NFL Division Round Upset Alert: Cowboys Seek Revenge in San Francisco

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NFL Pick: Cowboys ML (+160) at Bovada (visit our Bovada Review)

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All offseason the Dallas Cowboys (13-5) had to deal with the fact that they ended their season in embarrassing fashion at home against the San Francisco 49ers (14-4) by calling a quarterback draw with no timeouts in the final seconds of a 23-17 upset loss.  

Now they can go to San Francisco and return the favor to exact some revenge to secure the team’s biggest victory since winning Super Bowl XXX in the 1995 season.   

It will not be easy, but the Cowboys are coming off one of their best performances of the season and certainly one of Dak Prescott’s best games. Can his experience lead the way against a team with a rookie quarterback?  

Last season, three road underdogs won in the divisional round and the Bills were 13 seconds away from making it 4-for-4. Sixteen of the 20 seasons (80%) since 2002 have had at least one road winner in this crucial round.   

The Cowboys have the smallest point spread this week as a 3.5-point road underdog at many of the top-rated sportsbooks, but we have 4 reasons for how they can win this game and finally get back to the NFC Championship Game and beat the NFL odds that have eluded them for the last 2.5 decades.  

Dallas Cowboys vs. San Francisco 49ers  

Sunday, January 22, 2023 – 06:30 PM EST at Levi’s Stadium  

Reason 1: Quarterback Experience   

Dak Prescott gets his share of criticism just because that is what happens when you are the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. He is 2-3 in the playoffs now, but two playoff wins are all the Cowboys got during the Tony Romo era too.   

These things are not easy. Even Troy Aikman was 1-3 in the playoffs after he won his third Super Bowl in 1995. If an active three-time champion can go 1-3 in the playoffs, that should tell you this stuff is about small windows and having great teams with a little bit of luck.  

Prescott has led the Cowboys to at least 17 points in all five playoff games, and the only time he was under 22 points was last year against these 49ers in the 23-17 loss. Prescott was charted with 14 bad throws at Pro Football Reference in that game, his highest mark in any game since 2018.

We’ll see if the 49ers can repeat that success with pressure, or if Prescott can clean things up the way he did against Tampa after an abysmal Week 1 loss this year turned into a shredding of the defense in the playoffs.  

Brock Versus Dak

Also coming off a great game is San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy, who became the first rookie quarterback to throw for over 300 yards and three touchdowns in a playoff game since Sammy Baugh in 1937. 

Purdy’s start is historic, but at some point, you just wonder if he is going to crack and look like a seventh-round rookie. Against the Seahawks, Purdy got away with some risky throws early before settling down and improvising for a couple of nice touchdowns.

He also got Deebo Samuel to show off his YAC skills on a long touchdown, but Purdy made his share of plays in his first playoff game and the first test of facing a defense twice.  

While we talk about Prescott’s league-high interception rate this year, which includes several deflected balls that weren’t his fault, we cannot overlook Purdy’s mistakes.  

Against Seattle, there were four or five dangerous throws where he looked like a late-round rookie that could be bad news against a better defense. The Cowboys just so happen to have the most takeaways (33) in the league this year. San Francisco’s defense is obviously great, but the Cowboys have more sacks and takeaways and could make Purdy look bad with their talented unit led by Micah Parsons.  

History Not on Purdy’s Side

There is a valid reason no rookie quarterback has ever started a Super Bowl. Joe Flacco (2008 Ravens) and Mark Sanchez (2009 Jets) are the only two rookies to win multiple playoff games, and both lost on the road in the Conference Championship round, unable to outscore veterans Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning.   

Purdy is still at home this week, but the Dallas offense has the ability to put up points.  Despite the interceptions, Prescott had led the Cowboys to nine straight games with 27 points this season in Weeks 7-17. Of the previous 12 teams to do that, all 12 played in a championship game in a season during the streak.   

Not saying the Cowboys are Super Bowl bound, but when this team is on its game, it is an elite team.

The 49ers have not beaten any elite teams this year either.   

Reason 2: San Francisco’s Weak Schedule During Winning Streak  

After a disappointing 3-4 start, the 49ers have surged ahead with an 11-game winning streak with the top-ranked defense and an explosive offense with a rookie quarterback.  This is all impressive, but as always, you should check the schedule for a paper tiger.  

During this 11-game winning streak, the best team the 49ers have played was either the Chargers or Seahawks (twice). That’s it. Teams that finished 10-8 and 9-9 if you include their playoff defeat last week.   

It’s not like the 49ers have a great win from the 3-4 start either. They got the first of three wins against Seattle, a 24-9 win over the Rams who were lousy this year, and they beat up on the lowly Panthers, who fired head coach Matt Rhule afterward and shipped  Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers.  

The 49ers have objectively played the weakest schedule in the NFL this season:  

  • San Francisco’s strength of schedule based on opponent record is .417, ranked dead last in 2022.  
  • San Francisco’s strength of schedule at Pro Football Reference is minus 2.3, ranked as the easiest in the league.  
  • San Francisco’s strength of schedule at Football Outsiders ranks as the second easiest ahead of only the Eagles.  

In the 2022 regular season, the 49ers played a league-low five games against opponents that finished with a winning record. While they were 4-1 in those games – 5-1 if you include the Seahawks again – all but one of those wins are against Seattle and the Dolphins, the two No. 7 seeds this year. Not great teams who barely snuck in at the end.  

The only team with more than 10 wins that the 49ers have played was Kansas City and they lost 44-23 at home in that one. That is not very encouraging.

Also, the 49ers have already lost this year to three teams who went on to lose double-digit games, including the 5-12 Broncos, 7-10 Falcons, and they lost in a monsoon in Week 1 to the Bears, who finished 3-14 for the No. 1 pick in the draft.  

Smoke and Mirrors?

We can all agree the 49ers are improved from early in the season thanks to the McCaffrey trade and inserting Purdy, who has a strong connection with George Kittle that has opened up his game at tight end. The defense is still excellent.

That is all fine, but there is still the fact that this team hasn’t really beaten any top teams yet, and in the one chance they had, they lost by three touchdowns.  

In Dallas’ case, the Cowboys beat the 12-win Bengals without Prescott, they swept the still-kicking Giants, they demolished Minnesota 40-3 on the road, and while Jalen Hurts did not play, they still beat the Eagles in Week 16.   

Maybe none of this ends up mattering this weekend, but when you see the 49ers get pushed to overtime by the Raiders and Jarrett Stidham in his first NFL start in Week 17, you get a good sense that Dallas should compete well in this game.  

Let’s not confuse the 2022 49ers for a juggernaut like the 1985 Bears or 1994 49ers. This is a very talented team that is playing well and has not lost in nearly three months, but it will have to notch its three best wins of the season with a rookie quarterback the rest of the way.  

Good luck with that.   

Reason 3: Cowboys Value Tony Pollard Now  

Before this season, the Cowboys still played Ezekiel Elliott a significant amount of time over Tony Pollard, their more explosive back. In the playoff loss last year, Elliott had 12 carries for 31 yards and four pass targets leading to one 0-yard catch. That’s a bad game.  

Meanwhile, Pollard only played 25 snaps and received six touches for 28 yards. This season, he has played more than 25 snaps in every game with Prescott at quarterback. Pollard had 77 yards rushing against Tampa on Monday, playing 58% of the snaps.  

The Cowboys are going to need their best playmakers on the field to crack this defense, and that finally means they are wising up and playing Pollard over Zeke more.

Even though the 49ers have not allowed a 70-yard rusher all season, Pollard can be explosive in the passing game too, and would be an upgrade over Elliott either way. 

Reason 4: Kyle Shanahan’s Playoff History  

For all the valid talk about Mike McCarthy’s shortcomings as a head coach in the playoffs, he does have a Super Bowl ring. He would have a second appearance in the big game if his hands team could recover an onside kick in Seattle in the 2014 NFC Championship Game.  

Kyle Shanahan does not have a ring yet, and he needed nearly 100 games in the NFL to have a winning record above .500 for his career, which he achieved for the first time earlier this season.  

But of the last six times a team blew a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, he was on the losing team’s coaching staff three times, including twice with the 49ers in Super Bowl 54 (vs. Chiefs) and the 2021 NFC Championship Game (vs. Rams).  

In his first four postseason appearances as an offensive coordinator or head coach, Shanahan’s teams have all blown double-digit leads and fourth-quarter leads in their elimination game.  

Shanahan’s Role in the 28-3 SB Collapse

While it is true that current Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was the head coach of the 2016 Falcons when they blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl 51 to the Patriots, you could argue Shanahan’s offensive play-calling in the fourth quarter was just as responsible, if not more so than the defense for blowing that game.

He called for the pass on third-and-short that lead to a strip-sack and set up the Patriots inside the 25-yard line, and he botched a first-and-10 at the New England 22 that ended in a punt instead of a two-score lead.  

While it was McCarthy who looked the worst at the end of last year’s 23-17 wild card loss, the game only got to that point with some help from Shanahan, who nearly blew a 23-7 fourth-quarter lead.

The 49ers were sloppy with a turnover and numerous penalties for delay of game and false starts that eliminated game-clinching fourth-and-1 opportunities. The quarter was a mess.   

While Shanahan fans always want to blame the quarterback or the defense for dropping interceptions, you cannot overlook the fact that in four playoff losses, Shanahan’s teams went scoreless in the fourth quarter every time

Is Purdy some gift from the football gods like Tom Brady was to Bill Belichick 20 years ago that solve all of Shanahan’s ills this postseason? We’ll see but history has not been kind to Kyle this time of year.  

Cowboys vs. 49ers: Pick and Prediction  

It really comes down to turnovers. The 49ers have multiple turnovers in all four of their losses and the Cowboys are 10-1 when they do not have multiple giveaways in a game this year.  

These are the top two defenses at taking the ball away. Dak vs. Purdy might turn into Parsons vs. Bosa, which was the Defensive Player of the Year battle this season. Who leads their unit to more splash plays? That winner likely wins the game.  

But if this is Prescott’s moment in his seventh season, and if the 49ers finally get a subpar game from Mr. Irrelevant, then Dallas can pull this upset off for your NFL picks in what should be a good one.  

Remember, fans from the Big D or the Bay Area who are looking to make a wager on this game should be sure to check out our top-rated Texas and California betting sites.

NFL Pick: Cowboys ML (+160) at Bovada (visit our Bovada Review)

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