49ers

Three keys to 49ers beating Cowboys in NFC Wild Card Game

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The 49ers and Dallas Cowboys are similar in this regard: Either team could lose Sunday in their NFC wild-card matchup and it wouldn't be that much of a surprise. It also wouldn't be that much of a surprise if either team made it to the Super Bowl. 

Each team is loaded with star talent. The 49ers had two players named All-Pro on Friday morning, and the Cowboys had three. The 49ers are led by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who had a roller coaster of a regular season but orchestrated an unimaginable comeback in Week 18 to punch San Francisco's ticket to the playoffs. The Cowboys are led by quarterback Dak Prescott, who is seen as the bigger star and better player at the game's most important position. 

The Cowboys are the No. 3 seed after going 12-5 to win the NFC East, and the 49ers are the No. 6 seed after their 10-7 record made them third in the NFC West. But the lower-seeded 49ers might have the better résumé. 

In the regular season, the 49ers beat three different playoff teams -- the Philadelphia Eagles, the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals. They beat the Rams twice, including in Week 18 when they were once down 17-0. The Cowboys beat two playoff teams in the Eagles and the New England Patriots. They beat the Eagles twice, but Philadelphia wasn't exactly trying in the regular-season finale and sat quarterback Jalen Hurts. 

 

It's also important to note when these teams won these games. The 49ers beat the Rams in the last week of the regular season and beat the Bengals in Week 14. Both were overtime wins. They also beat the Eagles in Week 2. The Cowboys haven't beaten a playoff team that was trying since Week 6, when they beat rookie QB Mac Jones and the Patriots in overtime. 

The Cowboys' last five wins have been against these quarterbacks: Taysom Hill, Taylor Heinicke twice, Mike Glennon and Gardner Minshew. The 49ers' last five wins has come against Kirk Cousins, Joe Burrow, Matt Ryan, Davis Mills and Matthew Stafford. Those aren't all stars but it's a whole lot more impressive than who the Cowboys have most recently taken down. 

With all that being said, maybe we should be looking at the 49ers as the favorites. If they're going to pull off the upset, they'll have to accomplish these three goals. 

Contain Micah Parsons 

Nick Bosa is sure to have multiple people trying to get in his way of Prescott. The 49ers' star edge rusher will have plenty of eyes on him. The same goes for the 49ers watching Cowboys star rookie Micah Parsons. 

Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn knows Kyle Shanahan's offense as well as anyone and will use his defensive weapon all over the field. Parsons will rush the passer as a defensive end and linebacker, and will go sideline to sideline from linebacker or even in the secondary. He likely will have his eyes on Deebo Samuel. 

The 49ers couldn't be happier to have Trent Williams back on the offensive line, but Tom Compton just might be their most important lineman on Sunday. When Parsons lines up off the edge, it's usually on the defense's left. That means Compton, now the 49ers' right tackle, could see a lot of the Penn State product. 

Luckily for the 49ers, Compton's transition from guard to tackle has gone as good as one could have ever imagined. Stepping in for an injured Mike McGlinchey, Compton wound up being graded as the fourth-best tackle in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. His 92.2 run blocking grade was second to only Williams' 98.5. 

Compton will be a key player this Sunday, and Shanahan already has spent hours finding ways to scheme Parsons out of the Cowboys' game plan. Which brings us to ...

Expose Dallas' D

The Cowboys gave up the seventh-fewest points per game this season. They finished with the most turnovers (34), most interceptions (26) and had the greatest turnover differential (plus-14) in the league. They have two All-Pro players on defense in Parsons and cornerback Trevon Diggs, and Diggs led the NFL with 11 interceptions. 

And yet, their defense is full of holes. 

Let's start with Diggs. Yes, his 11 interceptions are the most since Everson Walls had 11 in 1981. But if you take away the picks, he just hasn't been that great. That goes for the entire Dallas secondary, too. 

 

Diggs has given up 425 yards after the catch this season, which is the third-most in the NFL. He isn't alone when it comes to that category. 

On the other side, the 49ers have their three-headed YAC monster in Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk. At this point, you can probably add Jauan Jennings to the mix, too. Samuel led the league in receiving yards after contact with 387, and Diggs is one of the worst tacklers in the NFL. 

Despite having all those interceptions, the Cowboys ranked 20th in passing yards allowed per game. Expect Shanahan to use Deebo in multiple ways to best expose Diggs and the Cowboys for what they really are. The 49ers finished with the second-most explosive plays in the NFL, and the Cowboys allowed the most this season. 

That brings us to ... 

Get The Ground Game Going

For all that was just said about their pass defense, the Cowboys' run defense isn't much better. They finished 16th in the NFL by allowing 112 rushing yards per game. The 49ers' offense finished seventh by averaging 127.4 rushing yards per game.

The Cowboys have allowed 11 of their last 12 opponents to rush for at least 100 yards. Rookie Elijah Mitchell has rushed for at least 100 yards five teams this season, and the 49ers are 4-1 in those games. Samuel averaged 6.2 yards per carry and had six rushing touchdowns of more than 10 yards, which led the NFL. 

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The 49ers are undefeated when Samuel runs the ball more than five times, and the last time they lost a game where he scored a rushing toucdown was Week 5 when he had one carry for a 13-yard TD in a 17-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. 

Shanahan has two of the best run-blocking players in the game with Williams and Compton, and a lethal 1-2 punch with Mitchell and Samuel. Quinn might know him more than anyone, but he'll need more than a past coaching relationship to slow down Shanahan and the 49ers' running attack.

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