American Football

5 things to watch when the Cowboys play the 49ers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs


NFL: NFC Wild Card Round-Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Some things worth keeping an eye on during the Cowboys and 49ers game.

“Nothing would be finer than to be a 49er!”

That is the arrangement of letters placed on a giant sign of a local muffler shop that 10-year Danny Phantom had to walk past as he went to school on a cold morning day in Turlock, California right after the San Francisco 49ers had just defeated the Dallas Cowboys in the 1981 NFC Championship game. Needless to say, it wasn’t a fun way to start the morning.

The level of loathsomeness for the 49ers entered my bloodstream at a young age. At the time, it was the fourth time the Cowboys and 49ers had met in the postseason, starting with three consecutive years in the early ‘70s. Little did we know it was just a taste of more to come as they have squared off four more times, including three consecutive years in the early ‘90s.

On Sunday, it will mark the ninth time these teams will have played each other in the playoffs. The Cowboys have never played more postseason games against any other team in the NFC. This has gracefully aged as one of the best non-division rivalries the league has to offer. And if that isn’t enough, the 49ers are the last team to send the Cowboys packing from the playoffs and that doesn’t sit well with Cowboys Nation. It’s time for them to pay!

Make no mistake about it, this is going to be a tough one. We shouldn’t expect to see any Tom Brady worm-burners or a Keystone cops Bucs’ secondary running around in confusion. This is a good 49ers team. So, what should we expect to see? Here are five things to watch when these two NFC icons face off on Sunday.

I want to crush you, PYT, Purdy young thing

Seventh-round pick Brock Purdy has been anything but irrelevant to this 49ers football team. Since taking over for the injured Jimmy Garapolo (who took over for the injured Trey Lance), all Purdy has done is win every game he’s started. In just six NFL starts, he has over 1,700 yards passing with 16 touchdowns and three interceptions, including two-straight games with three TDs and zero INTs.

It’s easy to point out the talented pass-catching targets the 49ers have and just say Purdy is a benefactor of a great offensive system, but the rookie has earned some respect. His remarkable 132.7 third-down passer rating is better than all other NFL quarterbacks this season. He’s thrown six touchdowns and no picks on the money down. That’s clutch.

At the same time, you won’t find an offensive mind that makes it easier on his quarterback than Kyle Shanahan, and that is why Purdy has had the luxury of throwing to wide-open pass catchers. So, the Cowboys can’t just hold their breath and wait for the clock to strike 12 on this Cinderella story. Instead, they must rattle him. Purdy loves to break the pocket and is an elusive scrambler, but the Cowboys’ pass rush needs to get in his grill and tempt him to make bad choices.

Purdy has shown good poise this season and his confidence grows when he gets into a rhythm. The Cowboys’ defense must disrupt that rhythm and challenge him to make some tough throws. Rookie or not, if the defense doesn’t make him uncomfortable, the Cinderella story will continue.

Sister Christian, oh, the time has come

With their Wild Card win over the Seattle Seahawks last week, the 49ers have reeled off 11-straight wins. It’s not a coincidence that their winning streak took off right when Christian McCaffrey became a big part of their offense. He was eased into action during his debut (just eight carries), but in every game since, McCaffrey has gotten more than 10 touches in per game. The 49ers have won every one of those games.

Kyle Shanahan is masterful at scheming up running plays to get his players in space, and if McCaffrey gets a running start through a lane, that could be a problem. The Cowboys have been known to get beat around the edge, but typically they do a decent job running down the ball carriers to prevent big gains. If McCaffrey flies around the edge, it could open the door for some big running plays. Containment is nice, but obstruction is crucial. The Cowboys can’t let this guy build a head of steam as he crosses the line of scrimmage.

And speaking of containment, McCaffrey is really good at sneaking out of the backfield and getting open as a receiver. He has seven games this season with at least 50 yards receiving, including three of them with 80+ yards. He’s not a player the Cowboys want to lose sight of.

Aiyuka-Chaka Ooga-Ooga

Deebo Samuel and George Kittle are the big names of this 49ers offense, but defenses don’t want to forget about third-year receiver Brandon Aiyuk. Coming off his first 1,000-yard season, the crafty receiver has gotten better each season. Aiyuk is a dangerous playmaker who can reach high speeds quickly, which makes him a force on quick slants and any type of play that gets him the ball in his hands early. While he’s not quite the YAC’er that Samuel is, Aiyuk doesn’t go down easy once he’s running in the open field. His physical presence also comes in handy as a blocker.

The Niners pass catchers as a whole block really well and it will be vital for the Cowboys’ secondary to not get washed up in the mix. They’ll need to take good angles, fight and shred, and not make any Trevon Diggs “business decisions” if they want to limit big gains. I can’t stop this feeling deep inside of me that if the Cowboys don’t bring their “A” game when tackling, this isn’t going to end well.

Put my thang down, flip it and reverse it

The Cowboys’ offense was firing on all cylinders against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. When the defense zigged, the Cowboys zagged. It was really enjoyable if you were a Cowboys fan.

The same level of creativity needs to be on display against the 49ers. Kellen Moore needs to reach deeper into his bag and find ways to get their playmakers in space. Expect to see a lot of different formations with an assortment of players lining up in the backfield. The Cowboys have to keep the 49ers defense from loitering in the box but to do that they are going to need to make San Francisco respect the roles of every skill player that lines up. Keep them guessing.

We built this CeeDee on rock and roll

The biggest offensive weapon the Cowboys have is third-year receiver CeeDee Lamb. His presence in the slot should present challenges for the 49ers’ defense. Likely covered by hybrid safety/corner Jimmie Ward, Lamb should be able to work himself into space regularly. His targets should be plentiful, but what he does with them remains to be seen.

The Niners have to make Lamb feel it whenever he touches the ball with extra safeties on the field including second-year All-Pro thumper Talanoa Hufanga who doesn’t shy away from laying the wood. If CeeDee can get free releases and get loose after the catch, it could be a long day for the 49ers’ secondary.

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