If the San Francisco 49ers want to keep their slim playoff chances alive, they will need to beat the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. The Niners are reeling, losing five out of their last six games and sit 5-8 going into the final three weeks of the season.
San Francisco sits two games behind the Arizona Cardinals for the seventh and final playoff spot in the NFC, so a loss here combined with a Cardinals win will mathematically eliminate the 49ers from postseason contention.
The 4-9 Cowboys are coming off a blowout win over the Cincinnati Bengals and are two games behind the Washington Football Team for the NFC East’s top spot. Like San Francisco, Dallas’ season has been marred by injury.
Quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a gruesome leg injury in Week 5 and won’t return until 2021. The Cowboys’ offensive line has been without Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Cameron Erving and La’el Collins for long stretches, causing the team to plummet towards the bottom of the standings.
Without Prescott, Andy Dalton has led Dallas’ offense. The unit sits 12th in total yards per game and sits 23rd in total DVOA at -9.3%. Running back Ezekiel Elliot is eighth in the NFL in total yards, but he is averaging just 64 yards per outing.
The passing stats were padded during Prescott’s five outings and haven’t been nearly as good since Dak got hurt. Even though Dalton has played three more games than Prescott, he has thrown for 316 fewer yards and is averaging just 172.5 per game. Despite missing several offensive linemen, the Cowboys have done an excellent job protecting the QB, ranking 11th in adjusted sack rate, per Football Outsiders.
Dallas has a talented receiving group with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and rookie CeeDee Lamb leading the way. Cooper is 58 yards short of 1,000 for the season and leads all Cowboys’ pass catchers with 80 receptions.
The 49ers’ offense has been struggling with Nick Mullens at quarterback, but the unit could be in line for a big day against an awful Dallas defense. The Cowboys are giving up 377.8 yards per contest, but the defense ranks last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game. This bodes well for Kyle Shanahan’s run-first offense. Raheem Mostert may miss the game while dealing with an ankle injury. If he does, expect a heavy dose of Jeff Wilson Jr. on Sunday.
San Francisco should be able to take advantage of a Cowboys defense that gives up a league-high 5.1 yards per carry.
Dallas’s passing defense is one of the best in the league. The unit is sixth in the league, giving up just 210.3 yards through the air per game. With Mullens’ poor performance, head coach Kyle Shanahan will likely try to shield him against a stout passing defense.
The good news for Mullens — who has made several mistakes when faced with pressure — is that the Cowboys aren’t great at getting after the quarterback. Dallas has 24 total sacks on the season and only blitzes 23.5% of the time.
The 49ers had a difficult time converting third downs against Washington last week and moved the chains on just 39.9% of their third-down attempts on the seasons. That should improve this week against Dallas, with its defense giving up first downs 50% of the time on third-down.
This game will come down to turnovers. San Francisco and Dallas are among the worst in the NFL in turnover differential, with the 49ers tied for third-worst (-7), while the Cowboys are tied for second-worst (-10).
What do you think are the biggest keys to victory for the Niners?