DALLAS — The 2021 regular season was a roller coaster ride for the Dallas Cowboys, but they ultimately finished at 12-5 and won the NFC East. A crazy final weekend in the NFL saw the Cowboys improve their standing in the conference as they earned the No. 3 seed in the top-heavy NFC. That means they’ll host the San Francisco 49ers on Wild Card weekend.
The Cowboys swept their divisional rivals in the NFC East, but their next opponent is considered to be one of their main historical playoff rivals. The 49ers and Cowboys have had their share of postseason battles that have resulted in some of the league’s most treasured games.
Dwight Clark had “The Catch” in 1982 to upend Dallas. The Cowboys won a thriller in a muddy Candlestick Park in 1993 to kickstart the ‘90s dynasty. They repeated the feat a year later in North Texas in the Jimmy Johnson guarantee game. A year after that, the Niners got the better of the Cowboys in one of the most frustrating losses in team history.
It’s a heavenly matchup for the NFL and one that could reignite a hatred between the two fan bases that has been dormant for far too long.
With that in mind, here’s what the Cowboys can take from their dominating victory in Week 18:
Mike McCarthy was smart to play his starters
There was plenty of debate on whether the Cowboys should play their starters, especially quarterback Dak Prescott, in a game that was deemed “meaningless” by some. The Cowboys had already locked up a playoff spot and it was unlikely they were going to improve their seeding.
A funny thing happened, though. The victorious Cowboys were helped by the 49ers – ironically – to move up to the No. 3 seed. That means if Dallas can somehow get a win against those same 49ers, they will avoid having to go to top-seeded Green Bay in the Divisional round of the playoffs. Putting off that trip until necessary is a big win for the Cowboys.
Prescott and the offense certainly needed the work and the confidence that came with having overwhelming success against the Eagles, but getting the extra help in the playoff seeding was the icing on the cake. McCarthy was proven right by playing his starters for most of the game.
Cedrick Wilson is a playmaker
When wide receiver Michael Gallup went down, the Cowboys needed Wilson to step up and be the third receiver in the mix. The 2018 sixth-rounder out of Boise State answered the call earlier in the season when Gallup missed seven weeks, and he stepped up again versus the Eagles.
Wilson had five catches for 119 yards and two scores, while working the intermediate and deep middle of the field. That’s an area where the Cowboys have struggled in the back half of the season and where Wilson might help the offense be more explosive.
Gallup has been a very good receiver in Dallas, but Wilson might add that extra element of speed the offense needs. Wilson averaged 23.8 yards per catch against Philadelphia and could be the deep threat that might unlock the Cowboys’ offense in the playoffs.
Greg’s leg is a concern
There’s no other way to put it, Greg Zuerlein is officially a problem. The veteran kicker missed his sixth extra point of the season on Saturday, which is the most in the league. The misses have forced the Cowboys to chase points all season long, and hoping that he doesn’t cost the team a game in the playoffs is a poor strategy.
Special teams coach John Fassel acknowledged that Zuerlein needs to make his kicks, but he has spent almost as much time explaining Zuerlein’s underlying issues as he has coaching this season.
Ultimately it’s on Zuerlein to make his kicks, since no one is coming to the rescue. Without replacing the source of the problem, the Cowboys are playing with fire.
Defense needs Micah Parsons, and others
While the Cowboys played most of their offensive starters, the same wasn’t true of their defense. COVID protocol and illness kept four defensive starters out against the Eagles, most notably star rookie Parsons and veteran safety/linebacker hybrid Jayron Kearse. The Eagles ran the ball well with their backup offensive line and running backs, gashing the Cowboys for 149 yards on the ground.
However, that was done without Parsons and Kearse on the field. The duo are the top two leading tacklers on the Dallas defense and they surely would have made things more difficult for Philadelphia.
Even with their best, the Cowboys have had some issues stopping the run at times this season, so they’ll need all the help they can get against the 49ers and their dynamic rushing attack coming into the playoffs. San Francisco averaged 127.4 yards per game on the ground, which was 7th-best in the league.
Without Parsons, it was clear how the defense doesn’t function, as well, but that won’t be the case against the 49ers. Expect a fully healthy defense ready to apply the lessons learned through a successful regular season.
Do you think the Cowboys will make use of the Week 18 momentum against San Francisco? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.