The matchup is a blast from the past, a salute to the 1990s when the premier NFC rivalry was these two clubs beating the hell out of each other en route to owning the NFL with several championships. Those teams produced a laundry list of Hall of Famers and defined the conference for the better part of a decade before the tide turned to the dominance of other teams.
It's bigger than who takes the field on Sunday, Jan. 16 but, at the same time, it's those very players tasked with adding another chapter in a rivalry book that will be dusted off and again thrust at the forefront of the NFL playoffs -- just like old times. And as the old is made new, the new is soon to be made old, which is to say someone has to lose this game and land on the wrong part of their franchise's history, because there are no ties in the NFL playoffs.
So, who takes it? Will Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense establish consistency after blasting the Philadelphia Eagles to end the regular season, or will Micah Parsons have to join Trevon Diggs and Co. in carrying them with an electric defensive effort? Will the latter be able to contain Deebo Samuel and Jimmy Garoppolo and, if so, can Nick Bosa lead the charge in leveling the playing field against a Cowboys offense that can explode at a moment's notice?
It's undeniable that the 49ers are capable of walking into AT&T Stadium and ending the Cowboys potential playoff run before it ever gets going, but there are at least three reasons Dallas won't let it happen.
Micah Parsons vs. Deebo Samuel
You can expect stopping Samuel to be the main focal point of the Cowboys, having seen what he's been able to do all season against opposing defense and on the heels of another dominant performance in a win-and-get-in game versus the Los Angeles Rams one week ago. Samuel is a freak of nature, a wide receiver who's also a running back who, in a pinch, will also turn into a quarterback to keep the defense guessing every single snap. He'll line up on the outside, the inside, the backfield and probably the parking lot to throw off Quinn, so a defensive coordinator who's seen it all before will need to scheme well and use his homing missile known as Parsons to lock in on Samuel whenever he's in the backfield or slot, passing the duties off to the interception machine known as Trevon Diggs -- when he heads to the outside.
Diggs can handle Samuel downfield, but might struggle against the quick underneath routes against such a footster (new word), and that's where Parsons comes in to balance that scale. The Cowboys also have the services of breakout new addition Jayron Kearse, having returned to practice this week from a hamstring injury and a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and Kearse has been known to make gamebreaking plays against both the pass and the run. It'll all be needed against Samuel, who can almost literally do it all and, as such, helps open up the field for All-Pro tight end George Kittle (who must also be accounted for in a major way), effectively making Samuel an offensive variant of Parsons.
After all, a player who can take a handoff for a 60-yard touchdown but who also has 1,405 receiving yards and six receiving TDs is simply a migraine to scheme against. But for all of the justifiable talk about Samuel, Parsons and Diggs are two record-setting defensive talents who both garnered Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro nods this season, so let's not pretend they found those honors in a bubble gum machine. If anyone can contain Samuel, it's Parsons with the help of Diggs and Co., schemed by the mind of Quinn.
While Samuel is the lock for the Niners, Garoppolo is the key, and the Cowboys defense needs to make sure the veteran quarterback never gets to the door as often as he'd like. This is a QB who has yet to prove he's a world-beater but, if given time in the pocket, can also matriculate the ball down the field (Maddenism, just go with it). Garoppolo's weakness is in that he often folds under duress, something Prescott has proven he mostly does not do when noting Prescott's league-leading passer rating when blitzed/hurried (yes, he's made mistakes but one fact doesn't negate the other). Garoppolo threw only 20 touchdowns in the regular season but tossed 12 interceptions and fumbled eight times -- losing three of them -- and was sacked 29 times in 15 starts (1.93 sacks per game).
Garoppolo leads an offense that, while uber-talented in some areas, averages only 25.1 points per game, going against a Quinn-led defense that allows only 21.1 per outing. This alone feels exactly where the Cowboys want to be, mathematically speaking, assuming Prescott and the offense isn't sleepwalking for much of the game, and is disciplined enough to sidestep drive-killing penalties. Lastly, the 49ers make a living on yards after contact (2,251 receiving, 912 rushing), so remember this is tackle football and not two-hand touch. Take the right angle, break down and explode through the ball carrier, or be victimized on national television.
Yes, the 49ers offensive front has been mostly solid as of late, but a Cowboys front that features Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and Neville Gallimore (along with several notables like Trysten Hill, Carlos Watkins and rookie standout Osa Odighizuwa) will get their chances to put hands on Garoppolo or, at minimum, to make him extremely uncomfortable in and outside of the pocket. This is where the minds of Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel might truly come into play, as both use a heavy dose of the run game to counteract the pass rush, as well as using do-it-all weapon Deebo Samuel as a neutralizer by way of short passes to the flat or underneath at the second level to help Garoppolo breathe.
If he's not allowed to execute that plan, it'll give Diggs and the secondary plenty of chances at taking the ball away -- something the defensive unit in Dallas as a whole leads the league in doing -- while the aforementioned defensive front tries to tee off on an injured Garoppolo.
You can bet 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans will give this a try, but he'll likely find it more difficult than he'd like. I'm speaking of potentially trying to hide the weakest parts of his secondary against Dak Prescott and a slate of weaponry that can, if they're executing well, surgically target and dismantle the 49ers defense behind defensive juggernaut Nick Bosa. That means, for example, that whenever cornerback Josh Norman is on the field, seek him out and blister him with targets no matter where he might be "hidden." Norman has allowed four touchdowns this season and a passer rating of 110.6 when targeted (9.0 yards allowed per target and 7 missed tackles), and he's a part of a secondary that struggles mightily to take the ball away -- having only nine interceptions through 17 games (tied for fifth worst in the league).
For contrast, the Cowboys lead the NFL with 26 interceptions, and they're looking to increase that number against Garoppolo while Prescott hopes to avoid giving the 49ers a 10th INT. Additionally, the 49ers allow an average of 7.1 passing yards per attempt, a figure that's not solely in the lap of Norman, making for some possibly hearty eats for Prescott -- a player who just set his franchise's single-season passing touchdown record (37) one week prior and who threw for 4,449 passing yards with the highest accuracy rate of his career (68.8% despite drops) and his second-highest passer rating (104.2).
There are glaring weaknesses amidst some of the sporadic strengths in the 49ers secondary, and even factoring in the absence of Michael Gallup, the Cowboys have proven they can get red-hot production from Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Cedrick Wilson, Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin in the passing game, with an added mix of both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Control the line of scrimmage and Prescott will have plenty of time to punish a secondary that isn't built for the storm it might face in Dallas.