Dak Prescott, Cowboys confront 49ers in playoff rivalry renewal
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody needs to warn the Dallas Cowboys this would be the wrong week for offensive line issues.

But health is not assured for the front wall of the Cowboys (13-5) as they prepare to tackle the San Francisco 49ers (14-4) in an NFC Divisional playoff game Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif.

"We basically have to game plan around him a little bit more," left guard Connor McGovern said of facing 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa. "We faced a lot of great defensive ends and defensive tackles ... let's put the target on (Bosa) this week. We'll give him his respect."

Bosa dubbed Dallas' offensive line as "definitely beatable" before a concussion knocked him out of the playoff game at Dallas last January.

But he's earned the respect as the spearhead of the San Francisco's No. 1-ranked defense. He had 18.5 of the team's 44 sacks as part of a Defensive Player of the Year resume, and the secondary reaped the rewards with 20 interceptions (tied for league lead with Pittsburgh Steelers).

Protecting quarterback Dak Prescott rates as chief priority for the Cowboys. When rattled, Prescott has been prone to turnovers with 15 interceptions this season, tied for the NFL lead in the regular season.

The 49ers had five sacks and the Cowboys totaled 307 total yards on 70 plays in San Francisco's wild-card win at Dallas last postseason, when the clock ran out with Prescott driving for a game-winning score trailing by six.

Prescott said in training camp he thinks about the loss "several times a day."

"That one hurts," Prescott said this week. "It will hurt for the rest of my career, and it will be a motivation throughout my career, just to make sure I'm preparing the right way, leaving no doubt in the preparation.

"So just being able to get (the 49ers) again ... this thing's set up just for us -- playing teams that have beat us, teams that we're familiar with."

San Francisco's clamp-tight run defense led the NFL and allowed just 77.7 rushing yards per game in 2022, second-fewest in the NFL. The 49ers are expected to put the pressure on Prescott to make throws in tight windows to move the chains. That puts the pressure back on Dallas' front five.

In Dallas' 31-14 win at Tampa Bay on Monday night, McGovern was needed at guard because left tackle Jason Peters left with an injured hip. The Cowboys shuffled the line entirely to compensate, inserting rookie Tyler Smith at left tackle, moving McGovern from fullback to left guard and leaving right tackle Tyron Smith at his adopted spot.

"It's definitely going to start up front," Tyler Smith said. "It'll start with the big guys so that's going to be the emphasis throughout the week. We know what we (have) got to do."

Much of the drama on the Dallas side this week surrounded kicker Brett Maher, who missed a record four extra points at Tampa. Maher enters the game as the kicker despite some nerves admitted by the Cowboys.

Special teams coach John Fassel said, "We have a plan and we'll go through it this week. I expect football karma to kick in."

San Francisco's kicking plan is solid gold. Robbie Gould, 40, has never missed a playoff field-goal attempt or PAT. He's 25-for-25 on field-goal attempts -- the most without a miss in NFL history -- and 37-for-37 on PATs in his playoff career.

The Cowboys are getting their first look at the 49ers' third starting quarterback this season, rookie Brock Purdy. The seventh-round pick threw three TD passes, completed passes to seven different receivers and the 49ers slapped a season-high 41 points on the Seahawks in a wild-card victory last week.

Dallas' version of Bosa, chess piece Micah Parsons, played 15 snaps at linebacker last week. The Cowboys typically scheme to free him to aggressively angle toward the quarterback, with heavy use at defensive end. It helped the Cowboys last week to have outside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch return to the lineup from a neck injury.

But they'll need near flawless play to limit another newcomer -- trade-deadline acquisition Christian McCaffrey -- and wide receiver Deebo Samuel from busting big plays. McCaffrey had a 68-yard run, Samuel scored on a 74-yard reception and six players had plays of 20-plus yards against the Seahawks last week. It was San Francisco's 11th consecutive win.

That task falls to Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan's former boss with the Atlanta Falcons. Quinn holds an advantage of having heard Shanahan's play calls and tendencies through a headset for two seasons, but the familiarity flows both ways.

"I mean, Dan Quinn jumps off the tape to me there. The way he gets those guys to move," Shanahan said Wednesday. "I mean, he's got some real good rushers. Everyone knows about (defensive end DeMarcus) Lawrence and Parsons but I mean, there's not one bad one there. The way that they stunt, the way they can create one-on-ones.

"There's a reason they're number one in getting to the quarterback with sacks and pressures, and it does jump off the tape."

The Cowboys had 54 sacks in the regular season and took down Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady twice last week.

This is the ninth playoff meeting between the 49ers and Cowboys, with Dallas leading the all-time series 5-3. The winner went on to win the Super Bowl five times.

Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy was 49ers offensive coordinator in 2005. He's 0-3 against San Francisco as a head coach of the Packers and Cowboys.

This article first appeared on Field Level Media and was syndicated with permission.

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