DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys will play their first playoff game in three years when they host the San Francisco 49ers on wild card weekend. Since their last playoff win, much has changed with the team, including the head coach and both coordinators.
However, some things have stayed the same. Many of the players who played in the last playoff run are still around.
The most important piece, quarterback Dak Prescott, will still be behind center for the Cowboys and he remains the biggest reason for optimism in the postseason. Dallas’ defense and their star power playmakers matter, but if the Cowboys are going to make a deep playoff run, Prescott must take them there.
The playoffs begin for NFC East champion Dallas with a tough matchup against 6th seeded San Francisco. Though this has been called a tough draw for the Cowboys, the game will be played between the lines on Sunday, not in the prediction columns.
Here’s some of the keys for the Cowboys to beat the Niners to rekindle of one of the most storied postseason clashes in NFL history:
Make things miserable for Jimmy Garoppolo
The 49ers have a diverse offense that will give multiple looks and utilize players in different ways. It’s a solid unit that has one of the better play callers/designers in head coach Kyle Shanahan.
One of the reasons for so much disguise is because Garoppolo is more of a question than an answer at quarterback. The 49ers told us that when they traded away valuable draft capital for the ability to select QB Trey Lance third overall in the 2021 NFL draft.
Garoppolo managed to keep his job while Lance understudied this season, but he’s one of the weak links for the 49ers offense. The former Tom Brady protégé guided San Francisco to the Super Bowl two years ago with much of the same roster, and he has played well of late, but if the defense can pressure Garoppolo, he has a tendency to turn the ball over.
The Cowboys need to make sure that they cash in when Garoppolo gives them a chance at a turnover. Garoppolo threw 12 interceptions on the year and fumbled four times. If Dallas can force a few mistakes, their chances of moving on go up considerably.
Keep the run game grounded
The running game of the 49ers is one of the best in the league. They might only rank 7th at over 124 yards per game, but they’ve upped their game in the last month of the season.
Against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15, the 49ers rushed for 162 yards. Versus the Houston Texans in Week 17, they ran it for 175 more. Finally, in the finale against a stout Los Angeles Rams defense in a make or break game, the 49ers ran for 135 yards.
It’s also a running game that will use more than just lead running back Elijah Mitchell, who collected 963 yards in just 11 games this season. The 49ers will deploy running backs JaMycal Hasty and Jeff Wilson to pitch in as well.
However, perhaps the biggest threat after the backs is all-purpose wideout Deebo Samuel, who ranks second on the team in rushing attempts and yards, but also led the team in touchdowns on the ground with eight.
The 49ers have one of the most creative rushing attacks in the game and the Cowboys have had some issues stopping the run at times this season. For Dallas to come out on top, they have to limit San Francisco at doing what they do best.
Don’t let Deebo dominate
Samuel is far and away the biggest playmaker for the 49ers and he lines up all over the field to make for a matchup nightmare. He’s a wide receiver who often lines up at running back, averaging 6.2 yards a carry, which would’ve ranked him second in the league if he didn’t lack the carries to qualify.
Samuel’s main role, as a receiver, saw him have a dominant season. The third-year WR had 77 catches for 1,405 yards, which ranked fifth in the NFL, and six touchdowns. Samuel led the league in yards per catch at 18.2.
Samuel’s 1,845 total yards ranked third in the league and he was tied for seventh in total touchdowns with 14. He’s a threat to break the game open and the Cowboys will need to tackle well when Samuel gets the ball.
Help Dak attack
The 49ers have a strong pass rush that finished the season tied for fifth in sacks with 48. Their defensive front has two former first-round picks in defensive end Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, who combined for 21.5 quarterback takedowns. Both had career-highs in sacks, with Bosa racking up 15.5 and Armstead with six on the season.
However, San Francisco’s secondary was among the worst at preventing deep passes from being completed and had issues with penalties all season. Attacking them in the passing game would be a wise move for the Cowboys.
To do that, Dallas will need to make sure Prescott is comfortable in the pocket so the offense can take their shots downfield. If the offensive line can protect Prescott and give him time to throw, the Cowboys can take advantage of the 49ers’ secondary.
That might be easier said than done, but if the Cowboys can win upfront, they can expose the San Francisco defense. Keeping Prescott comfortable is one of the easiest paths to victory for Dallas.
Do you think the Cowboys will keep their season alive with a win in the Wild Card game? Share your predictions with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.