It’s been a while since a Dallas vs. San Francisco game has meant anything. The Cowboys last played in San Francisco in 2005 (a 35-31 Cowboy win) and last played the 49ers in 2008, a 35-22 win in Dallas.
These two teams have played each other six times in NFC Championship Games. Tellingly, the winner of that game went on to win five of six Super Bowl titles.
That was eons ago, but the memories burn bright. Another chapter will unfold in this compelling series, perhaps one that isn’t so critical but one full of interesting storylines.
Here come the Cowboys after their devastating 27-24 loss to the Jets. It was the first time ever that the Cowboys lost a game after leading by 14 points in the fourth quarter. Then there is the owner, Jerry Jones, bravely standing up for quarterback Tony Romo despite the fact that Romo made two key blunders—a goal-line fumble and a late interception into double coverage—that reignited the Jets’ chances.
Here are the 49ers—young, raw and still unsure of what they are capable of under new coach Jim Harbaugh. Their defense held Seattle to 219 yards last Sunday, a very good mark except the SF offense totaled 10 less. But special teams were key—four field goals by David Akers, the best net punting in the league by Andy Lee (nearly 60 yards gross, 54 net) and, of course, two Ted Ginn Jr. touchdown returns.
It stands to be a tempestuous mix: an angry, frustrated Dallas team loaded on offense but hurting on defense going against an unknown, still-forming team that looks to go 2-0 for the first time since 2009.
Here are seven reasons why the 49ers will beat the Cowboys.
I could be giving Harbaugh too much credit, but I feel he held back a little against Seattle. The 49ers didn’t need to do anything too flashy, and they didn’t. The game film will show an offense built around a power running game led by Frank Gore and a quarterback content to throw short and accurately with minimal risk.
Of course, Seattle’s defense bottled it up pretty well. In New York, Dallas held the Jets to 45 yards rushing and gained 390. That right there suggests the Cowboys are superior, but here are the mitigating factors.
1) New York’s defense, for all of its stunts and tricks, showed considerable weakness to tight end play. Cowboy Jason Witten led all receivers with 110 receiving yards.
2) With safety Donte Whitner and inside backers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, the 49ers are considerably stronger in the middle than the Jets. Witten will be less of a factor against the Niners.
3) For all the offense in New York, the Cowboys only gained 64 rushing yards. The Niners are better than the Jets against the run, so look for more pass-first offense from the Cowboys.
With Dallas having to pass more, the Niners can turn loose their front linemen. The addition of Aldon Smith on third-down plays coupled with defensive end Justin Smith gives the 49ers two strong edge rushers. J. Smith recorded two sacks, and fellow interior lineman Ray McDonald also added two sacks.
Detractors can say that came against a young Seattle offensive line, but it also came from standard defensive schemes—no exotic zone blitzes, no safeties running up from the deep secondary. Just good man-beats-man play.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio can unveil more complex schemes, again something that Dallas hasn’t seen. Expect Fangio to create some coverages that take away Witten in the middle and also pressure Romo. Here’s where Aldon Smith becomes a bigger factor.
Felix Jones’ production in the second half tends to drop considerably, almost a yard and half per attempt. Jones is fast and strong and definitely a threat, but the Niners have been one of the best against the run over the last four years.
(We interrupt this program to give 49er fans a reality check. The team’s PR staff likes to mention that no runner gained more than 100 yards on the 49ers in 2010. The only other team to do that was Pittsburgh. Also, the Niners' defensive streak of holding a runner under 100 yards is now at 23 games, best in the NFL.
Here’s where the reality kicks in: In the Week 3 blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Niners were torched for 207 yards on the ground, and Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles had 95 and 97 yards, respectively. It was very likely that one more touch for either would have ended the 100-yard streak. Now back to your regularly scheduled program.)
Willis and Bowman can take care of Jones. A few more defensive wrinkles from Fangio and there’s a good chance that the Dallas offense becomes rather one-sided. That means the Niners can turn loose their pass-rushers like Smith and Smith.
The Cowboys are hurting at cornerback. Injuries have taken out their top three, and they signed journeyman Frank Walker for this week. Dallas starter Orlando Scandrick looks to miss this week, and Terence Newman (pictured) can’t overcome a training camp injury. Mike Jenkins also has been hobbled.
The Jets took advantage as Mark Sanchez threw for 315 yards, and that came with DeMarcus Ware and company getting four sacks for the Cowboys.
Of course, handling Ware will be priority one for the Niners offense, and it comes down to Anthony Davis at right tackle to do a better job. But the Niners also have two tight ends to help Davis out. If that occurs, look for the Niners to go downfield more with Ted Ginn Jr., Braylon Edwards and Joshua Morgan.
In short, we’ll see a more expansive offense from Harbaugh this week, another step forward as the Niners continue to gel.
When on, he’s deadly. When pressured late, he tends to make mistakes.
I think it’s because it’s Dallas. For those who haven’t experienced the unyielding, deep and heated pressure that comes with being a Cowboy quarterback in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, you have no idea the scrutiny.
Couple that with a team that, for all its offensive and defensive stars, still lacks some key components. The offensive line was one of the league’s weakest last year, and Romo’s season-ending shoulder injury in Week 5 proved it. The Dallas secondary, despite the effect Ware can have on opposing pass games, wasn’t all that strong either.
That doesn’t matter, though. The quarterback has the ball on every offensive play and thus—in the minds of many Dallas fans—is the direct cause of any successful or unsuccessful play. In the end, Romo tries to do too much. That leads to mistakes (49er fans might see something similar in their own quarterback).
Constant pressure on Romo will be essential, and the Niners can do that. That will lead to mistakes, and the Niners will take advantage.
There used to be a feeling that teams used to playing on artificial turf that had to play on real grass suffered more than teams going from grass to artificial turf. That notion has been dispelled, I believe, and thus the 49er home-field advantage will not derive from the real green stuff.
It will be the wind. As we saw against Seattle, swirling winds in Candlestick can make kicking, passing and receiving a challenging endeavor. That’s one thing the Cowboys get very rarely in their workouts in Dallas during August and September.
Hot and humid, Dallas is—but with little air movement. The relatively cool conditions this Sunday in San Francisco will be refreshing, but the wind’s effect on passes and kicks will be something that gives the Niners an edge.
There’s something about Dallas that irks other teams. It’s the America’s Team thing. Players think it’s kind of arrogant. It helps other teams get a little more motivated to beat the Cowboys.
In that perspective, I feel this game might be similar to a 1981 regular season meeting between the two teams. The Cowboys came into that game having won the five previous meetings between the two teams. Joe Montana got the 49ers out to a 24-0 lead, and SF never looked back in a 45-14 win.
That was the game that turned the team into believers and propelled it to a 13-3 mark and, ultimately, a 28-27 win over the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game.
In 1994, the Cowboys again came to Candlestick having won the three previous meetings, two of which came in the NFC Championship Game. Steve Young (pictured) did the trick this time in a 21-14 victory. That game solidified the Niners as the conference’s best team, which they proved with a 38-28 victory over Dallas in the—you guessed it—NFC Championship Game.
Another big win over the Cowboys this week may not lift the Niners to a 13-3 record like it did in 1981, but it would definitely add confidence and urgency to a young, talented team.