A.J. Green in week 18 against the Niners, who took a 77-yard pass to the house against SF's secondary on just the second play of the game. Eerily similar things have happened in 2022, like when Miami opened up their game against the 49ers with a 75-yard shot to Trent Sherfield. Sherfield's a solid player, and A.J. Green is definitely a skilled guy, but neither of them are CeeDee Lamb.

On the other hand, the 49ers' biggest defensive concern this season has primarily been CB2. Since Emmanuel Moseley went down, the 49ers have relied on 2021 fifth-round pick Deommodore Lenoir opposite Ward. Last week, it was Lenoir with the lights-out performance against Tyler Lockett. In fairness, Dalton Schultz and Michael Gallup combined for 141 yards and 3 touchdowns against Tampa Bay last week, so they may end up attacking Lenoir more in total. But if Lamb can get the drop on Ward and open up both sides of the field, Dallas could end up looking much more like the team that dropped 31 points on a playoff team, and less like one that put up 6 against the Commanders in week 18.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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