After watching the playoffs from home last season, the 49ers are back in the postseason for the second time in the last three years.
On Sunday, San Francisco (10-7) will rekindle one of the NFL’s greatest postseason rivalries when they face the Dallas Cowboys (12-5) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
The 49ers and Cowboys have faced each other in the postseason seven times, with the Cowboys holding a 5-2 advantage. Sunday will mark the first meeting between San Francisco and Dallas since the 1995 NFC Championship game, won by the 49ers 38-28.
Here are five questions to keep an eye on Sunday:
- Can the 49ers hold on to the football?
There are a wide variety of keys to this game, but none is bigger than their ability to hold on to the football.
San Francisco has only one victory this season when they have turned the ball over more than their opponent, that coming in the season opener at Detroit.
On Sunday they will face a Dallas Cowboys team that has forced the most turnovers in the NFL. Led by second year cornerback Trevon Diggs, the Cowboys pass defense has forced a league high 26 interceptions. Eleven have come from Diggs.
Despite his big play ability, don’t expect the 49ers to shy away. Diggs has allowed 16.8 yards per reception and is prone to miss tackles leading to big yard after the catch opportunities.
- Will Jimmy Garoppolo step up in his second trip to the playoffs?
For the 49ers to come out on top Sunday, they will need more from Garoppolo that what he gave them in 2019.
During his first trip to the playoffs, Jimmy Garoppolo threw only 58 total passes in three games and finished with three interceptions to only two touchdowns.
With an average of 7.7 yards gained per drop back, Garoppolo has led a 49ers passing attack that has been the best in the NFL in terms of net yards per pass attempt this season.
A big part of that total for San Francisco has been the run after catch ability of players such as Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. Garoppolo’s ability to accurately place the ball plays a large role in this.
While the Cowboys secondary has been very good at taking the ball away, it has struggled to stop run after the catch and has allowed the highest net passing yards total among all NFC playoff teams.
If Jimmy Garoppolo does not turn the ball over, the 49ers should be able to move the ball through the air on Sunday.
- Can San Francisco take advantage of the Cowboys run defense?
Dallas defense’s biggest weakness may be its run defense. Dallas allowed 4.5 yards per rushing attempt in 2021, the 10th most in the NFL. Only five opponents were unable to reach 100 yards against the Cowboys.
The offense for San Francisco is among the most physical units in the NFL. Led by first team All-Pro Trent Williams, this group looks to punish opponent’s week after week. The 49ers have been held to under 100 yards on the ground only five times in 2021 and average just over 29 attempts per game.
Since Deebo Samuel began to spend more time in the 49ers backfield in the middle of the season, San Francisco is 7-1 with him in the lineup.
In Elijah Mitchell and Samuel, the 49ers have their version of thunder and lightning. Mitchell pounds away at opposing defenses and Samuel then comes in and runs through them for big plays. The duo has combined for 110 rushing yards per game and 13 rushing touchdowns this season.
- Will San Francisco be able to contain the Cowboys passing game?
The San Francisco defense has faced a number of explosive passing offenses during the second half of the season.
San Francisco twice held the Los Angeles Rams under 300 yards, and it took overtime for Cincinnati to crack the 300-yard mark in week 14.
On Sunday, the 49ers will face a Cowboys offense which has gained over 300 yards eight times.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott needed immediate surgery on a dislocated and compound fracture of his right ankle in Week 5 last season.
He’s come back this season to break Tony Romo’s team record for touchdown passes while leading the Cowboys to the NFC East title.
Prescott has a terrific group of receivers to work with. CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper, and Cedric Wilson Jr will put a lot of stress on the 49ers secondary. Meanwhile tight end Dalton Schultz and Ezekiel Elliot provide underneath weapons to keep Fred Warner and the San Francisco linebackers busy.
- Can the 49ers defense control the line of scrimmage?
Much of the focus when facing the Cowboys is their passing, however stopping the run may be the biggest key to holding Dallas off the scoreboard.
Dallas has come out on top only once in the six games they’ve been held to under 100 yards rushing.
This seems to play to a strength of San Francisco. The 49ers defense has not allowed an offense to rush for more than 90 yards since Arizona gained 163 at Levi’s Stadium in week nine.
It won’t be easy for San Francisco. Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard provide Dallas a terrific one-two punch in the backfield, averaging 106 yards per game combined.
49ers 27 Cowboys 24
The 49ers offense should be able to move the ball on Dallas. The Cowboys defense is all about big plays, making them and giving them up. As long as the 49ers offense does not turn the ball over, they should be able to reach at least 27 points on Sunday.
On the defensive side, expect San Francisco to keep doing what they’ve done throughout the second half of the season. They’ll give up yards to Dallas in the middle of the field as they try to keep everything in front of them and not allow a big play, and then stiffen up in the red zone.
The key for the 49ers on the defensive side is to make Dallas one dimensional. If they can take away the run game, the pass rush should be able to generate enough pass rush to disrupt Dak Prescott and help the secondary stop the Cowboys.