SANTA CLARA — The Cowboys and 49ers rivalry is among the best and most storied in sports, featuring two of the NFL’s best teams in 2023. It’s always a big game when these two teams meet.
It’s even bigger when the teams on the league’s grandest stage, Sunday Night Football.
And for the Niners, who have looked unbeatable amid a 4-0 start, this game is a vital test.
San Francisco has run roughshod over the competition to start the season, but that competition hasn’t been of the highest caliber. It’s unlikely that any of the four opponents the Niners beat to start the season will make the playoffs.
The Cowboys look like a playoff team, though. Their high-flying defense has propelled them to a 3-1 record and the best point differential in the NFC heading into Week 5.
For Dallas, this is a game against the NFL’s team to beat.
For the Niners, it’s a rare opportunity to play a team that, amid reasonable expectations, can beat them.
Yes, the Cowboys remain a worthy foil for this Niners’ team — a true measuring stick squad for San Francisco amid what could be a special season, ending in a sixth Super Bowl win.
And that’s just how it should be. Cowboys and 49ers are the NFL at its best.
These two teams defined the NFL in the 1970s and 1990s. And after they played each other in the last two playoffs (both Niners’ wins) there are some — including ESPN — speculating that the rivalry is back, full bore.
I still doubt this showdown is as important as those games of decades past — the league was smaller, with less parity then. But this is still a marquee matchup that carries serious gravitas.
Even the coaches — who could varnish expectations for the Super Bowl — had to admit this week that this game is different.
“I think any time you have a Sunday night game, it’s always bigger,” Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said. “There’s always a little more excitement in the building knowing everyone’s watching you. [We have] a lot of respect for the Cowboys and how good of a team they are. So, we know the challenge that we have in front of us and I think we’re aware of the rivalry and the history, which is always cool.”
“It’s an important game,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said this week.”You understand the history and there is obviously a lot of tradition with this game. That’s all part of it. You live to play in these kinds of games. You dream to play in these types of games. You don’t want to make it bigger than it is, but the reality is it’s not just another game.”
No, it isn’t.
Amid that spectacle and anticipation, all eyes will be on Niners’ quarterback Brock Purdy.
The Cowboys’ star players are known entities. We’ve seen them week-in, week-out for years — the Cowboys are on national TV more than any other team.
And this Dallas defense, the true star of the Star — led by do-it-all linebacker/pass rusher Micah Parsons — isn’t sneaking up on anybody.
The same can be said of the 49ers’ star players on both sides of the ball. We know how great Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Fred Warner, and Nick Bosa (to name a few) are, and it’s fair to expect them to play their best.
But Purdy, the second-year quarterback who is yet to lose a regular-season game at the helm of the Niners’ offense, is still perceived as an unknown entity — outside the 49ers’ facility, at least.
And when you factor in last season’s game against the Cowboys — inarguably the worst of his short professional career (though he was the better quarterback on the field that day) — there’s plenty for the former last pick in the NFL draft to prove.
Purdy completed 19-of-29 passes for 214 yards and no touchdowns in that contest. He looked rushed by Dallas’ frenzied defense.
Purdy said this week that he’s learned from that game, but another performance like that, and Dallas has more than a chance of handing the Niners their first loss of the season.
But if Purdy — who is playing like an MVP candidate so far this season, despite the skepticism around him — can continue his early-season form against one of the NFL’s best defenses, it would go a long way to winning on Sunday and quieting the quarterback’s doubters.
It might even further the legend of the quarterback.
After all, these are the kind of games people don’t forget.