SANTA CLARA – History? Yeah, the 49ers have some with the Dallas Cowboys. Some of the greatest NFC playoff battles, in fact.
All due respect to “The Catch” and victory laps and celebrations on the midfield logo, but Sunday night’s rivalry renewal is truly about the here and now, and playoff positioning.
The “here” is Levi’s Stadium, where the 49ers look to run this season’s record to 5-0. It’s also where their postseason office would be as the NFC’s No. 1 seed, their stated goal from Day 1.
“It’s a huge test. To say that it isn’t would be naïve and downplaying the moment,” linebacker Fred Warner said.
This is the 49ers’ third straight game at home. Their last loss on home soil: Oct. 23 to the Lombardi Trophy-bound Kansas City Chiefs. Ten straight home wins have ensued, including a playoff elimination of the Cowboys on Jan. 22.
Tougher challenges may lurk on this year’s schedule, such as seven road trips, including the back-to-back gauntlet on Thanksgiving night in Seattle and Dec. 3 in Philadelphia. The Cowboys (3-1) are expected to deliver the hardest matchup thus far, however. The feeling is mutual when facing the 49ers (4-0).
“It means more than just one game,” Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said. “You got to treat it as one game. At the end of the day, it would just be one game. But understanding these guys are undefeated, fighting for the one seed, we’re always trying to get every game that you can.”
If you can overlook Terrell Owens’ midfield celebrations at Texas Stadium in 2000 or the 49ers’ November 1994 stage-setting victory, most of this Cowboys-49ers rivalry is rooted in the playoffs. That is where, in the 49ers’ happy state, their 1981 and ’94 teams won Super Bowl berths (see: Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark for “The Catch”; Steve Young’s victory lap at Candlestick).
More relevant to the modern-day series are the 49ers’ playoff wins, from a 23-17 wild-card escape in Dallas in January 2022 to their second-half surge last January for a 19-12 win.
Cornerback Anthony Brown played the past seven seasons in Dallas, and since joining the 49ers last month, he described his new home as “very similar,” in that the 49ers are a “tradition-rich franchise, trying to get that sixth Super Bowl (win).”
Here are five ways the 49ers can take the lead in a series knotted at 19-19-1, including their 10 playoff games:
1. MORE McCAFFREY
One explanation why the 49ers’ offense struggled to find its rhythm in last year’s playoff win: Christian McCaffrey, as he recalled, “banged up my calf a little bit, early. But I was good enough to finish the game.”
McCaffrey finished with just 35 yards on 10 carries, none breaking longer than 8 yards. He has 16 carries longer than that this season, en route to an NFL-leading 459 yards, 80 carries and six touchdowns, including last Sunday’s high-hurdling score.
Did you say NFL-high 80 carries (plus a team-high 18 catches)? Overworked already? Well, he did rest at Wednesday’s practice. “Body feels great,” McCaffrey said. “Getting a little day off every once in a while feels good on your body.”
With that line, most Americans can rally further behind the “McCaffrey For MVP” campaign.
The Cowboys are allowing the NFL’s fifth-most rushing yards per carry (4.61 yards), which is skewed by the fact Arizona ran for 222 yards two weeks ago in its 28-16 upset, in Dallas’ last road trip.
Prescott is dishing passes in 2.49 seconds this season, the fourth-quickest release in the NFL. (Sidebar: Brock Purdy is tied for sixth at 2.56 seconds.)
That’s relevant because everyone is waiting for Nick Bosa’s record-setting contract to pay off in more than one sack through four games, plus more sacks from his linemates, although free-agent prize Javon Hargrave has a team-leading three sacks.
Bosa, Hargrave, Arik Armstead, Drake Jackson and Clelin Ferrell surely will be ready for the Cowboys, who may get left tackle Tyron Smith back after a two-game knee-related absence. The 49ers are not expected to suit up Randy Gregory, whom they acquired in a Friday trade from Denver; Kerry Hyder Jr. was to be released in a corresponding move.
So here is the dilemma: Should the Niners blitz? They only did so a season-low three times Sunday against the Cardinals’ Joshua Dobbs. They blitzed 16 and 13 times the previous two games.
“We’re definitely about changing things up each week based off each week who we’re playing and our opponents,” defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said. “So, we understand exactly who he is as a player and what he’s capable of doing.”
3. THIRD-DOWN OFFENSE
The Cowboys’ offense leads the league converting 51.6% of their third-down plays (32 of 62). The 49ers’ third-down defense ranks 20th (41.1 percent), and look no further than the 99-yard touchdown drive they allowed last Sunday to the Cardinals, who showed the Cowboys that they may as well use Prescott on third-and-short opportunities.
Of course, the 49ers have familiarity with the Cowboys’ intentions. In their playoff matchups the past two seasons, the Cowboys converted 5-of-14 and 5-of-15.
4. RED-ZONE OFFENSE
No matter how well the Cowboys have marched downfield on third down, they’ve encountered problems inside their opponents’ 20-yard line. Even in Sunday’s 38-3 rout of the Patriots, the Cowboys turned just 1-of-4 red-zone drives into touchdowns, which is even below their 30th-ranked conversion rate (36.9%).
“You should have (the red zone) on the front of mind at any time when you think about offense,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said on Dallas’ 105.3 The Fan. “I understand why we’ve missed on a few of those things in the red zone. I’m not as dubious or I’m not as skeptical of where we will be to start it right against San Francisco.”
The 49ers, under first-year coordinator Steve Wilks, are yielding touchdowns on 2/3 of red-zone drives, possessions that typically see opponents chip away against zone coverage before man-to-man defense is summoned.
“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 are in, man, we got to work our technique. We have to be sticky in coverage.”
Wilks, mind you, is only four games into his tenure. “He’s starting to see exactly who we are.” Linebacker Dre Greenlaw said. “It’s no set feel (on when to blitz). Even with DeMeco, it’s based on how the game is going. As a coach gets adjusted and gets comfortable, maybe we don’t have to do this or that.”
The 49ers’ red-zone offense is scoring touchdowns on 2/3 of its drives. In summary, if the 49ers and Cowboys get in the red zone the same number of times, it’s a wash.
5. ‘X’ FACTORS
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk contemplated how “this is probably the best” groove the 49ers’ offense has found since his 2017 arrival. After all, they’ve never in franchise history scored 30 or more points in each of their first four games.
“Things just seem to go well,” Juszczyk said. “There hasn’t been a ‘got lucky’ kind of thing.”
There haven’t been turnovers. Juszczyk had to be reminded of their only one: a strip-sack fumble of Purdy in the opener at Pittsburgh.
You know who else only has one turnover? The Cowboys (and the Seahawks). Nobody has a better turnover ratio than Dallas, courtesy of seven interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
Turnovers are not the only wild card in every game. The Cowboys’ special teams coordinator, John Fassel, likes to get creative and call for trickery, such as last game’s fake point-after kick that yielded a two-point conversion.
Rookie kicker Jake Moody said the 49ers are always on alert for such plays, and that especially holds true this season as desperate opponents try to play catch up against the high-scoring Niners.
One more ‘X’ factor worth noting: rookie kickers. The Cowboys have their own in Brandon Aubrey. Neither he nor Moody has missed a field-goal attempt (Moody is 9-of-9, Aubrey 13-of-13). Aubrey, formerly of the USFL’s Birmingham Stallions, missed his first point-after kick in the Cowboys’ opener.