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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

49ers Notebook: Deebo, Arik Armstead troll Cowboys; Armstead wishes he would have smacked Dak Prescott; Fred Warner gets rave reviews; What in the world happened on the final play?

Jan 23, 2023 at 12:15 AM

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The 49ers are onto the NFC Championship game after a 19-12 Divisional Playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara on Sunday. But before we move on to next week's showdown against the Philadelphia Eagles, let's tie up some of the loose tidbits of postgame news to come out of the 49ers' latest postseason victory.

In this version of 49ers Notebook, we've got a look at some fun postgame chatter, as well as a look at what was being said about linebacker Fred Warner after his standout performance on Sunday. And what exactly were the Cowboys thinking on the bizarre final play of the game? We'll go over that and much more below.

They got what they wanted

It's understandable that Cowboys players and fans were anxious to see their team face the 49ers after their Wild Card win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, given the playoff history between the two teams and the fact the 49ers eliminated the Cowboys with a 23-17 win in the Wild Card round last year. But after coming into the game on a high note following the Cowboys' lopsided 31-14 victory over the Buccaneers, things didn't turn out the Cowboys had hoped they would on Sunday.

Fans were filmed chanting "We want Niners" after the Cowboys' win over the Buccaneers, while Cowboys players voiced their desire to have a rematch against the 49ers. But what they wound up with was another disappointing playoff loss. 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead rubbed it in a bit with a jab over Twitter after the game.

Wide receiver Deebo Samuel did the same on Instagram, which drew a response from defensive standout Micah Parsons.

The 49ers-Cowboys rivalry cooled off for years after their famous showdowns in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but now it seems things have started to heat up again after the past two seasons. The 49ers and Cowboys are now tied 19-19-1 in their all-time series, with the Cowboys holding a 5-4 edge in the postseason. Perhaps 2023 will add another chapter to this freshly renewed rivalry.

Just one regret

On the final possession of the game, Armstead may have had a chance to put an end to things quickly when he found himself face-to-face with Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott in the end zone. But Armstead backed away from laying a hit on Prescott, which allowed Prescott to get a pass away.

It was immediately assumed by observers that Armstead went easy on Prescott because of the possibility of getting called for a penalty. Armstead confirmed that to be the case when speaking to reporters after the game.

"I wasn't trying to get a penalty," Armstead said. "I should have just smacked him. But it is what it is."

Armstead later took his regrets to Twitter, further making it clear he wishes he wouldn't have gone easy on Prescott.

Given how frequently and quickly those penalties have been called this season, it's understandable that Armstead was hesitant to hit Prescott. He might not feel the same if he's face-to-face with Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts next week.

Warner lights 'em up

Sunday's win was a showcase for the 49ers defense, which put on one of their best performances of the season when the team needed it the most. Leading the way was linebacker Fred Warner, who had nine tackles and an interception while also impressing viewers with his downfield coverage of wide receiver CeeDee Lamb.

Warner had the Internet praising his performance ("Fred Warner doesn't get enough attention. Best LB in the game," tweeted analyst and former NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III) as well as his teammates.

"He played an awesome game today, just all the details, just all over it," linebacker Dre Greenlaw said. "He knew exactly what the offense wanted to do. We had a good feel for it. Everybody came prepared. He knew exactly where they wanted to go and he made some great plays. It was one of the best games I've seen him play."

Defensive back Jimmie Ward said, "(Warner is) the best covering linebacker in ball and that's the reason why he's getting paid what he is."

Even other NFL players were getting in on the praise.

The mystery of the game's final play

What exactly were the Cowboys trying to do on the final play of the game? The world may never know.

With the ball at their own 24-yard line and six seconds left on the clock, the Cowboys needed to come up with something that would produce a miracle finish. Instead they had running back Ezekiel Elliott line up at center and snap the ball to Prescott, who then threw a short pass over the middle to wide receiver KaVonte Turpin. Jimmie Ward quickly tackled Turpin to end the game.

Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy gave a vague response when asked about the play.

"Yeah, it didn't get going," McCarthy said. "I really don't want to get into the detail of it, but that obviously wasn't the plan. So yeah, I mean it's obviously a gadget play or whatever. It's a last play situation call that we practice."

Ward made a heads-up play considering Turpin had two big kick returns for the Cowboys earlier in the game.

"The plays that he's able to make on special teams, I knew I couldn't give him space," Ward said. "So he threw it, and he threw it high, and I'm fast, so that gave me enough time to hit him."

The 49ers were left scratching their heads over the play, but they'll certainly accept the result.

"Very strange," Warner said. "I don't know if they had planned to be in that situation obviously because it didn't work very well. We prepare for everything, and when you've got players like Jimmie Ward who just come and saw guys out, it makes it easy."

Bring it on

Cornerback Deommodore Lenoir has been singled out by some critics as a possible vulnerable spot in the stout 49ers defense, but he's also starting to show a knack for coming up with big plays when teams throw in his direction.

Lenoir had an interception in the Wild Card round against the Seattle Seahawks, then added one against the Cowboys that led to the first of four 49ers field goals in the game.

"I broke on the route and I really didn't think he was going to throw it," Lenoir said. "I thought it was about to be a scramble drill. But then when I looked back, the ball was coming. My hyena senses just kicked in and I just jumped for it."

49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga told reporters on Sunday that Lenoir's interception helped set the tone for the team's defensive performance the rest of the way.

"Definitely," Hufanga said. "Talking with him during the week and his preparation has been outstanding. He has really been locked into watching the film and making sure he's on top of everything. When plays like that happen and he reads them, and he goes out there and just shoots like a gun, just fires and he's in front of all these receivers and making plays. When things like that happen, it's just awesome to see."

Lenoir isn't surprised that he's thought of as a player other teams should target, but he invites them to keep throwing the ball in his direction anyway.

"I'm the youngest guy on the defense besides Huf so I expected that, but I embrace it," Lenoir said. "They want to come at me, I'm gonna make 'em pay."

Game-changing injury

The Cowboys were forced to play the second half of Sunday's game without one of their biggest offensive threats in running back Tony Pollard, who was carted off the field before halftime with what has been reported as a broken leg. Pollard was a player the 49ers were concerned about coming into the game, and there's little doubt his injury had an affect on what the Cowboys were able to do on offense.

"It hurt us," Prescott said, per ESPN, who reports Pollard will need surgery to repair the injury. "Wasn't able to create as many explosive plays as we planned, and I'm sure he would've been a big part of some of those had he not gotten hurt."

Pollard rushed for 1,007 yards and nine touchdowns on the regular season and had six carries for 22 yards with two catches for 11 yards before his injury. Warner said the 49ers didn't change their approach after Pollard got hurt, but he added there was little doubt things weren't the same for the Cowboys with Pollard out of the lineup.

"I wouldn't say we adjusted specifically any type of way," Warner said. "Obviously he's an incredible football player and we had a lot of respect for him going into this game knowing how dynamic he was and how explosive of a player he was. You never wish to see a guy limp off the field like that. But I think for their offense it kind of changed things up not having him back there."

Spreading the joy

Is George Kittle the happiest football player in the NFL? It certainly seems like he is on gamedays, at least.

Kittle was clearly having a great time on Sunday, at one point even taking a few seconds to make silly faces for a television camera.

After the game, Kittle explained why he's so bubbly during games, and why sharing his joy is an effective strategy.

"I love football," Kittle said. "Every opportunity that we get to play, especially at home, is fantastic because you don't know when your opportunity's going to end. And so I just try to take advantage of those opportunities. I try to be myself. I try to have fun. Football's a lot easier when you're having fun. I don't want anyone to get so stressed out and jittery they get anxious because we're in a huge football game, because at the end of the day we are playing a kid's game. I get the stakes are incredibly high, but goodness gracious, if you have fun, it's so much easier. I like to have a blast. There's good music playing. I'm dancing. I like the vibe."

And with the cameras right in his face, it was hard for Kittle to resist spreading his happiness to a national television audience.

"When it's like four feet above you and I can touch it, it's pretty hard to miss it," Kittle said.
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