Perhaps the most interesting matchup of Super Wild Card Weekend will take place in Jerry World, when the San Francisco 49ers battle the Dallas Cowboys.
This clash between iconic NFL brands is also expected to be the most competitive and has the shortest spread of the six-game wild card slate. The 49ers clinched a playoff spot in the final week of the regular season, while the Cowboys are hoping last week’s 51-point outburst will be the spark they need for a successful playoff run.
Should we back the dangerous underdog, or roll with the favorite? Let’s break it down.
- Opening line: Dallas -3.5
- Current line: Dallas -3
- Total: 51
Can San Francisco’s running game succeed vs. Dallas?
It has been a topsy-turvy season for the 49ers. After starting 2-0, the Niners fell to 2-4 before winning eight of their last 11 to finish the year 10-7. They needed a late game-winning drive against the Rams last week just to clinch a playoff spot. But don’t be mistaken—the 49ers are a legitimate threat to win the NFC.
The Niners rank fifth in overall DVOA per FootballOutsiders.com and are one of two teams in the league that ranks inside the top seven in both offensive and defensive DVOA.
Offensively, San Francisco is predicated on an outside zone running game and a position-less philosophy. The 49ers rank fifth in rushing DVOA despite having little star power in their backfield. But the combination of great scheme, a sturdy offensive line, and a breakout year from Elijah Mitchell has resulted in plenty of success.
The question will be whether San Francisco can establish the run against Dallas’ front seven. The 49ers rank 11th in adjusted line yards and sixth in second-level yards. On the other side, the Cowboys rank 16th in rush defense DVOA, 13th in adjusted line yards, and 19th in second-level yards. Dallas is also 21st in stuff rate, indicating that they aren’t great at shutting down plays at or behind the line of scrimmage.
On the surface, San Francisco should be able to generate a push in the trenches. However, a deeper look indicates San Fran might have to alter its scheme to succeed. The 49ers most commonly run the ball up the middle between the guards (55% of the time), off the left end (12% of the time), and off the left tackle (11% of the time). The problem is that Dallas ranks sixth against runs up the middle, fifth against runs off the left tackle, and 16th against runs off the left end.
Why is Dallas stronger against runs to the left side? Because that’s the side where dominant defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence resides. The 49ers would be far better off running at Randy Gregory on the right side, as Dallas ranks 31st against runs off the right tackle and 27th on runs off the right end.
The Cowboys also don’t have a clear answer for covering tight end George Kittle. This season, Dallas has allowed 83 receptions for 920 yards to opposing tight ends this season. The Garoppolo-Kittle connection could be in store for a big day.
Dallas could exploit San Francisco’s secondary
I mentioned earlier that there are two teams who rank within the top seven in offensive and defensive DVOA. The other team? Dallas.
It’s been a strong season for the Cowboys that’s been fueled by a defensive resurgence. The Cowboys rank second in defensive DVOA and second in pass defense DVOA. But there are questions surrounding Dallas’ viability as a playoff contender.
The Cowboys went 3-4 against playoff teams this season, with two of those wins coming against the Eagles. They went 5-1 after a bizarre Thanksgiving loss to the Raiders, but beat up on the Giants, Washington twice, and the Eagles while losing their only game against a non-Eagles playoff team (Arizona).
Dallas’ advantage in this game should be Dak Prescott and the aerial attack. Dallas ranks sixth in passing DVOA and will go up against a 49ers secondary that ranks 16th in that same category. This star-studded unit is terrifying when it’s clicking. The problem is it hasn’t been clicking consistently. Prescott has surpassed 300 passing yards in just one of his final six games since Thanksgiving, and that came against a worn out and COVID-depleted Washington defense.
The battle in the trenches will be critical for Dallas. The Cowboys rank second in adjusted line yards and eighth in second-level yards. But they’ll go up against a 49ers front that ranks second in adjusted line yards and second-level yards. The 49ers are also excellent at pressuring the passer, ranking fifth in sacks.
The Cowboys have some outstanding stars at each level in Lawrence, linebacker Micah Parsons, and cornerback Trevon Diggs. But the Cowboys have benefitted from takeaways, as they have a league-leading 34 takeaways and 26 interceptions.
I’m not saying the Cowboys defense is just lucky—it’s a really talented unit. But the Cowboys won’t be able to rely as much on turning the ball over, as teams are much more careful in the postseason when every possession matters.
This is going to be a great game, maybe the best of the weekend. Both of these teams are legitimate contenders to win a wide open NFC. But in this showdown, I’m taking the road underdog.
The 49ers should be able to control the game in the trenches, and I’m not sure there’s that much of a difference between Garoppolo and Prescott given how Dak has played as of late. Plus, I just trust Kyle Shanahan a little more than I trust Mike McCarthy.
I’ll take the more well-rounded 49ers over the more star power-driven Cowboys.
Pick: 49ers +3
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