SANTA CLARA — Dak Prescott has never needed a win more than he does Sunday night against the 49ers.
The Dallas Cowboys quarterback has lost to the 49ers in the playoffs each of the last two seasons with bizarre finishes, running out the clock on a scramble to the 49ers’ 24-yard line two seasons ago and with a center snap by Ezekiel Elliott and an 8-yard pass to KeVonate Turpin to the 16.
Beyond the unhappy endings, Prescott hasn’t played well, throwing three interceptions in the two games. The 49ers won 23-17 at AT&T Stadium in a wild-card game with Jimmy Garoppolo playing with a bad thumb and shoulder, and 19-12 last season behind rookie Brock Purdy in the divisional round.
Having not made it past the divisional round since their last Super Bowl victory following the 1995 season, the Cowboys put their faith in Prescott on a four-year contract worth a maximum of $160 million before the 2021 season to get them to where owner Jerry Jones believes they belong.
And when it mattered the most, Prescott hasn’t exactly been Roger Staubach or Troy Aikman.
In the last two playoff games against the 49ers, the Prescott-led offense has produced the same number of interceptions as touchdowns — three of each in 21 possessions.
“You turn on the tape, I wasn’t at my best in either of those games,” Prescott told reporters Thursday. “I wasn’t close to it.”
This is a huge game for Prescott and the Cowboys in terms of perception, not only nationally but locally in Texas. Dallas has the NFL’s top-ranked defense and has looked fearsome at times through four games.
Dallas beat the New York Giants 40-0 on opening night and dominated the New York Jets 30-10 in Week 2. Last week, the Cowboys hung a 38-3 loss on New England, the biggest loss ever under Bill Belichick.
But a 28-16 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3 in which the Cowboys gave up 222 yards rushing raised some concern that perhaps it’s another Dallas team with lots of ability that can’t cash in on all that talent.
A bully that will back down in a fight. Soft, in a football sense.
For the Cowboys to truly join the 49ers and Eagles in terms of NFC supremacy, winning on Sunday night is a must.
It’s not part of the 49ers’ makeup to be disparaging of their opponent in the press. That didn’t stop a Hall of Fame 49ers quarterback from saying out loud what much of the country thinks about Dallas over the last two decades.
“The Cowboys are a really, really talented group of people,” Steve Young said in his weekly appearance on KNBR. “But the cohesiveness, the grit, and the ability to follow up a great game with another great game, I don’t see it. Every time in the last 20 years I thought, ‘Oh, they did it. They’re coming,’ then they fall flat.
“I’m not much for believing yet in what they have or what they’re doing.”
Or as former 49ers center Randy Cross put it on 95.7 The Game: “They were America’s Team. Not much anymore.”
Dallas changed up its offense in the offseason, with coach Mike McCarthy taking over play-calling and Brian Schottenheimer replacing Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator.
The 49ers can expect Prescott to get the ball out quickly, something closer to what they saw with Matthew Stafford and the Rams in Week 2.
“There’s a lot of good that’s going to come from this and the changes in the past year playing against these guys and from my play,” Prescott said.
Coming off a season in which Prescott, 30, had a career-high 15 interceptions, he is currently completing a career-best 71.3 percent (97 for 136) with 908 yards, four touchdowns, and just one interception through four games.
“That’s kind of what we’re hanging our hat on to start off this season, taking care of the ball, the defense getting the ball,” Prescott said. “When you play a team like this, that has a powerful offense and a fundamental defense, you can’t give them any extra plays.”
Steve Wilks, the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, has noticed the difference.
“Dak is doing a great job putting the ball where it needs to be and where it’s going,” Wilks said. “It comes out quick and we have to make sure that we do a great job from a standpoint of playing zone, setting up, breaking on the quarterback, and when we’re in man, we’ve got to work our technique. We have to be sticky in coverage.”
Looking at things in a team sense, Prescott, referring to playoff seeding and home-field advantage, conceded “There’s a lot we can gain from this win that makes it more than one game.”
In a personal sense, it’s even bigger than that for Prescott. He has a sterling 64-37 record as a starter since arriving from Mississippi State as a fourth-round draft pick in 2016. But his 2-4 playoff record is duly noted by the fan base, as is the fact that his salary cap number in 2024 is a bloated $59.455 million. The 49ers’ Brock Purdy, by contrast, checks in at just over $1 million.
The disparity gives the 49ers more flexibility to sign their own stars as well as recruit others, which means a better chance to maintain superiority over a longtime rival. It’s not a stretch to think if Prescott doesn’t get the Cowboys to the Super Bowl, Jones will look long and hard at that cap number and wonder if No. 3 quarterback Trey Lance or someone else would be a better option.
Following the blowout win over New England, one of the first questions for Prescott was about his feelings following the two playoff losses to the 49ers. Prescott, dripping with sarcasm, thanked the reporter for the reminder.
“We’ve got a great team, and we’ll focus on who we are right now and not who we’ve been in the past,” Prescott said. “Period.”
As for the chatter of being unable to beat the 49ers, Prescott said, “We’ve stopped listening.”
If Prescott can’t deliver a win against the 49ers, the discontent in Dallas will be loud and clear.