- READ: Cowboys pick No. 26 following Divisional Round loss
- READ: McCarthy doesn't elaborate on bizarre final play of season
- READ: Trotter: Niners' depth, talent shine despite not playing 'best game'
- READ: Cowboys RB Tony Pollard out three months with broken leg
- READ: Prescott takes blame for loss to 49ers: '100 percent on me'
- Defense reigns in Santa Clara. As they've said for decades, defense wins championships, and San Francisco's top-ranked unit stood tall Sunday. San Francisco forced two Dak Prescott turnovers and held Dallas under 300 yards of total offense while also denying the Cowboys on 10 of 15 third-down attempts. The low-scoring affair didn't produce a ton of fireworks, but there were highlights sprinkled throughout the game, starting with Deommodore Lenoir's perfectly timed interception of Prescott, leading to the 49ers' first points of the game. CeeDee Lamb found success (10 catches for 117 yards), but Dallas struggled to get anything going on the ground, finishing with 76 yards produced by a group that sorely missed Tony Pollard after he exited with an ugly ankle injury. San Francisco's defense harassed Prescott all game, recording 17 combined pressures between Samson Ebukam (seven), Nick Bosa (six) and Arik Armstead (four). Each accounted for a turnover caused by pressure, and Ebukam was responsible for San Francisco's lone sack. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is attracting a lot of attention for head coaching openings for good reason. He's proven to be an excellent coordinator who has this defense playing at an elite level at the perfect time of year. It proved to be the difference Sunday.
- Dak Prescott falls back to earth at worst time. We spent the entire week marveling over Prescott's Super Wild Card Weekend performance, which was one of his best showings of his career. It was also an encouraging sign that, when the stakes were at their highest, he could possibly overcome crushing mistakes made in previous games. What we learned Sunday is that we were wrong. Prescott made a couple of errors that ended Dallas drives and put the 49ers in position to score. San Francisco took both of its Prescott interceptions and produced six points from them, building almost all of its eventual winning margin. That was far from the whole story, of course, but in a game in which Dallas faced the No. 1 defense in the NFL, the Cowboys needed their star quarterback to play like one. He didn't, completing 62% of his passes for 206 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and one long connection with Lamb that was wasted when Mike McCarthy decided to punt on fourth-and-5 from San Francisco's 40, taking a delay of game to kick from the 49ers' 45. Prescott's name and the debate over his inability to lift the Cowboys to the NFC Championship Game will be prominently featured across the circuit of sports-talk shows Monday, if not longer. And although there was much more to this weekend than Prescott's struggles, it's deserved criticism for a quarterback who isn't elevating a team many see as good enough to legitimately contend for a title.
- The Kyle Shanahan rushing attack remains fierce. I spent an entire point on San Francisco's defense, but Dallas' group is pretty solid, too. Brock Purdy learned this in the first half Sunday, struggling to get comfortable and establish a rhythm in the passing game, finishing the first two quarters 12 of 19 for 129 yards. Shanahan spent the break regrouping and adjusting, and when the 49ers took a 16-9 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter, the time arrived to officially shift to the run game and grind out a win. San Francisco followed up its 10-play, 91-yard touchdown march with a 13-play, 64-yard drive that took nearly eight minutes off the clock and produced an important Robbie Gould field goal, draining precious minutes remaining for Dallas to mount a comeback. It did so by shrinking its passing game and pounding the run, picking up four first downs and methodically moving into field goal range. Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell combined for 86 yards and one touchdown on the day, which isn't a stunning output, but came at a time when the 49ers needed to succeed on the ground the most. Mitchell's final significant carry picked up an important first down inside two minutes, and although he mistakenly stepped out of bounds and stopped the clock, that gain allowed the 49ers to eat up additional time and force the Cowboys to act with extreme urgency. Shanahan has long been known as an excellent in-game coach and timed his decisions perfectly within the flow of the game. As we learned the last time the 49ers reached the Super Bowl, running the ball will be vitally important to San Francisco's chances of victory. It helped them to victory once again on a day in which Purdy didn't light up the scoreboard with his arm.
- Dallas' Divisional Round losing streak lives on. The Cowboys built a ton of positive momentum down the stretch in 2022, overcoming Prescott's early-season injury to mount a run toward a Lombardi Trophy. It ended with a whimper Sunday. The Cowboys matched the 49ers step for step in the first half, and kept things close until their defense started to crumble under constant pressure in the second half. More importantly, though, the Cowboys' explosive offense flat-out failed to produce enough points and capitalize on opportunities Sunday. The final play was strange and ugly, sure, but this game was about much more than that (and more than Dalton Schultz's two mistakes made on the final drive). The Cowboys' narrative of postseason failure added a new chapter Sunday, and as America's Team, there's no escaping reality (and the criticism that follows). We spent months wondering whether Dallas would add talent at receiver for Prescott, and it ended up adding T.Y. Hilton. Ezekiel Elliott's future is in doubt after his role was slightly diminished by the emergence of Pollard. And Prescott, while excellent on Super Wild Card Weekend, wasn't good enough to get the Cowboys over an important hump. Prescott and other Cowboys can gush over their potential in one-on-one, sit-down interviews in the offseason, but if they can't move deeper in future postseasons, it will again be meaningless. This season has to feel like at least a little bit of a waste after the manner in which it ended.
- Brock Purdy's magical run heads to NFC title game. The rookie darling of storytellers everywhere wasn't great Sunday. It's fair to admit this. But Purdy was good enough to avoid significant mistakes and complete an occasional splash play, like the connection with George Kittle that required the tight end to pull off a juggling act fit for a three-ring circus. He's playing in the NFC Championship Game in his first professional season, and it's because he was able to survive a relentless Dallas pass rush that made a number of passers look bad throughout this season. Shanahan deserves a ton of credit for putting Purdy in good positions to succeed, and Purdy deserves even more appreciation for staying within himself and not allowing the moment to consume him. That's often just as important as talent in these games. With a premier defense supporting him on the other side of the line of scrimmage and a stable of playmakers good enough to elevate this offense beyond the pure powers of its young quarterback, Purdy is in a great situation. All he has to do is continue being himself -- and maybe make a highlight or two next weekend. A Super Bowl appearance is on the line for Mr. Irrelevant. That's what I call relevance.
Next Gen stat of the game: The 49ers turned to zone coverage almost exclusively Sunday, relying on it on 94.7% of coverage snaps and recording two interceptions in zone coverage. The two picks pushed their total to 21 in zone coverage this season (including playoffs), the most in the NFL.
NFL Research: The 49ers have won 12 straight games, the longest active win streak in the NFL, which also ties longest win streak in a season in 49ers franchise history, set in 1984. In that season, they won their last nine regular-season games and all three playoff games, capping it with a win over the Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX.