DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys have been here in the divisional round of the playoffs several times over the last 27 years. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to win in the round in their last six attempts and haven’t advanced past this stage since the 1995-96 season.
Cowboys fans have been hoping that this will finally be the year that the drought ends, but there’s a big challenge ahead of them.
Standing in Dallas’ way is a San Francisco 49ers team that has won 11 straight and is a franchise that has a long and storied history with the Cowboys in the playoffs. To add difficulty to the task, Sunday will be another road game for the Cowboys, and they will be playing on short rest. The 49ers played in their wild card game on Saturday, while the Cowboys played Monday night.
The obstacles matter little, what does matter is coming out of the divisional round a winner and making the NFC championship game. Here are three keys to ensuring that Dallas beats their postseason rival and continues their season:
Slow down the 49ers’ gold rush
Stopping the San Francisco ground game will be easier said than done as the 49ers have one of the more diverse rushing attacks in the league. In addition, stopping the run has been one of the biggest problems with Dallas’ defense this season. The Cowboys have been better recently, and the return of linebacker Leighton Vander Esch gives them a boost, but San Francisco runs the ball efficiently.
Running back Christian McCaffrey was acquired early in the season and ran for 746 yards and collected six TDs with the 49ers. He led the team in rushing despite playing in just 11 games, but McCaffrey topped 1,100 rushing yards total playing with the 49ers and Carolina Panthers.
Playing in just six games as the starter coming into the season, RB Elijah Mitchell averaged 6.2 yards per carry. That would have been among the highest in the league if he had enough carries to qualify, and he averaged 4.7 yards last year. Mitchell is healthy and back in the lineup, scoring three touchdowns in his last two games.
That duo is tough enough to contain, but the 49ers also incorporate wide receiver Deebo Samuel into the mix, making it a three-headed monster in the backfield. In last year’s playoff matchup, the 49ers ran for 169 yards and two touchdowns, one of which was scored by Samuel.
With McCaffrey added to the mix, the 49ers are more dangerous on the ground this time around. The Cowboys need to find a way to slow down the rushing attack if they want to advance.
Make the rookie sustain drives
Rookie quarterback Brock Purdy has been the story of the second half of the NFL season after he was thrust into the spotlight following season-ending injuries to Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo. From Mr. Irrelevant to 6-0 as the starting QB for San Francisco, Purdy’s season isn’t too dissimilar to how Dak Prescott broke onto the scene in his rookie season with Dallas in 2016.
Dak’s sterling debut campaign ended with a home divisional round loss and the Cowboys will be trying to transfer that legacy to Purdy. To do so, they will need to lock down the explosive playmakers for the 49ers and make the inexperienced QB prove that he can beat them with methodical drives.
Limiting big plays was one of the things that Dallas did best on defense for most of the year. However, that has been a problem down the stretch, and it needs to be corrected for this contest. The 49ers hit on several big plays against the Seattle Seahawks in their wild card win, showing their big play ability.
McCaffrey had a 66-yard run, while wide receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings had 31 and 33-yard receptions, respectively. However, the biggest play of the game went to Samuel, who took a short crossing route reception and bolted down the sideline for a 74-yards touchdown.
San Francisco’s offense has a high number of elite athletes who excel with the ball in their hands and their playmakers can score any time that they get an opening. Dan Quinn needs to make sure that his defense is ready to swarm to the ball and wrap up when trying to make a tackle. Being sound with their tackling could make a world of difference in this matchup.
Take to the air on offense
The 49ers had one of the best defenses in the league this year, leading the NFL in total yards given up at just over 300 yards per game. Their rushing defense was their calling card, allowing under 78 yards per game on the ground which put them among the NFL’s stingiest units.
The Cowboys like to run the ball with running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard splitting the work. Pollard got more carries in the wild card round, and has been the more effective back, but that doesn’t mean that will be the case this week.
Either way, Dallas is better off attacking the 49ers through the air.
San Francisco allowed 223 yards passing per game this season and Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith just threw for 253 yards and two scores in the wild card round, while Las Vegas Raiders backup QB Jarrett Stidham threw for 365 yards and three scores a few weeks ago.
Against the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes earlier in the year, the 49ers surrendered 423 yards and three touchdowns.
It’s tough sledding against the 49ers on the ground, but they are vulnerable against the pass. However, there are two problems with passing against San Francisco. One is that you expose Prescott to being targeted by one of the NFL’s best pass rushers in defensive end Nick Bosa.
Bosa led the league in sacks and has the ability to wreck the game. If the Cowboys are going to throw the ball to move it, they need to keep Bosa away from Prescott.
The other risk is that the 49ers’ defense often gets their hands on the ball for takeaways. Prescott led the NFL in throwing interceptions this season, while the 49ers led the league in interceptions with 20.
If Dallas is going to throw it, they need to be careful, and Prescott needs to make good decisions.
Do you think the Cowboys will earn their first trip to the NFC championship game since 1996? Share your predictions with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.