When the Dallas Cowboys' huge, lightning fast defensive lineman smothered Brock Purdy on a 2nd and 10 less than one minute into Sunday's Divisional game at Levi's Stadium, it was clear that the San Francisco 49ers were going to have their hands full. Purdy lost nine yards on that sack, and the Niners started the game with a quick three and out. Dallas's defense had allowed the sixth-fewest points in the NFL this season, and all those yards after the catch that the Niners have come to rely on just weren't there yesterday.
Those multiple touchdown passes that we've all come to expect from seven-game- starting veteran Brock Purdy would also not be there, nor would a Christian McCaffrey 100-yard game. Those 34.8-points per game that the 49ers have been averaging since Purdy took the helm wouldn't be there, nor would Nick Bosa add to his 15.5 sacks on the season.
Instead, it would be a battle of two magnificent defenses, and a grinding, hard-fought, victory for the 49ers, who — win or lose — were playing their last game at Levi's Stadium for the season. Beating the Cowboys 19-12, the 49ers advance to the NFC Championship game next week in Philadelphia against the high-flying Eagles.
With the game still scoreless late in the first quarter, Deommodore Lenoir intercepted a Dak Prescott pass, setting up the Niners' deep in Dallas territory. Brock Purdy took another sack, but managed a first-down pass to Brandon Aiyuk. That set up a field goal, and with the score 3-0 Niners, the defensive grind was in full, incredibly slow swing.
The Cowboys' offense seemed to find short gains more or less on demand, and put together their best drive of the game at the end of the first quarter and into the second. Running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard pounded their way upfield.(Pollard would go on to break his leg and leave the game late in the first half.) The Cowboys, who still weren't sure of their kicker Brett Maher would ever make a field goal again, went for it on a 4th and 1 around the Niners' 20 and made it, leading to an eventual Prescott touchdown pass.
Maher did miss the extra point — technically, it was blocked, but on the replay, the kick seemed doomed the second it left Maher's cursed foot, making it a 6-3 game.
The Niners pieced together a long drive in the late-afternoon January light, culminating in another Robbie Gould field goal and a tie game late in the half.
Dak Prescott and the Dallas offense seemed to be in more of a rhythm than their red and gold counterparts. Prescott's ran for a few big gains and first downs, but also made a few inexplicable throws. While deep Niners' territory with just over a minute in the half — and presumably well inside field-goal range for a kicker not suffering from an existential crisis — Prescott fired a pass on a 2nd and 2 that was tipped by Jimmie Ward right into the hands of Fred Warner.
A 20-ish yard throw from Purdy to Jauan Jennings set up another Niners' field goal to end the half 9-6.
When the Cowboys punted on their first possession of the second half, Ray-Ray McCloud was stripped immediately after he caught the ball. The 49ers did well to stymie the Cowboys in the red zone, forcing them to rely on their almost comically unreliable kicker Brett Maher — but there would be no missing from Maher this time, and the game was tied at 9-9.
The Cowboys and Niners exchanged possessions, leading to the definitive drive of the game for San Francisco.
On a 1st and 10 from around his own 20-yard line, Purdy faked a handoff to Christian McCaffrey, then rolled to his right, free from any pressure of the swarming white jerseys. Purdy set his feet and fired up the middle to George Kittle, who juggled the pass for what "seemed like it was 10 seconds of bobbling," Purdy said. The ball bounced off Kittle's hand, off his helmet and back into his hands for a circus highlight.
It seemed to be enough of a spark to ignite the San Francisco offense. After being bottled up all game, Christian McCaffrey started to put some work in — he had 35 yards on 10 attempts along with six receptions — and ran the ball into the end zone to start the fourth quarter. 16-9, Niners.
With their kicker's confidence restored, Dallas got another field goal early in the fourth quarter, (16-12) before the Niners went to work on one of their longest – which is to say time-consuming-est — drives of the game. Brock Purdy passed with impunity into his favorite part of the field: right up the middle, though the hash marks and between the numbers. This culminated in another San Francisco field goal, maintaining their one-touchdown lead.
The only 49ers' sack of Dak Prescott could not have been more timely, as Samson Ebukam got to the Dallas QB on a 3rd and 10 while the Cowboys were deep in their own territory. The Niners got the ball back with about two minutes left, and Elijah Mitchell got a first down, then went out of bounds with 1:47 on the clock. Dallas was able to use their two remaining time outs to preserve enough clock to make one last drive, from their own end zone with less than a minute left, in an attempt to tie the game.
"The whole season, I've been taking things in and just being appreciative of where I'm at with my life and playing football — the little things, the big things, all of it," Brock Purdy was quoted as saying after the game by the Mercury News. "When I first got in against Miami, I wanted to show the guys that I could play and earn their respect. As I've played more games and played in front of this crowd, it’s more like, man, let's win."
How did the game look to the coach?
"By no means was anything perfect for the whole offense or the whole team," Kyle Shanahan said. "But it seemed like playoff football. Going against this team, we've been watching them all week, we had a feeling it was going to be this type of game. That's why we were stressing the run game on both sides and stressing protecting the ball and trying to force turnovers. We accomplished both of those things."
The Niners are a "slight" underdog to the Philadelphia Eagles, but one headline read: "San Francisco will advance to Super Bowl 57." Despite a late-season skid, the Eagles were the best team in the league this year. Brock Purdy and Jalen Hurts are the two youngest quarterbacks remaining in the playoffs.
Top Image: Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images