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49ers/Cowboys predictions: This will be a Kyle Shanahan game, and that’s a good thing

Expect plenty of points

San Francisco 49ers v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

We made it through the first 18-week season in NFL history. We don’t have to worry about free agency or the NFL Draft for at least another week as the 49ers, as frustrating as they were to watch this season, eventually made the playoffs.

Here are our staff predictions for what figures to be the best game of Wild Card weekend.

Marc’s Prediction: 49ers 31, Cowboys 21

Jimmy Garoppolo’s erratic play and the 49ers’ overall inconsistency have made it hard to feel confident they were living up to their potential. Maybe I’m Charlie Brown trying to kick the football again, but I think their improving health is enough to make me believe they have finally turned a corner.

Garoppolo will always make me nervous, and the Cowboys have the defensive playmakers to bury the 49ers. The 49ers' defense has probably only played two quarterbacks this season that is in the same conversation as Dak Prescott, which makes it even harder to get a read on this game. Garoppolo could throw three picks while Prescott dices up San Francisco’s defense, and it’s all over. But I bet against Shanahan early on the season, and he proved me wrong in the second half. So I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt this week.

Jordan’s Prediction: 49ers 30, Cowboys 24

How do road teams win in the playoffs? Running the ball and rushing the passer, arguably the 49ers' two greatest strengths as they head into SUPER wild card weekend.

I think that Jimmy Garoppolo will come into this game with an elevated level of confidence after his heroic performance in Week 18, and more importantly, I think that Garoppolo will NOT turn the ball over in this game. I believe the 49ers will be able to get their ground game going and physically wear down the Cowboys' defense over the course of this game.

The Cowboys boast an explosive offense, and I do think they will have their moments against this 49ers' defense. Still, overall I think the 49ers' ferocious pass rush will ultimately overcome a very stout Cowboys offensive line. I believe that the Cowboys will struggle to find an answer for the trio of Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk.
The 49ers get into position to take the lead late with the Cowboys needing a touchdown to win, and the defense holds them to catapult the 49ers into a divisional-round matchup against the Packers at Lambeau Field.

Akash’s prediction: 49ers 27, Cowboys 21

I think the 49ers are built for January, given how they’ve played in the second half of the season. A physical brand of football that features one of the most explosive rushing attacks, a stout run defense, and a pass rush that’s been sneakily one of the best in the NFL.

The 49ers are starting to get healthy at the right time and have matchup advantages in some key areas. This season, the Cowboys are 1-4 against 10-win teams and haven’t beaten a non-Eagles playoff team since Week 6.

San Francisco’s battle-tested, coming in with a ton of momentum and playing with house money as a three-point underdog. I love the 49ers in this position and think they impose their will on Sunday and will advance to the NFC Divisional Round.

Yinon’s prediction: 49ers 28, Cowboys 23

Reports of Jimmy Garappolo’s digital demise were greatly exaggerated. His thumb is fine. I was really encouraged to see him look good physically and mentally… I think he has that 2017 swagger back a little bit.

He’s faced an insane amount of pressure since the moment Trey Lance got drafted, dealing with injuries and tough losses. He’s the quarterback in this tournament with the least to lose - his fate is decided, but his legacy isn’t. He gets a clean goodbye, a definitive end, and with such a weak QB draft/free agency class, he’s making his millions next year either way. From our outsider perspective, he seems to be in this incredible headspace, focused and locked in on this Last Dance. I predict that he’ll be dialed in to throw eleven perfect passes while we run for 200 yards.

The Cowboys just seem soft, especially on run defense. I think Ol’ Reliable - 18-play run-heavy drives that take up entire quarters - will get the job done. They’ll give us a scare toward the end, with Lamb and Cooper looming, but their overly opportunistic defense will bust in the wrong moments for them. Mike McCarthy never scared anybody.

Tyler’s Prediction: 49ers 27, Cowboys 17

If this season has taught us anything, it’s right when you believe this team turned a corner and everything’s going to be smooth sailing; from then on, that’s when they lay an egg and break your heart... But what can I say? I’m ready to get hurt again.

To combat my own point and quell the voice in the back of my head, I’ll point out that the majority of the Niners' biggest losses this year came during stretches of bad injury luck. Garoppolo’s calf, the entire secondary against McCoy’s Cardinals, no Deebo in Seattle, Emmanuel Moseley, and Elijah Mitchell in Tennessee, plus Garoppolo’s thumb.

As of right now, counting on the return of Trent Williams, this might be the healthiest the team has been in years. A full offensive arsenal led by a nine-fingered QB and a highly functioning D that’s made do with its missing parts might be the best we’ll ever get.

When it comes to Dallas, there are several matchups that favor the 49ers. The Cowboys’ D allows a ton of yards, especially on the ground, and relies heavily on turnovers. If Shanahan establishes the run and draws up low-risk ways to get the ball in his playmakers’ hands, then they should be able to take control and never give it back.

Rob’s Prediction: 49ers 31, Cowboys 28

I don’t think a team in the league comes into the playoffs with more confidence than the 49ers. They have a battle-tested roster, an experienced coach, and they’re as healthy as they’ve been all season long. That’s a hell of a combination.

As others have mentioned, the Cowboys' defense isn’t as good as they look on paper. Leading the league in turnovers goes a long way towards masking deficiencies. In the four games this season, when they failed to force a turnover, Dallas has allowed 398 yards per game - that would be the worst in the league over a full season. They also allowed an average of 26 points per game in those contests, and they didn’t exactly come against elite offenses (Vikings, Broncos, Raiders, and Cardinals).

On the other side of the ball, the 49ers’ front seven has to shut down the Cowboys rushing attack because DeMeco Ryans is going to have to use Tartt and Ward to protect their corners against Dallas’ wide receivers. Fortunately for San Francisco, they have the second-best defensive DVOA against the run this year, so that’s entirely possible. Especially with an aging Zeke Elliott and a banged-up Tony Pollard.

Turnovers can always change everything, but if the 49ers protect the ball, I don’t see how the Cowboys stop them enough times to get the win.

Xavier: 49ers 31, Cowboys 27

The 49ers finished their season on a strong note and look to bring that same energy into Super Wild Card weekend. I actually think these two teams have a few similarities. Both teams have strong defensive lines and questionable cornerbacks. Yes, Dallas has the league leader in interceptions in Trevon Diggs, but he is far from a lockdown corner, and San Francisco has a few playmakers that can capitalize on his gambling.

With that being said, Jimmy Garoppolo needs to bring his A-game for four quarters. It’s easy to say the Niners can win if they run the ball successfully, but Garoppolo has to target all three levels of the defense to keep them honest. The return of Trent Williams will help revive the offense as they prepare to go against a productive defensive line. San Francisco’s offense will have to score TOUCHDOWNS to fan off the league leaders in points per game (Dallas).

Getting pressure with four will be key for a Niner victory Sunday. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has several dynamic pass-catchers against a cornerback group that has been up and down. Knocking down and sacking Prescott will help out this cornerback group who has been vulnerable on passes of 16+ air yards. Ultimately, I believe the 49ers can get enough stops and outscore the Cowboys to move on to the next round.

Kyle’s prediction: 49ers 27, Cowboys 23

So we’re clear, the 49ers were not beating the Cowboys without Trent Williams. Yes, they did so against a familiar opponent last week. But doing so against a Dallas defense full of track stars along the line is wishful thinking.

Thankfully, the Niners will have the best left tackle for the past decade back in the lineup. Let’s remove the Eagles game from last week as a data point since Philly was without some notable players, including their starting QB. Since the Cowboys' bye week in Week 7, only one offense ranks better than average in rushing efficiency.

The average rushing DVOA the Cowboys have faced during this stretch is 23rd, yet, they’re 19th in rushing EPA per play allowed since then. Despite missing Elijah Mitchell for a big chunk of the second half, and a few other pieces here and there, San Francisco finished the season fifth in rushing DVOA. Dallas is in for a surprise Sunday.

Another area where the Cowboys struggle defensively is defending the middle of the field. George Kittle had five receptions for ten yards last week. If there’s one guarantee, we can make it’s that Kittle will surpass ten receiving yards this week.

Why? The Cowboys allow a 61% success rate on 8.5 yards per reception to in-line tight ends — where Kittle runs 65% of his routes. Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk are equally as dangerous over the middle.

Furthermore, the Cowboys are 31st in the NFL at allowing yards after the catch. The trio of Samuel, Aiyuk, and Kittle are literally nicknamed the YAC bros. After this season, they should be upgraded to YAC gods, but that’s for another discussion.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend this is going to be a one-sided matchup. The Cowboys have talent all over the field on both sides of the ball.

Their defense is second in the NFL in turnovers and interceptions per drive. They also are third in drive success rate allowed and first in time of possession. That’s before we get into the high-flying offense.

There will be points—plenty of them. I’m taking the team that’s built to win in the playoffs and fading Mike McCarthy.