In probably the match of the weekend, the San Francisco 49ers travel to the NFC East champions, The Dallas Cowboys. A win for either team could open up a charge to the NFC title game but a loss could lead to huge questions marks for either Quarterback come Monday morning.
The 49ers are set to face the Cowboys for the first time in the postseason since the 1994 NFC Championship, San Francisco later winning Super Bowl XXIX. The teams have met 6 times in the NFC title game alone. Dallas leads the overall Head to Head 19-17-1, with San Francisco actually scoring more points in the series.
However, if a game between 2 of the most winning-est franchises in NFL playoff history, creating one of the most fiercest post season rivalries wasn’t enough, those of you that like alternative ways of watching the game will be delighted that this will be the game where you can choose to activate the slime once more as Nickelodeon’s cameras return after their inaugural appearance in the Bears @ Saints game last year and producing a somewhat intriguing alternative experience. Enter the Slime tank, where 82.5 gallons of customer made slime has been manufactured.
The Dallas players have said that they will allow Nickelodeon to slime them after the game, should they be victorious. They’ll be hoping that this is the case rather than the potential slime left on their faces, should they taste defeat.
Let’s start with the home team and NFC East champs, the Dak Prescott led Cowboys. Prescott, seemingly a shoo in for Comeback Player of the Year (sorry Bengals and Joe Burrow fans) has rebounded more than adequately from his gruesome ankle injury suffered in week 5 of 2020. But it’s in the post season in which Cowboys fans and Jerry Jones alike will want to see him earn every single one of his $160m dollars from the contract signed almost a year ago.
To date, the Cowboys’ signal caller has not fared that well in the post season. Just the solitary win against the Seahawks in 2018 sandwiched between losses to the Packers and the Rams. At times, Prescott has been a bit off in his passing this season and can perhaps feel slightly more fortunate he didnt have more than the 10 interceptions so far on his record sheet this season. This has led to games where the offence has stuttered with no real obvious reason as to why, kind of like a beautiful car with an enginge that has a mind of its own – usually it’ll start up, rev and away she effortlessly goes. But in games like the Arizona and Denver ones, for some reason, the engine just doesn’t seem to start.
As it has been for the past few years and is the case in general in the NFL, if Dallas’ offensive line is healthy and operating at the high level they know they can play, Dak Prescott will carve up any opposing defence. The case is true here too as the 49ers boast one of the best rushing attacks on the defensive side of the ball with Nick Bosa et al. ferocious in style which has seen them tied for 5th with 48 sacks on the season. Impressive when you consider their blitz rate of just 19.8% is 4th least this year in the NFL.
Tyron Smith and Zack Martin will have to play to their future Hall of Fame best to nullify the onslaught of Bosa, Key and Armstead who have accounted for 28 of those sacks and have totaled 60 QB hits. It will take a joint effort along the offensive line, who love to see yellow laundry on the field, with Dallas being one of the most penalised teams on offence. Continue that trend in this game, giving Dak and Kellen Moore a lot to do in 2nd or 3rd and long situations, may lead to a continuation of the sack and QB hit rate of those 49ers pass rushers.
If Dak is upright for the majority of this game, he should take advantage of a beatable secondary and their quick strike ability will be key, especially if they get behind. He has 3 stellar receivers waiting to catch the ball, even with the injury of Michael Gallup. CeeDee Lamb, the only Cowboy to surpass 1,000 yards through the air this season, seems to have done it fairly quietly, especially when you take into account that he has only had 3 100 yard games, the last of those coming in week 8. A somewhat bereft Amari Cooper has hopefully been somewhat appeased by the targets and attention he has been receiving after a recent interview indicated he was unhappy at the amount of workload he was carrying in this offence. He’s seen 37 targets in the last 5 games but outside of a few touchdowns, he’s not really done much with them although half of his receptions in those games were good enough for 1st downs (12/22). Cedrick Wilson has been a bit more flashy and noticeable and has more than adequately filled the void left behind whichever receiver had a knock this season.
Add in the reliable and joint top receiving TD scorer Dalton Schultz into the mix (Blake Jarwin is also back healthy), and you have yourself a fully loaded offence. The question is going to be whether the 49ers will allow Dak to pull the trigger enough times.
In the backfield, Ezekiel Elliott clearly isn’t the force of old and goes up against a stingy 49ers run defence. Tony Pollard has had that bit of X factor about him, but has been dealing with a plantar fascia problem the last month. Both of them have amassed almost 2,500 yards of scrimmage yards between, Elliott able to achieve his 4th 1,000 rushing season against the backups of Philadelphia in Week 18 (his two “failed season saw him gain 983 and 979 yards). If healthy enough, expect pollard to be utilised on outside runs/Jet sweeps/screens and the more creative plays to try and exploit his explosiveness he has shown at various points this season.
Moving over to the visitors and you would have probably been shipped off in a straightjacket if you would have suggested at the start of the season the Mr Handsome Jimmy Garoppolo would be still starting for this team at this point of the year. Their #3 overall 1st round Draft Pick Trey lance has flirted with the first team but Kyle Shanahan has stuck to his word and kept his faith in the guy that got him to a Super Bowl just a few years ago.
Despite the uncertainty of his future (has a very low dead cap cost to the 49ers), Garoppolo led some excellent drives in their week 18 game against the Rams to even give the 49ers a chance in the psot season, which must be applauded when most seem to take every chance to belittle him and his capabilities.
Clearly he does not have the abilities or powers of the other powerhouse QBs in the league or even that of the one he faces on Sunday, but Jimmy G does “fit” in this team and the way that they play. He is never going to be the star that shines the brightest and he is never going to get the 1st place ribbon when it comes to MVPs on this team, but he does enough to give this team a chance and just simply does what is asked as and when it is.
He’s posted similar numbers to 2019, the year in which they were the bridesmaids in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium and to be honest, not a great deal has changed between now and then.
Deebo Samuel is balling out, the 49ers continue to be one of the best rushing teams in the league and their defence helps them win a lot of games and yes, they continue to have more than their fair share of injuries.
Talking of Deebo Samuel, perhaps one of the most exciting players to watch in 2021, has burst into the limelight, with more touches than his first 2 season combined, has exploded for over 1700 scrimmage yards and 14 total touchdowns and made many a Fantasy Football champion for sure.
He is clearly the key cog in the 49ers machine, with the point of emphasis is getting the ball in Deebo’s hands in space and then watching poetry in motion.
He, along with Elijah Mitchell who has grabbed the opportunities that have come his way with Raheem Mostert’s injury in week 1, have been the heavy lifters of this offence, accounted for nearly 3,000 scrimmage yards.
He ended up just shy of the 1,000 yard season on the ground, but only appeared in 11 games this season and has kept Trey Sermon sitting and keeping the sideline bench warm. He could have another big game if Dallas continues to be over-zealousness on their defence, which has led to some gaping holes to be run through and exploited for huge chunk plays.
The supporting cast (if we can call them that) of Brandon Aiyuk, who has popped up when he has been needed late in the saeson after a shaky start, along with star Tight End George Kittle, who himself has had the injury niggle or two this season, will give Dallas’ defence more than their share of concern due to the creativity but also execution of each and every single play called from the meticulous Kyle Shanahan.
The 49ers and Cowboys are each one of four teams with three players to record 800-plus receiving yards and five-plus receiving touchdowns in 2021 means that there is a lot of talent (and possibly slime) on show and this shapes up to be a Wildcard game for the ages.
All things being equal, Dallas should win and possibly set up a trip to Green Bay which has a whoole lot of history ready to be rammed down our throats but will have to be near their best to get the job done. Any slip ups and San Francisco will more than happily boot down the door and take the opportunities given to them from the Cowboys.
Jimmy Garoppolo simply has to not make any silly mistakes and giving Dallas free possession in order for San Francisco to have more than a decent shot at taking the spoils here. Against an opportunistic defence that preys on mistakes and turnovers, the 49ers will rely on Samuel and the run game to try and grind Dallas down and force them into chasing the game and possibly into a mistake forced by their pass rush. It will be interesting to see how Dallas try to nullify the run game, something in which they have struggled with this season and also whether they try and cancel out Deebo Samuel completely. Easier said than done.
The deployment of Micah Parsons in this one will also be interesting to watch. the Rookie, selected as an All-Pro on defence this year has been a playmaker for the majority of the season. I wonder if they man mark him with Deebo Samuel on plays where he is in the backfield and what ratio they have him dialing in on the QB to force a turnover (has 30 QB hits on the year and 13 sacks) or to help contain Samuel/Mitchell on outside/zone runs.
One thing is for sure, the health of Trent Williams will be crucial for the 49ers (has put in a full practice this week and looks good to go). He is the headline amongst one of the better offensive lines in the league. the Dallas defensive line rotation, which has served them well thus far allowing them to record the 4th most pressures on opposing QBs, will need to continue that vein of form to help create those potential turnovers for Trevon Diggs and the rest of the secondary. If they don’t get to Garoppolo, Diggs could be the source of joy if the 9ers go a bit more vertical, Diggs more than susceptible to giving up huge plays and yardage, especially on double move routes. He has given up 907 yards thus far and 16.8yards per completion from 54 completions allowed, a heavy price to pay for his 11 interceptions.
In a game that may come down to the odd decision or two, we have to talk about the head coaching: 49ers fans will back their HC all day long over Mike McCarthy, who stills seems to be missing the beat somewhat at the Head coaching position after his short stint away after his Green Bay days. There are still a lot of people disillusioned at Mike McCarthy 2.0 including myself and feel like he just likes to get in his own way at times. We all know what Kyle Shanahan brings with this 49ers team including their identity. The fact they continue to produce week in week out when you know what’s coming is the hallmark of a really really good team. Hopefully it doesn’t come down to a coaching decision or a play call, especially if you are a Dallas fan (not to mention Robbie Gould is head and shoulders above a shaky leg from Greg).
Some final nuggets for you to chew on ahead of the game:
The 49ers are the best ranked team statistically in the redzone (Dallas ranks 6th), meaning once they get there, they are likely to score. Whereas Dallas are one of the best on 3rd down conversions given up on defence, meaning they get off the field more often if getting the opposition on 3rd down. Dallas’ defence ranks top 6 on defence in average plays, points, yards and time given up, with their offence ranking 1st in points scored and yards gained. The magic number for the 49ers is 30, because whenever Dallas have given up that many points on defence they’ve lost the game this season (3 times)
Prediction: Dallas 35 – San Francisco 31
In what sets up to be a classic, Dallas’s oft opportune defence is just begging Jimmy Garoppolo to make a mistake. I get the sense that San Francisco will start the faster and score the first touchdown and lead for the majority but I think a turnover in some way from the 49ers QB late in the 3rd/early 4th quarter will help Dallas get over the line with a clutch last drive from Dallas. Both teams can be happy with the health of their teams going into this one, which is all one can ask for. It will be close, it may come down to the last kick or throw of the game, which will be great for the neutrals.
May the best team get slimed!
Keys to the game:
- Dallas Tackles vs Nick Bosa,
- Micah Parsons deployment,
- Jimmy Garoppolo turnover watch.