Every team in the playoffs is under an enormous amount of pressure. The atmosphere of finality surrounding the tournament weighs heavy for any team hoping to hoist the Lombardi. In Dallas, there exists a separate pressure that is almost equally as heavy. It’s partially created from the decades-long lack of postseason success that is so frequently brought up. It’s also from the lofty expectations placed on the Dallas Cowboys every year from fans and media alike. Even when those who claim to despise the Cowboys jeer at their woes, it’s almost as if they too expect better from them. Ghosts from the ‘70s and ‘90s haunt the hallways of The Star, showing themselves every January.
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Dallas Cowboys Aim to Exorcise the Past in Divisional Matchup Against San Francisco
It was evident all last week. All anyone heard is how Tom Brady was 7-0 against the franchise; how little achievement Dallas has seen in the postseason; how the Cowboys hadn’t won a road playoff game since “Whoomp! (There it is)” was the hottest song in the country. A dismal showing in the last game of the season had Dak Prescott under perhaps the most pressure of all. But as the old adage goes—pressure creates diamonds. Prescott embodied the team’s mantra on Monday, showcasing utter resiliency and producing one of the best games of his career.
When someone ever asks about Dak Prescott's best performance in a meaningful game, I offer you 57 seconds of his masterpiece in Tampa Bay from the '22 playoffs. pic.twitter.com/7RftRI8N1o
— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) January 17, 2023
Catharsis in Tampa Bay
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Prescott accounted for 305 yards on a 76% completion rate, five total touchdowns, and—perhaps most importantly—zero turnovers. Dak’s decision-making and pre-snap reads dismantled the same Bucs defense that had him reeling in Week 1. A career day from Dalton Schultz (95 yards, 2 TD), and contributions throughout the offense complimented this masterclass performance. The defense appeared to return to form while welcoming back key players Leighton Vander Esch and Jonathan Hankins. Many defensive contributors have been sorely missed to end the season, and their returns were an immediate bolster. Brady was terrorized and befuddled all evening, completing only 53% of his 66 (!) pass attempts, with an interception and two sacks.
Thrilling victory aside, it would be foolish to believe any of the pressure has let up now. The 31-14 rout only guaranteed the Dallas Cowboys a tougher opponent for the divisional playoffs in the San Francisco 49ers. Mr. Irrelevant himself, Brock Purdy, has successfully taken the reins of a powerhouse roster on an 11-game winning streak. After starting the season 3-4, the Niners have regained their place as Super Bowl contenders. San Francisco did damage of their own on Wildcard Weekend and now look to spoil Dallas’ postseason hopes again.
Matchups Important for Dallas Cowboys Against San Francisco
The San Francisco offense thrives on creating mismatches within the matchups. Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk are all used creatively in Kyle Shanahan’s explosive scheme. Samuel is well known for his rushing capabilities, while McCaffrey can line up out wide on any given play. Kittle is often set on the line in a traditional tight end position instead of out wide. This helps to avoid any pass/run tells and allows Kittle to excel in both phases. This flexibility provides opportunities to pull linebackers and safeties out of position and take advantage of the subsequent exposure.
It will be of the utmost importance for the Dallas defense to maintain discipline and not get caught out of position. Purdy takes care of the football, but a rushing attack like Dallas has should make life in the pocket uncomfortable for the rookie. But even that may not be enough—this offense puts up points in bunches. This Dallas Cowboys offense will likely need another performance like Monday’s to leave San Francisco with a divisional playoff win.
DEEBO SAMUEL 74-YARD TOUCHDOWN. @49ers on 🔥@19problemz #SuperWildCard
📺: #SEAvsSF on FOX
📱: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/96NMtTe9OX pic.twitter.com/XezJsSHF4B
— NFL (@NFL) January 15, 2023
The 49ers defense is frequently touted as the best in the league and lives up to the reputation. Nick Bosa is a nightmare off the edge and is probably this year’s DPOY with 18.5 sacks. Fred Warner is at the top of his game at linebacker. Talanoa Hufanga has quickly developed into a quality safety. That’s only the beginning of this talented defensive roster. However, if given enough time in the pocket, Prescott can pass against this defense.
When the protection is solid, quarterbacks have been able to take advantage of this secondary. Over the last month, this defense has allowed the most passing touchdowns in the league and rank 28th in pass yards allowed per game. San Francisco has a stout defensive front, but if the Cowboys can establish the run, Prescott can utilize play action to his advantage.
Points will need to be scored in this game. Turnovers will lose this game. Looking at you, Dak. While Prescott has been criticized for a spike in turnovers this year, last week was an encouraging sign. Dallas tends to score points even with the turnovers, but the Niners cannot be afforded extra possessions. With only eight teams left, there are no easy games. Yet, a rookie quarterback on merely his eighth start and a vulnerable secondary provides opportunity. The Dallas Cowboys can make this divisional game against the 49ers much like the wildcard. The team must seize those opportunities when they present themselves.
Nothing Has Been Proven
Monday’s victory silenced critics and doubters for all of about 15 hours and it’s not without merit. What is objectively true is that a wildcard victory means nothing in the grand scheme of things. Sure, it was cathartic to take down St. Brady in a playoff matchup on the road. However, the Cowboys have not been to the NFC Championship in 27 years. Let’s not forget, the most gut-wrenching playoff losses in recent memory have come in the divisional round. Not only that—these same 49ers came into AT&T Stadium, went Super Gremlin, and sent Dallas packing just last season.
Who wants to see the doors open for the 49ers? (Sound on) pic.twitter.com/rBiU3fvO7Q
— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) January 16, 2022
The pressure continues. However, this team seems to thrive in these circumstances. When Dak went down, the team responded by going 4-1 in his absence. After a maddening loss in Green Bay, Dallas demolished an 8-1 Minnesota team by 37 points. Questionable play in December was capped by an embarrassing showing against the Commanders in Week 18. It was enough to have many confident in a quick playoff exit. Yet, the team’s response has gained them another week in the playoffs. Now another stigma must be broken; another curse lifted.
A True Road to Glory
Whether by fate or chance, the road to the Super Bowl for the Cowboys will likely be a revenge tour of epic proportions. First step was to defeat Tom Brady after numerous failures. Check. Now comes the chance for retaliation on San Francisco’s home turf. If the Cowboys are successful, probability says they’ll likely meet the Eagles in a blood-feud style NFC championship game. It would be a match for the ages—but first lies this Sunday. The Dallas Cowboys must continue to utilize the pressure and doubt surrounding them to carve a warpath through San Francisco in Sunday’s divisional matchup if they want to reach the heights not seen in nearly three decades. The team that showed up in Tampa Bay on Monday can beat anybody. It’s time to do it again—welcome to the playoffs.