Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The X-Factors for the 49ers and the Cowboys in the Divisional Round

Rohan Chakravarthi
Jan 21, 2023 at 7:05 PM--

The San Francisco 49ers are renewing their longtime rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys when the two sides face off on Sunday in the NFC Divisional Round, one season after the former defeated the latter in the 2021 NFC Wildcard round.

Both teams have strong offenses and defenses, which means that there will be many impactful players on both sides of the ball.

But, for now, let's eye in on the X-Factors for each team that could help determine the outcome of the game.


Offense: Brandon Aiyuk

Brandon Aiyuk has enjoyed a breakout season in 2022, eclipsing 1000 yards for the first time in his career, while earning his path as a focal point of the 49ers' passing attack.

In the Wildcard round, Aiyuk enjoyed a three-catch, 73-yard game, which played a vital complementary role to wideout Deebo Samuel, who caught six passes for 133 yards and a touchdown.

Now, why does this matchup benefit Aiyuk?

While ranking amongst the best in takeaways and passing yards allowed per game, the Cowboys have given up a league-leading 22 touchdowns this season to receivers, of which over 10 have come outside the numbers, which also is the worst in the NFL.

Aiyuk, a predominantly outside receiver, tends to work outside the numbers, and is one of the more prolific route-runners in the NFL, which was seen in last year's matchup against the Cowboys when the third-year wideout was placed against top cornerback Trevon Diggs.

With the Purdy connection and Dallas's tendencies to give up touchdowns, Aiyuk could be poised for a big game, which could open up extra layers of the 49ers' offense.

Defense: Nick Bosa

I know. Why would Nick Bosa be on this list, given that he's been the consensus Defensive Player of the Year for the 2022 season by analysts?

While he's certainly enjoyed a career season, Bosa was limited in San Francisco's first playoff game, recording zero pressures against the Seattle Seahawks during a game where he was well-blocked by rookie right tackle Abraham Lucas.

With Dak Prescott's struggles against pressure versus when kept in a clean pocket, the 49ers will need to create pressure without blitzing, meaning Bosa needs to return to his regular level of effectiveness.

In his place, defensive end Charles Omenihu stepped up with five pressures and two sacks, but as the 49ers progress in the playoffs, they need their stars to perform as such.


Offense: Tony Pollard

Tony Pollard is the key difference between last season and 2022, as he earned over 60 more carries this season, with Ezekiel Elliott's workload remaining similar.

Pollard has the requisite speed to hit the edge, meaning the 49ers' linebackers will have to play well and take correct angles in the running game.

Pollard rushed for 77 yards on 15 carries against a Buccaneers team that was known to be effective against the run and is averaging over five yards per carry on 193 attempts this season.

If Pollard gets going, the Cowboys could involve their balanced gameplan and force the 49ers' to account not only for Pollard's abilities, but also quarterback Dak Prescot's to scramble when necessary.

Dak Prescott appears comfortable in the play-action game as well, which is something the 49ers will need an answer for if they cannot stop the run effectively.

(P.S.: Dalton Schultz was a close second. The 49ers will need to account for him over the middle in the passing game, be it out of the slot or at an in-line position.)

Defense: Jayron Kearse

Injury-wise, the biggest question heading into the week is Jayron Kearse, who is the only player on either side to earn a questionable designation heading into the weekend.

Kearse is a vital part of the Cowboys' secondary, as Dallas's safeties serve a major role in Dan Quinn's system with their versatility.

Kearse is good against the pass and the run, which will be important against San Francisco's balanced attack offensively, while allowing them to match up better against the 49ers' 21 and 12 personnel packages by limiting the number of times that the Cowboys utilize three linebackers on the field.

However, while Kearse said after the Cowboys' win over the Buccaneers last week that he would be 100% playing against the 49ers, it's unclear whether Kearse will be fully healthy in the matchup.
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.

1 Comment

  • BigAl
    Im not sure either team is beating the Eagles. That team is as dominant in the trenches as anybody in recent memory
    Jan 22, 2023 at 4:28 AM


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