A once bitter rivalry renewed? It sure seems like it, as the Niners-Cowboys will square off in the playoffs for the second time in two years. However, there’s a general sense that after last year’s road victory, the Dallas players have wanted this rematch, and there’s a similar sense the San Francisco players are welcoming the challenge.
As much residual bad blood seems to have hungover, there are seemingly as many differences between last year and now as there are similarities. The Niners will host in Levi’s as the favorite this time around, Brock Purdy will be the starting quarterback with Christian McCaffrey lined up behind him, and the overall health on both sides of the ball has never been better. How exactly have the Cowboys changed over the last year?
With that in mind, I reached to David Halprin at Blogging the Boys to get us ready for Sunday with a detailed scouting report.
1. Dak Prescott looked tremendous on Monday night against the Tampa Bay Bucs after what could be described as a polarizing regular season. Can you speak on Prescott’s interception issues (leading the league while missing five games)?
Prescott has had a great year statistically until the interceptions come into play. The Cowboys have mostly been able to overcome them because when Prescott isn’t throwing interceptions during a game, he is usually carving a defense up. So it is a very weird dynamic.
The interceptions fall into two categories, those that are Prescott’s fault and those that are on the receivers. And that’s just not excuse-making for Prescott. I’ve been watching football for a long time, and I can’t remember a season where receivers for the Cowboys are either letting perfect passes bounce off their hands into a defender’s hands or two receivers end up in the same area drawing unexpected coverage to route combinations, or receivers running the wrong route or slowing down on routes that end up being interceptions.
It’s been a little bizarre how much these things have happened this year. So that somewhat accounts for Prescott’s abnormal number of interceptions.
But there is the Prescott factor in this too. He has been forcing throws into tight coverage too often. He has been greedy downfield sometimes when he could check it down or even run the ball while outside the pocket. He’s just been really aggressive at times, and it has burned him more this year than in other years.
It’s really hard to knock him because, statistically, he’s been pretty amazing if you discount the interceptions. So would he be putting up the numbers he has and the numbers the offense has since his return if he wasn’t being so aggressive? It’s a tough call.
2. Outside of Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs, who have been impact players on the defense that Niners fans should be aware of heading into this matchup?
Leighton Vander Esch is putting together a really good season at linebacker. He is the guy who makes the calls on defense, and he is also the guy that gets everybody lined up in the proper position pre-snap. He even calls out the opposition’s upcoming play at times.
His tackling in the run game has been on point, and he’s also picked up his pass coverage. The Cowboys really missed him on defense when he was recently out for a few weeks.
DeMarcus Lawrence and Dorance Armstrong make a quality pair at defensive end. Lawrence is phenomenal against the run, either setting the edge or running down ball carriers from behind. Armstrong has really come on as a pass rusher and a guy who creates havoc in the backfield.
In the secondary, rookie corner DaRon Bland leads the team in interceptions with five and is one of the steals of the draft because the Cowboys picked him up in the fifth round (of course, not on the level of a Brock Purdy steal!). And Jayron Kearse is a do-everything safety who just makes plays in all parts of the game.
3. Going into the season, the NFL scuttlebutt seemed to be that Mike McCarthy was merely holding the place for his eventual replacement Sean Payton. Now those rumors have been deemed “comical” by Dak. What’s changed, and how would you rate the job McCarthy’s done in 2022?
I guess the thing is that last offseason, the Cowboys fanbase, media, and team were pretty devastated after the 49ers took Dallas out in the first round. After such a good regular season, there were high expectations going into the playoffs that were quickly dashed.
That probably led to a lot of speculation about change and what was needed to get over the hump. That just so happened to line up with the start of the Sean Payton coaching saga, and the Cowboys have long wished they would have never let Payton get away from their coaching staff.
But looking at it objectively, McCarthy has done a really good job in Dallas. In 2021, the team won 12 games in the NFC East and went to the playoffs. In 2022, the team won 12 games again and won a playoff game (so far). That was the first back-to-back double-digit win season for the Cowboys since ‘95-’96.
It was the first back-to-back playoff season since ‘06-’07. He managed to keep the team together and win when Prescott went down for five games at the beginning of this season. And the players seem to like playing for him and buy into him being the coach.
There are still times you question some in-game decisions and clock management, but overall it’s really hard to argue against the success he is having.
4. What will your panic level be when Brett Maher steps up to kick this Sunday?
Yikes. It’s a weird thing because when the Cowboys brought back Maher to start this season, no Cowboys fan trusted him because of the inconsistency of his first stint in Dallas. Everyone was asking, ‘why are the Cowboys doing this’. Then Maher was so good this year that he earned the nickname Money Maher.
He was killing it, and his kicks were almost always down the middle. Most non-Cowboys fans don’t know that he also missed his one PAT during Week 18, so he actually had a streak of five straight missed PATs until he finally knocked one through at the end of the Bucs game.
I’m going to try and convince myself that it is just a mental thing that he will get over, but in reality, I’ll probably be yelling for us to go for it on fourth downs and to go for two after touchdowns.
5. According to Draftkings Sportsbook, the Niners are 4-point favorites, and the over/under sits at 46. Do those feel like realistic numbers to you, and what’s your final score prediction?
I think the spread is pretty fair, with the 49ers being the home team. That’s usually worth a few points, so having the 49ers as the small favorite makes sense to me, given the records during the regular season and both teams playing in the Wild Card games.
Forty-six should seem like a realistic O/U, given how good both of these defenses are, but these teams also have offenses that can score in bunches, so I would probably take the over on that. I think this game will be close, with both teams able to score against quality defenses.
I’ll take the Cowboys because I want to keep hope alive, by the score of 29-27, with the Cowboys' 29 number coming from one missed extra point.