SUPER wild card weekend is upon us, and there is not a more electric matchup among this week’s slate of games than the one the 49ers will play against their longtime rival, the Dallas Cowboys. According to DraftKings SportsBook, Dallas is currently favored by three points. Winning on the road is never an easy task, particularly in the playoffs, but the 49ers are a team that’s built to give a team like the Cowboy’s problems. Here is how San Francisco can pull off the upset.
Establish the run early and often
It’s simple when the 49ers are able to run the ball effectively. They are one of the hardest teams in football to beat. They are 22-1 since 2019 when they are able to run the ball 30+ times, and while I don’t think there should necessarily be a concerted goal to hit that number in this game, it does signify just how dominant this team is capable of being when they are able run the ball down their opponent's throat.
Dallas boasts an explosive offense, and the more the 49ers are able to control the clock, the less time they will leave for Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense to put points on the board. We saw as recently as the second half last week just how much the 49ers' defense benefited from the extended rest resulting from the offense stringing together long drives that were propelled by an efficient rushing attack.
The Cowboys' defense is predicated on creating turnovers and maximizing mistakes from their opponents, and the more often the 49ers lean on the run game, the less likely they are to put the ball in harm's way. However, Dallas ranks 23rd in the league in yards per carry allowed (4.5 yards), and there is a noticeable weakness on the outside when their cornerbacks are forced to defend the run.
Here is how the Cowboys corners rank among qualified cornerbacks in run defense grade this season, per Pro Football Focus
Trevon Diggs - 81st of 82
Jourdan Lewis - 70th of 82
Anthony Brown - 47th of 82
The 49ers scheme is heavily predicated on explosive outside runs, and the dynamic weapon that is Deebo Samuel creates one of the biggest mismatches in the sport. If the 49ers are constantly able to put the Cowboys' cornerbacks in conflict and force them to tackle in the open field, they should generate a healthy amount of production over the course of this game.
Getting pressure with the front four
The 49ers defensive line has been red hot down the backstretch of the season and miraculously somehow managed to replicate their sack total from 2019 with 48 sacks. The additions of Arden Key and Samson Ebukam have allowed the 49ers to unlock an absolutely elite grouping on obvious passing downs (3rd & long, two-minute drill, etc.). Since Key’s move to the interior in these situations, the 49ers' defensive line has been as effective as any unit in the league when it comes to getting after opposing quarterbacks.
With four or fewer rushers, the 49ers pass rush ranks :
3rd in QB pressure percentage at 29.4%
3rd in sack percentage at 7.4 %
When they generate pressure with four or fewer, opposing quarterbacks have been held to :
56% completion percentage
74.3 passer rating
Now on the flip side, opposing quarterbacks when they aren’t able to generate pressure while rushing four or fewer :
73% completion percentage
95.1 passer rating
The Cowboys boast one of the better offensive lines in football, so this matchup should be one for the ages. This battle in the trenches very well could define the outcome of this game. Quickly, I will remind anyone reading this that for the 49ers to tee off on Prescott, they will have to handle business against the run on early downs. The 49ers' defense should be up to the challenge, as they have been one of the better run defenses in the entire league to close out the season.
Win the turnover battle
I apologize for picking something so clichè and obvious, but it matters so much more than the average game because of the teams involved in this particular matchup. The Cowboys lead the NFL in turnovers forced (34) and turnover differential (+14). So much of their success this season has been predicated on their ability to maximize their possessions following an opponent's turnover, as Dallas ranked #1 in the league with 121 points off of turnovers this season.
Coincidentally, the most common denominator in the 49ers' seven losses this year has been them coughing the ball up. In 15 starts this year, Jimmy Garoppolo is 9-6. In the 9 wins, Garoppolo has only turned the ball over four times. In the 6 losses, Garoppolo has been responsible for 11 turnovers. If Garoppolo can take care of the ball (I think you he will, and I’ll mention that in my predictions with the other staff writers).
The 49ers currently have a -4 turnover differential, but an interesting note is that they have the same amount of giveaways as the Cowboys (both teams have turned the ball over 20 times this year) despite Dallas being +18 in turnover differential when compared to the 49ers. Now obviously, turning the ball over will help any opponent, but this Cowboys team THRIVES off of it. They are borderline dependent on it, and if the 49ers can play a clean game, they will effectively take the sting out of the Cowboys' defense.
Embrace the role of being the underdog
I don’t want this to contradict what I just said about the 49ers needing to play a clean game, but I do think they are capable of doing that while still coming out loose and taking some risks in this game. This is the first time under Kyle Shanahan that the 49ers will play a road game in the playoffs, and I think they need to lean all the way into it by coming out like they have nothing to lose.
The pressure lies far more on Dallas to handle its business in front of its home crowd, and I think this sets the 49ers up well to come out swinging from the jump. Whether it’s dialing up some shot plays early on offense or scheming up some exotic pressure on the defense, the 49ers NEED to be aggressive and embrace this underdog mentality as they look to make an improbable run through the NFC playoffs.