The 49ers head into their first-round playoff game as the underdog against the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys.
Former 49ers star tight end Brent Jones, who resides in Dallas, does not see it that way.
“We’re playing the game the way I expected the 49ers would at the start of the season,” Jones said on the 49ers Talk podcast. “After all of that is said and done, we’re still where we want to be. We’re in the playoffs. We’re the team that nobody wants to play.”
The 49ers are about as healthy as they have been all season. Of the team’s front-line players, only the status of Trent Williams (elbow) is in question. Coach Kyle Shanahan expressed optimism the Pro Bowl left tackle would be available to play on Sunday, saying Williams is feeling better than he did a week ago.
Jones believes the 49ers’ approach is the right formula for winning football in the postseason.
“We’ve changed our course," Jones said. "And our identity this year is playing tough defense and we’re running the heck out of the ball with Elijah Mitchell. (That) gives our offensive line, which has been tremendously underrated, gives them a chance to run-block and that helps set up their pass blocks.”
The 49ers have featured a balanced offense, which they showed up against the Los Angeles Rams in a do-or-die final game of the regular season. The 49ers rushed for 135 yards and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 316 yards in the 27-24 overtime victory.
Deebo Samuel is making plays as a receiver, runner and, even, a passer. Receiver Brandon Aiyuk has developed into a big-time threat on the outside to go along with Samuel and tight end George Kittle.
“There are fewer sacks, so much fewer pressures on Jimmy, and that allows him to stand in the pocket and deliver the ball accurately. And then, of course, we have the big-play potential with Deebo and Aiyuk, with George Kittle, of course. All those things together, it feels like, to me, it took forever for all this to come together. But it finally did, and that’s really the key, right? You want to be playing your best ball going into the playoffs, and I kind of feel like that’s where we’re at.”
Jones said he believes a matchup with the Cowboys is a good situation for the 49ers because their stout pass rush can limit the effectiveness of quarterback Dak Prescott and Dallas’ No. 1-ranked offense.
“Get pressure on Dak, and he’ll throw it away early,” Jones said. “He’s not as adept at scrambling coming off that injury (right ankle compound fracture) in the last year.
“Their defense is much improved, but I think we can run the ball. I think we’re going to out-physical them. . . . Playoff time things can change, but I just think from a matchup perspective, this plays right into our hands.”
Jones highlighted the contributions of Mitchell, a hard-running sixth-round draft pick from Louisiana-Lafayette. Mitchell this season became the fifth different leading rusher for the 49ers in coach Kyle Shanahan’s five years with the club.
“We have new running backs every year that you’ve never heard of who go out and outperform, but Elijah Mitchell is special,” Jones said. “I really think he is, the way that he runs. It’s given our offensive line the ability to showcase their run-blocking.”
With the 49ers’ style of play and the way their players are performing entering the playoffs, Jones said he believes his former team has as good of a chance as any team in the NFL postseason.
“Right now, in terms of health, in terms of confidence, in terms of our coaching staff, our play-calling, everything is kind of coming together,” he said. “I feel cautiously, very optimistic at this point.
“There’s something special about this team, too, in the locker room. There’s a never-give-up mentality and we’ve had more than a few times this year when we could’ve given up and we haven’t. We fought back. And I think that’s going to make us really powerful come playoff time.”