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2021 NFL playoffs: What to watch for in 49ers-Cowboys on Super Wild Card Weekend

San Francisco 49ers
2021 · 10-7-0
Dallas Cowboys
2021 · 12-5-0

Old rivals meet in vastly different circumstances this weekend at AT&T Stadium.

Back before most of the players taking the field this weekend were even born, the Cowboys and 49ers created one of the fiercest rivalries in the NFC playoffs. Dallas and San Francisco faced off in the NFC Championship Game in three straight seasons from 1992 to 1994, and the last four winners of this series went on to win the Super Bowl. Dallas owns a distinct advantage in the all-time history of this playoff rivalry with a 5-2 mark against San Francisco, but that was then.

This is now.

San Francisco needed a late comeback and overtime victory in Week 18 to secure its place in the playoffs, and gets little time to rest before taking on the explosive Cowboys, owners of the league's top offense. A year after disappointing, the Cowboys are right back where owner Jerry Jones believes they belong: front and center on the NFL stage. They'll meet a team looking to take them down on its own path of redemption.

San Francisco was the NFC champion just two seasons ago, but has weathered a storm strong enough to cripple lesser clubs. The 49ers struggled through an injury-riddled 2020 season, then attempted to prevent a similar outcome by trading up in the draft to select North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance.

The responsibility doesn't fall on the shoulders of Lance this weekend, though. Those shoulders belong to Jimmy Garoppolo, who is attempting to lead the 49ers on a deep playoff run before potentially departing the Bay Area.

Garoppolo has his own redemption to earn after faltering down the stretch and opening the door just wide enough for the Kansas City Chiefs to stage a memorable comeback en route to a Super Bowl LIV victory. Back in the playoffs once again, Garoppolo has another chance to prove that result was nothing more than a fluke -- and potentially state his case for employment elsewhere.

All of that can be quickly washed away by a Dallas team that is strong on both sides of the ball. But the Cowboys have their own ghosts to chase off, making their first playoff appearance since the 2018 season, which met a familiar ending: a loss in the Divisional Round. Can the Cowboys return to the Divisional Round -- or perhaps further? They begin to answer those questions this weekend.

Here are four things to watch when the Cowboys host the 49ers:

  1. The Dak attack meets ferocious 49ers. Dak Prescott's bounce-back year following a significant ankle injury hasn't been without its struggles, but his production overall has been very strong. Prescott brings with him a 37-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio, a 68.6 completion percentage and nearly 4,500 passing yards in 16 games played, overcoming preseason shoulder fatigue and an in-season calf injury to power the NFL's No. 1 offense. He'll face a significant challenge in the league's third-best defense this weekend, and the matchup might come down to how well San Francisco's base rush can get after Prescott. San Francisco's pass rush has been excellent with just four or fewer rushers, ranking third in QB pressure percentage and sack percentage, per Next Gen Stats. The issue is with coverage, which has struggled even while dedicating fewer defenders to the rush. Prescott, meanwhile, has thrived against base rushes, ranking first in completion percentage (72.9), second in completion percentage over expected (+4.5), third in passer rating (100.9) and fifth in yards per attempt (7.7). The 49ers will need to find a way to flip this in their favor, or else risk Prescott carving them up, no matter how many defenders they drop in coverage.
  2. Will Garoppolo avoid the crushing mistakes? In total, Jimmy Garoppolo hasn't had a bad season, posting a 20-12 TD-to-INT ratio in 2021. But too often, Garoppolo has garnered more attention for his struggles than his success. Against a defense like the one located in Dallas, that can end up being fatal. The Cowboys led the NFL in defensive touchdowns this season with six, and have scored 119 points off turnovers, the second-highest total in the NFL. In San Francisco's nine wins in which Garoppolo played, he had four total giveaways, while in their six losses in which he played, he had 11. Sunday marked the first time this season San Francisco was able to overcome two Garoppolo interceptions to win a game, one it absolutely needed to get into the playoffs. Garoppolo himself rebounded, leading two scoring drives to overcome a touchdown deficit and triumph in overtime. Should he make such errors again, can Garoppolo prove resilient enough to help the 49ers score an upset? Or will his struggles -- which aren't guaranteed, of course, but are documented -- end up sinking the 49ers?
  3. Who wins the battle of former colleagues? Kyle Shanahan and Dan Quinn have experience on the playoff stage. Quinn was the head coach under whom Shanahan served in Atlanta during the 2016 season, a campaign made memorable by Atlanta's combination of explosive, Shanahan-directed offense and Quinn's defensive-minded approach. They were a quarter from winning a Super Bowl together before their collapse cost them a chance at history. The two have followed their own divergent paths since then, trading roles (Shanahan becoming head coach in San Francisco, Quinn moving to defensive coordinator in Dallas) but meet on the field this weekend with high stakes. Shanahan's seventh-ranked offense meets Quinn's 19th-ranked defense, which seems lopsided on paper, but also doesn't include Dallas' premier ability to cause turnovers. No unit has been better at taking possession from opponents than Quinn's Cowboys defense, and it might be meeting an ideal opponent in San Francisco, which is tied for 20th in giveaways this season. The last time the two met, Quinn's Atlanta Falcons defeated Shanahan's 49ers 29-22 during San Francisco's NFC title-winning season. Can Quinn capitalize with a great game plan devised for an opponent he knows quite well? Will Dallas' group of young defensive playmakers (interceptions leader Trevon Diggs, rookie sensation Micah Parsons) force Garoppolo and Co. to make devastating mistakes? Or will Shanahan's offensive mind outfox Quinn?
  4. Can the Cowboys get over the hump? Dallas has been here before. The Cowboys have taken the league by storm a couple of times in the last decade, but have fizzled in the postseason, falling to Green Bay in the Divisional Round in 2014 and 2016 after winning 12-plus games in the regular season. Mike McCarthy has his own history with playoff disappointments, but he also brings key experience, leading the Packers to a victory in Super Bowl XLV in the 2010 season with current Cowboys offensive line coach Joe Philbin on his staff. Quinn lost Super Bowl LI, but won Super Bowl XLVIII as Seahawks defensive coordinator. And assistant defensive line coach Leon Lett won three Super Bowls as a player with the Cowboys in the 1990s. The experience is there on the staff, then, but the players still have to get the job done. Part of that job will require exorcising Dallas' demons, which have prevented the Cowboys from even reaching the doorstep of the Super Bowl. The NFC is loaded and there isn't an easy matchup to be had for Dallas. Now is the time to practice what the Cowboys' staff has been preaching, starting with a rival familiar to those Cowboys teams of the '90s.

Next Gen stat of the matchup: Amari Cooper (T-third) and CeeDee Lamb (T-eighth) both rank in the top 10 in touchdown receptions on targets of 10-plus air yards this season. San Francisco is the only defense to allow a completion rate over expected of +7% on passes of 10-plus air yards in 2021.

NFL Research: The 49ers and Cowboys are each one of four teams with three players to record 800-plus receiving yards and five-plus receiving touchdowns in 2021. San Francisco's Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk are responsible for such achievements, while Dallas' trio is comprised of CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and tight end Dalton Schultz.

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