The 49ers are about as healthy and ready to go as they’ve been at any point in the season.
And it comes at an opportune time, as they prepare to face the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday in the first round of the NFC playoffs.
All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams is expected to be back from a right elbow injury that kept him sidelined in the regular-season finale.
Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley and linebacker Dre Greenlaw returned to action last week, and gave the defense a boost.
Greenlaw leads off this playoff edition of Five to Watch . . .
5. LB Dre Greenlaw
Linebacker Dre Greenlaw was all over the place on Sunday when he got on the field for only the third time this season.
Greenlaw looked fast, strong and energetic. Now, he must play a little more under control, fill the correct gaps and be a sure-tackler to help stuff the Cowboys’ running game.
Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott is a sixth-year pro who broke the 1,000-yard mark for the fourth time in his career. He averaged 4.2 yards per rushing attempt with 1,002 yards and 10 touchdowns. Backup Tony Pollard actually was the Cowboys’ most explosive back with 719 yards rushing and a 5.5 average.
Greenlaw will have responsibilities in pass coverage, too. But his first priority is to help contain the Dallas running game to set up third-down situations where the team’s defensive line can get after the quarterback.
4. DE Samson Ebukam
This marked the third consecutive season defensive end Samson Ebukam registered 4.5 sacks in a season.
And this is exactly the kind of game the 49ers had in mind when they signed him as an unrestricted free agent after he spent his first four seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.
Quarterback Dak Prescott gives the Cowboys one of the most prolific passing offenses in the NFL. The Cowboys rank No. 1 in the league in total offense and scoring offense. A key to the 49ers’ pass defense has been their ability to put pressure on the quarterback and thoroughly disrupt the opposing offense’s rhythm and timing.
Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Arden Key are the 49ers’ top pass-rushers. And in a game with high stakes, such as this, Ebukam must come through and beat one-on-one blocks to throw Prescott off his rhythm.
3. RB Elijah Mitchell
Rookie running back Elijah Mitchell does not look all that big. But he plays like a giant.
One of the Cowboys’ weaknesses is their run defense. Dallas surrendered 4.5 yards per rushing attempt over the 17-game regular season. That’s even more yards per carry than the 49ers average with their own run game (4.3).
Mitchell led the 49ers with 963 yards and five touchdowns. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry.
He will have some opportunities to produce big yards if he chooses the right cutback lanes. The Cowboys are not a sure-tackling team, especially in the defensive backfield, so Mitchell must take advantage of his big-play chances.
2. CB Ambry Thomas
Rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas lines up on the defense’s left side. Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley lines up on the other side.
In need of a big play in overtime, the Rams went after Thomas with Odell Beckham running a deep route down the sideline. Thomas tracked the under-thrown pass in the air and made the game-clinching interception.
Thomas’ sixth consecutive NFL starting assignment comes in the opening round of the playoffs. Prescott will look for opportunities to attack Thomas with wide receivers CeeDee Lamb or Amari Cooper.
The Cowboys’ best hope for success is to make big plays against the 49ers’ corners, and Thomas might be the player they try to pick on the most.
1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo
You could hear it in his voice and see it in his body language. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has a strong idea this season is it for him as a member of the 49ers.
“We know we have a chance to do something special, and it's just you don't get that opportunity every year,” Garoppolo said. “I've been on a number of teams that went to the Super Bowl, and I'm not saying anything like that, but just there's a feeling and you want to make them count as long as you have them.”
Garoppolo is playing with a torn ligament in his right thumb. He threw two interceptions in Week 18 against the Rams but made some big throws in pressure-packed moments that enabled the 49ers to win in overtime and advance to the playoffs.
The Cowboys’ defense takes a lot of risks. They gamble, and they win a fair share of those bets. Cornerback Trevon Diggs led the NFL with 11 interceptions. He also gave up more yards in coverage than any player in the league.
Garoppolo must take care of the football and hit on a high percentage of his third-down opportunities for the 49ers to advance and suit up for another game.