The San Francisco 49ers are headed back to the NFC Championship Game after taking down the Dallas Cowboys to wrap up the NFL Divisional Round. The Niners will spend the next week preparing for the Philadelphia Eagles. Meanwhile, the Cowboys will have some difficult questions to answer in the weeks ahead.
But before that, we break down the takeaways from the Cowboys vs. 49ers game on Sunday night.
4 Takeaways From Cowboys vs. 49ers
First-Half Slugfest Between Two Defensive Juggernauts
Nick Bosa, Micah Parsons, Fred Warner, Demarcus Lawrence, Talanoa Hufanga, and Trevon Diggs make for a lot of star power on these two defenses. Sprinkle in DeMeco Ryans and Dan Quinn as the two defensive coordinators, and you’ll find two defenses with high motors and sharp minds.
Neither team topped 150 yards in the first half, and both teams struggled to move the ball on the ground. CeeDee Lamb, Christian McCaffrey, Tony Pollard, and Deebo Samuel were all relatively bottled up in the first 30 minutes of the game.
Dak Prescott managed the 49ers’ pass rush well enough, but a few horrific decisions led to six of the 49ers’ nine points in the half. Meanwhile, the Cowboys rush got home on Brock Purdy twice and made him look uncomfortable more often than not.
Every inch each team picked up felt exhausting for the opposing team, which neither offense is used to feeling. Teams don’t usually tackle Samuel and Pollard well. But both teams made the opposing stars earn every single blade of grass.
Dak Prescott Earned His Interceptions
Unless you live under a rock, you’re well aware that Dak Prescott led the NFL with 15 interceptions in 2022. Not all interceptions are created equal. While Prescott has played his part in many, not all were his fault. But nobody should question who was at fault for Prescott’s interceptions against San Francisco on Sunday.
While Micahel Gallup certainly holds a minority share of the blame for Prescott’s first interception, the risk profile associated with the throw simply wasn’t worth the potential reward. He expected Gallup to come back to the ball and box out his defender, but that’s not what happened. Gallup stopped at the sticks, and Deommodore Lenoir drove on the football.
His second interception was much worse. Lamb sat down over the middle, felt the coverage from Warner on his back, and slid outside to find a window. However, Jimmie Ward was in the zone Lamb slid into. He must have been using an invisibility cloak because Prescott never saw the safety and threw it right at him. The ball swung up and into the arms of Warner for the interception.
Seven seasons into his career, Prescott is 2-4 in his playoff career. And while he’s played some very good football during his playoff career, he’s hit the spike strips against San Francisco two times in a row. The Cowboys ask a lot of Prescott in their offense, and in a regular-season environment, that works.
But against legitimately good defenses like San Francisco, it simply doesn’t work. The hyper-timing-based offense won’t hold up against a defense like the 49ers. And while Kellen Moore’s offense is part of the problem, he is not making the decisions.
Game Management Continues To Haunt Mike McCarthy
Mike McCarthy entered Sunday with a kicker who had missed five of his last six extra points and decided to send him out to kick the extra point after Dallas made the game 6-3 with an impressive touchdown drive. The ball was tipped, but the kick was pulled left from the start.
There were two fourth-down situations he botched as well. It won’t be discussed because the result of Bryan Anger’s punt on fourth-and-five from their own 48 was a RayRay McCloud fumble, but it was the wrong decision to punt from a win probability perspective. Going for it gave Dallas a 34% chance to win the game. If they succeeded, their chances rose to 43% compared to 26% if they failed the attempt.
But that wasn’t his worst decision.
With 6:09 left in the third quarter, the Cowboys faced a fourth-and-five from the 49ers’ 40-yard line. Going for it gave Dallas a 46% chance to win. A field goal attempt gave them a 43% chance, and a punt gave them a 42% chance to win the game. Out of the three options, McCarthy chose… poorly.
The Cowboys Are Inevitable
It’s hard not to have at least a little belief in the dark arts if you’ve witnessed the Dallas Cowboys since 1996. There have been some very talented teams to don the star, but none have been able to emerge victorious past the Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs.
Jimmy Johnson’s divorce from the Cowboys has been discussed ad nauseam over the years. Despite winning two Super Bowls with the Cowboys and doing much of the roster construction that built the Cowboys’ impressive run of three Super Bowls in four seasons, Johnson remains on the outside looking in at the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor.
It’s not surprising that Jerry Jones would let his ego get in the way of doing the right thing. The Cowboys have had issues with the sun at AT&T Stadium during mid-afternoon games since the stadium was built. They have curtains to curtail the problem, but Jones refused to use them while other events do.
But it goes beyond that. Dallas once again played a sloppy game filled with missed opportunities and bad penalties against San Francisco. And then, inevitably, the run defense allowed Shanahan, McCaffrey, and Elijah Mitchell to run right down the throat of Dallas’s defense to end the game.
No matter how good the roster is, the Cowboys season is inevitable. They’ll do just enough to excite and breed hope within the fanbase, only to rip their jaded hearts out in the end. But that’s only for those fans who still feel, and still have dreams of their success.
If you’re a Cowboys fan, it’s best to live by the wise words of Peter La Fleur, “I found that if you have a goal, that you might not reach it. But if you don’t have one, then you are never disappointed. And I gotta tell ya… it feels phenomenal.”