49ers grind past Cowboys in defensive struggle

ByTodd Archer and Nick Wagoner ESPN logo
Monday, January 23, 2023

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- With two great defenses in the Dallas Cowboys and theSan Francisco 49ers, it's no surprise that Sunday's NFC divisional round game was a low-scoring affair.

In the end, the Niners did just enough to pull away in the fourth quarter for a 19-12 win to advance in the playoffs.

The 49ers will travel to face the Philadelphia Eaglesin the NFC Championship Game on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, Fox).

San Francisco 49ers

After a few below-standard showings over the past month, the 49ers' defense heard all the whispers.

The same group that led the NFL in most major defensive categories all season had showed signs of fatigue, and better playoff opponents were poised to pounce, the skeptics said.

But on Sunday at Levi's Stadium, that 49ers' defense offered a resounding reminder of exactly what it represents, shutting down Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott & Co. on the way to the Niners' third conference title game in four seasons.

Linebacker Fred Warner and cornerback Deommodore Lenoircame up with interceptions as the 49ers finished plus-1 in turnover margin. San Francisco is now 15-0 this season when it wins or ties the turnover battle. Dallas finished with just 282 yards of offense on 4.7 yards per play and was 5-of-15 on third down.

The Niners, who have now won 12 consecutive games in a season for the first time since 1984, advanced to face the Eagles with a Super Bowl bid on the line.

QB breakdown: The Dallas defense was easily the toughest test rookie quarterback Brock Purdy has faced since becoming the starter in Week 14, and it made his life difficult all day. When Purdy was pressured, the Niners struggled. When he had time to throw, he was solid.

But Purdy's biggest number on the day was zero. As in the number of turnovers he had. That made the difference, as Purdy finished 19-of-29 passing for 214 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. It wasn't pretty, but it was enough.

Prior to this season, there had never been a rookie QB to throw for 200 yards with no interceptions in a playoff game. Purdy has done it in back-to-back postseason contests.

Pivotal play: Stuck in the mud for most of the day, the Niners' offense needed a spark, any spark, to get going. It came with 5 minutes, 19 seconds left in the third quarter, when Purdy rolled to his left and saw tight end George Kittle darting down the middle of the field.

Purdy's throw was on target but led Kittle a little too much. So, Kittle improvised, reaching out with his right hand and juggling it twice before hauling it in for a 29-yard gain. The Niners' offense found traction on the ground soon after and scored the game-winning points on a 2-yard touchdown run by Christian McCaffrey eight plays later.

Describe the game in two words: Heavyweight fight. These were two of the three best teams in the NFC all season, and though both offenses were plenty explosive, the defenses were the consistently best units on both sides. That showed up on Sunday as they stood in the middle of the ring and exchanged blows for all 60 minutes, before the Niners emerged with the victory.

Underrated statistic to know: McCaffrey's fourth-quarter touchdown marked his eighth consecutive game with a touchdown, the longest streak of his career and longest for the 49ers since Terrell Owens scored a TD in nine straight games in 1998. -- Nick Wagoner

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys' season ends where it always ends, it seems: in the divisional round of the playoffs.

The Cowboys' loss to the49ers was their seventh straight in the divisional round, which is the longest streak in the second round of the NFL playoffs. Since winning Super Bowl XXX in the 1995 season, the Cowboys have lost to the Carolina Panthers (1996), New York Giants (2007), Minnesota Vikings (2009), Green Bay Packers (2014, 2016),Los Angeles Rams (2018) and now the Niners.

What went wrong against San Francisco?

Prescott was intercepted twice in the first half (leading to two Niners field goals); kickerBrett Maher missed another extra point (five misses in two playoff games); running backTony Pollard exited aftersuffering a fractured left fibula; and the defense wore down in the second half. As a result, the Cowboys' Super Bowl drought is now at 27 years and counting, and they face a daunting offseason that sees them with limited salary-cap options, crucial free agent decisions and the potential loss of two coordinators to head-coaching jobs elsewhere.

QB breakdown: Prescott did not need to play perfectly to beat the Niners, but he had to stay away from mistakes. He didn't. He became the first Cowboys quarterback with two interceptions in a playoff game since Troy Aikman in the 1998 wild-card round. The Cowboys are now 6-13 in the playoffs when their quarterback has multiple interceptions in a game. After finding wide receiverCeeDee Lamb just once in last season's playoff meeting versus San Francisco (five targets), Prescott almost exclusively went to Lamb on Sunday. Prescott's second interception was a killer because it came at the San Francisco 18-yard line. It was just the second red zone pick of the season for Prescott. The other came in the overtime loss in Week 10 to the Packers.

Biggest hole in the game plan: It wasn't so much a problem with the game plan as it was the loss of Pollard in the second quarter. Without Pollard, the Cowboys' running game went nowhere. Without his speed and elusiveness, the Cowboys could not do much of anything against a Niners run defense that did not allow an individual runner to top 70 yards during the season. Ezekiel Elliott had not averaged more than 4 yards per carry in a game since Week 14, and he rushed for 26 yards on 10 carries against the 49ers.

Troubling trend: It's hard to blame the Cowboys' defense for anything; but in the second half, it allowed a 91-yard scoring drive with the score tied 9-9, and after the Cowboys cut the deficit to 16-12, they allowed a 64-yard field goal drive. In the first six drives of the game, the Cowboys did not allow more than 46 yards while giving up three field goals. For a defense that feasted on quarterback pressures and takeaways, it had difficulty getting to Purdyin the second half, and Trevon Diggs dropped a potential interception on the 91-yard drive.

Underrated statistic to know: Per Elias Sports Bureau data, Maheris the only player in NFL history to have more than two unsuccessful extra point attempts in a single postseason; he missed five in the past two playoff games, including one on Sunday. -- Todd Archer

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