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49ers advance to the Divisional round after a late scare from the Cowboys

Never in doubt

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

You couldn’t have scripted a better start for a Kyle Shanahan-led team. The 49ers drove seven plays on the opening drive for 75 yards. They didn’t face a single third down and only faced one third down. Elijah Mitchell capped off the drive on a toss play as he went untouched into the end zone from four yards out.

You got the sense that Nick Bosa was in for a big game after being an All-Pro snub. It took two plays for Bosa to sack Dak Prescott. We can’t just single Bosa out, as Dre Greenlaw had a tackle for loss on second down, and Azeez Al-Shaair broke up a pass on first down. Those are the plays that set up Bosa for success.

The 49ers started with great field position on their second drive, starting from the 42. It seemed as though they had all of the momentum for their second straight touchdown, but an 11-yard loss on second down stalled the drive. Thankfully, Kyle Juszczyk fought for extra yardage on third down to put Robbie Gould into field goal range. Gould’s 53-yard kick was good to give San Francisco a 10-0 lead.

This is premature, but you can get a sense about these games pretty early. Dallas resorted to a trick play that ended up being a funky-looking lateral on third down. The play failed miserably. When you have to trick the other team, it’s a sign that you don’t trust your offense. After that play, I felt like the game was over.

The 49ers didn’t slow down on their third drive. Randy Gregory jumped offsides on a 3rd & 5 to keep the drive alive. Deebo picked up 19 yards on a third-down. Then, Jimmy did a fantastic job of using his legs to extend the play before finding Brandon Aiyuk, who had to lunge for a first down to pick up yet another third down.

On the final third down of the drive, Samuel came up short on 3rd & 2. I’m as big of a “go for it on fourth down” truther as you’ll find. But, based on the game flow, electing to kick a field goal to go up 13-0 when your opponent has one first down in two drives. Make them prove they can score.

Naturally, the Cowboys picked up a first down on their ensuing drive. They’d go on to score after Amari Cooper beat K’Waun Williams on a slot fade. Prescott threw a perfect pass. The 49ers were living in a defense with one single-high safety.

When that’s the case, you’re going to get plenty of slot fades or 1-on-1 routes down the sideline—knowing that I’d like them to make the adjustment they did against the Rams where you allow Jimmie Ward, who can actually run, to take the No. 2 wide receiver.

The 49ers offense answered after Brandon Aiyuk beat Trevon Diggs for a 37-yard gain:

A loss of one on first down and a tipped pass from the Cowboys on third down prevented the offense from doing anything after. Robbie Gould’s 52-yard field goal was good to give the Niners a 16-7 lead.

San Francisco had two opportunities to get off the field during the two-minute drill. Emmanuel Moseley made a great play to get into the backfield and slow Zeke Elliot down. But Fred Warner couldn’t finish the tackle, which gave Dallas a first down.

The Niners had a scare when Bosa went down on the field. It appeared as if he either had the wind knocked out of him or something of that nature. A giant sigh of relief let out when Bosa picked himself up, looked into the jumbotron, and gave everyone a thumbs up, letting them know he was OK.

The Cowboys had a holding call on the play, which prevented them from scoring. However, they would receive the second-half kick, so that was a massive stop from the defense. It was 16-7 at half.

Nick Bosa would not return in the second half, but Arik Armstead’s sack to open the third quarter on third down forced a Dallas punt. Unfortunately, the special teams unit, as they tend to do, screwed the pooch. Mark Nzeocha was flagged for roughing the punter. But the Cowboys couldn’t convert after.

The offense punted for the first time, giving the Cowboys life. D.J. Jones beat left guard Connor Williams — who seemed like the mark all game — and that made it 2nd & 28. Prescott targeted K’Waun Williams in the slot, and KK made a great interception.

One play later, Deebo raced to the sideline, then cut the ball back en route to a 26-yard touchdown run. He’s incredible. He’s the best running back on the team, and he was the best running back in the stadium, and he might be the best in the playoffs. That’s not an indictment on Mitchell. I promise.

After forcing another punt, the offense had an opportunity to move the chains but Garoppolo sailed a pass to Aiyuk, who cooked “All-Pro” Trevon Diggs. Aiyuk had a chance to score on the play. He certainly turns the pass into an explosive play.

After Charles Omenihu sacked Prescott, Dallas faced a 2nd & 25. Unfortunately, Jaquiski Tartt tried to jar the ball loose from Cedrick Wilson instead of playing the ball, which led to a 24-yard completion.

The Cowboys faked a punt and got it after Josh Norman gave up a reception. Again, Dallas was in this game because of the Niners' errors on special teams. That possession was bizarre as Dallas kept their special teams on the field, then took them off, which led to a delay of game. The Cowboys settled for a 51-yard field goal to cut the score to 23-10.

Garoppolo found Kittle for 18 yards to start the following drive. Deebo had a long gain, but it was called back after Aiyuk was flagged for a holding. Then, the one thing that couldn’t happen happened. Garoppolo rolled out and overthrew Trent Sherfield for an interception, giving the Cowboys life.

Within three plays, after Fred Warner left the game with an apparent knee injury, Prescott runs it in on 3rd & goal from the five-yard line to cut the score to 23-17.

The 49ers picked up two first downs on the ensuing drive before facing a 3rd & 13 after Laken Tomlinson had a false start. Dallas was flagged for illegal hands to the face, which gave San Francisco a first down.

They’d face yet another third down. On 3rd & 5, Samuel was a yard short of the first down. Shanahan left the offense on the field on 4th & 1 until he didn’t. The offense took a delay of game. Then the special teams were flagged for a false start.

With 2:42 to play, Dallas had all three timeouts and needed a touchdown to win. The defense would have to get a stop without their two best players in Warner and Bosa. When you’re down your two best defenders, and you have a chance to put an explosive offense away on 4th & 1, you do it.

On 4th & 11, DeMeco Ryans brought pressure, forcing Prescott out of the pocket and causing him to heave it down the field. Wilson couldn’t haul in the pass, and the 49ers took over. Dallas still had three timeouts, so the game wasn’t over.

A defensive holding gave the Niners a first down, though. The game wasn’t quite over yet — especially after a false start. On third down, the 49ers went to their most valuable player with the game on the line. Deebo Samuel, as he has all season, came through for his team.

The refs ruled Samuel short, even though it looked as if he was a clear two yards or so beyond the first down marker. So, it came to 4th & inches. Everyone in the stadium knew what was coming, right?

Trent Williams was flagged for a false start, which forced a Mitch Wishnowskyy punt. The ball went out of the end zone. It looked as though Williams was still getting into his stance, and the ball was snapped.

Dallas reached midfield with 18 seconds remaining. Prescott’s scramble at the end of the game caused confusion by the referee, and the clock ran out. The 49ers escaped with a win after blowing a halftime lead.

Who cares. They won. Nobody will remember this if the Niners are Super Bowl champs.