Know thy enemy playoff edition: 49ers vs Cowboys

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 26: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys kneels as Dak Prescott #4 gestures before the game against the Washington Football Team at AT&T Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 26: Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys kneels as Dak Prescott #4 gestures before the game against the Washington Football Team at AT&T Stadium on December 26, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images) /

Well, it’s been 734 days but Dallas Cowboys fans, your team is finally back and playing in the NFL playoffs. Only four teams stand in the way between Dallas and that ever-elusive sixth Championship ring.

The first team that the Cowboys must go through in order to get to where they want to be is one of their all-time rivals. For those of you old enough to remember heartbreak like “The Catch” or the joyous redemption in 1993 (HOW BOUT DEM COWBOYS!?!), San Francisco and Dallas have had some historic postseason moments.

While history can be fun or painful to dredge up, none of it will matter Sunday afternoon. Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin will all be watching the stars of today. The Cowboys’ 5-2 all-time record against San Francisco in the playoffs won’t propel them to victory on Sunday.

No, this win will come down to the Dak Prescott‘s and Jimmy Garoppolo‘s of 2022. This one is about the 49ers, winners of seven of their last nine, and the Cowboys, winners of five of their last six. Two hot teams. One conclusion. As the biggest game in two years approaches, let’s get to know thy enemy a little better and break down this matchup.

Know Thy Enemy Playoff Edition: Cowboys take on the San Francisco 49ers

Once Dallas lost to Arizona two weeks ago, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Cowboys would be playing an NFC West team in round one. While most thought a rematch was imminent or possibly even a re-run of the last Dallas playoff opponent in the Rams, no one saw San Francisco coming. Yet here we are.

The most common refrain you’ll hear when it comes to the 49ers is “a team no one wants to play.” They have earned that moniker due to their physical nature of play. San Francisco has no problem whatsoever lining up and running the ball nine or ten plays in a row.

As such, San Francisco finished 2021 with the seventh-best rush offense in the NFL. The Niners ran the ball more times than all but five other teams and scored more rushing touchdowns than all but five other teams.

San Francisco does not rely upon just one guy to carry the load. They definitely come at you in waves with multiple options to defend. Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson, Jr., receiver Deebo Samuel, and even the combo of Trey Sermon and JaMycal Hasty could see carries on Sunday.

Mitchell is the closest thing to a bell cow that San Francisco has on the roster, with over 200 carries in 2021. Samuel, however, is probably their most explosive, averaging over six yards per carry on almost 60 attempts.

The 49ers employ the zone run philosophies made famous by their head coach’s father in his days with the Denver Broncos. Who is running the ball does not matter in this scheme. Denver, back in the day, rolled out thousand-yard rusher after thousand-yard rusher, no matter the name.

San Francisco is not just a running team, however. The 49ers finished 12th overall in passing yards, led by Samuel’s 1,405 receiving yards. With one of the best tight ends flanking him in George Kittle, along with young guys like Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings, they definitely have options.

The Niners back up their potency on offense with a stellar defense as well. San Francisco possessed the sixth-best pass defense and seventh-best run defense. A large portion of their success defensively is thanks to defensive end Nick Bosa.

Bosa has 15.5 sacks, 21 tackles for loss and 32 quarterback hits in 2021. Suffice to say, he lives in your team’s backfield. When he’s not wreaking havoc, fellow linemen Arden Key and Arik Armstead do a fine job of messing up your offensive plans in their own right.

All of this explains why the 49ers have made it to the tournament and why a lot of people think they are going to be a problem for Dallas. Truth be told, aside from Philadelphia, there is not an easy out in the NFC.

While I would be extremely shocked to see San Francisco in the Super Bowl, they are definitely capable of winning a game or two. Every other team could very easily represent the conference in February so the road for Dallas will be tough regardless.

If I was coaching the defense for this game, in particular, I would give the Niners a 5-2-4 look, using safety Jayron Kearse as my linebacker opposite Micah Parsons. I would have three cornerbacks on the field at all times with one safety in a Cover 1 scheme.

Playing five defensive linemen should help keep their running game under wraps while also daring SF to throw more often. The speed of having a safety at linebacker, primarily to pay attention to Kittle, would help neutralize that option and hopefully speed up Garoppolo’s mental clock.

Offensively, the Cowboys need to get off a hot start. The offense cannot wait until the fourth quarter to get things going. I’ve said all year that a faster tempo is key for this team’s rhythm. Getting into a groove early would go a long way towards the ultimate success.

It also goes without saying that the Cowboys cannot beat themselves. Dallas is the most penalized team in the league. Too many times, these penalties kill drives. San Francisco is not particularly good at creating turnovers and Dallas is pretty good at protecting the ball. Avoiding penalties will go a long way towards tipping the scales in the Cowboys’ favor.

Prior to the season, I predicted Dallas would go 11-6 and win the division. They did just that, adding one more win than I foresaw coming. I respect San Francisco a lot, but I don’t think that they can handle Dallas IF the Cowboys play their “A” game. The Cowboys are favored by three points and I think they cover that spread. Give me Dallas, 24-17 over the Niners, moving the Cowboys on to the round of four.