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3 & Out

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3 & Out: The Key Factor vs. 49ers; Zuerlein; More


FRISCO, Texas – Back with three quick topics ahead of Cowboys-49ers, the eighth all-time playoff meeting between the franchises and arguably one of the NFL's top-three rivalries over the past 40 years:

  • Sunday's matchup
  • Ced Wilson
  • Zuerlein

I Know…
the No. 3 seed is nice because it increases the odds of a possible second-round home game, etc., but there is no easy path through the NFC playoffs.

As a fan, would you really rather see the Cowboys play the 49ers than the Cardinals or Rams this Sunday in the wild-card round? This is a Niners team with championship experience that plays a postseason brand of football: a smashmouth, win-the-line-of-scrimmage-on-both-sides style.

If you're fortunate enough to get past San Francisco, is a possible divisional-round date with Tom Brady and Tampa Bay really more advantageous than a trip to Lambeau Field against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers?

There are no gimmes in this field. There's no easy way out, there's no shortcut home, to quote Survivor as Rocky reflected in his Lambo on the way to fight Drago.

The 49ers, despite an uneven season in a tough NFC West division, are arguably the Cowboys' toughest matchup since the Chiefs eight games ago. Defensively, they will stay in your face for 60 minutes. Offensively, they will try to wear you down in the run game with a variety of rushers and concepts.

Only four teams had more carries in the regular season than the 49ers' 499. That's an average of 29.3 per game. Contrary to popular belief, the Cowboys want to do the same thing. Their 473 carries are 11th most in the league, an average of 27.8 per game.

"It's obviously something they believe in. It's something we believe in," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think it will be a big part of the game planning process. It's definitely important this time of year."

Ask anyone about the 49ers, and "physical" might be the first word you hear. That's been a calling card for the Cowboys this year, too. In Dallas' one (self-described) embarrassing loss of the season -- Denver, in which they trailed 30-0 in the fourth quarter -- coaches and players agreed they got outmuscled.

That loss two months ago was a wakeup call, and in hindsight, it might turn out to be a valuable experience. Because to advance Sunday, the Cowboys will have to match/exceed the 49ers' physicality.

Personally, I believe Dak Prescott and the team have come too far, been through too much, for the season to end at home in round one Sunday. But there are no gimmes in the NFC playoffs.

I Think…
Cedrick Wilson is setting himself up for a nice 12-plus-year career in the NFL, whether he's here next season or not.

Wilson's contributions to the passing game have been invaluable with Michael Gallup missing just under half the season with calf and knee injuries. He's been quarterback-friendly to Prescott, catching 45 of 61 receiving targets.

That's a 73.8% catch rate, ninth best in the league among wide receivers, according to Team Rankings.

Wilson is an unrestricted free agent after the season. So is Gallup. Obviously the Cowboys would like to bring back both. The salary cap might not make that possible. We'll see.

McCarthy talks fondly about his 2010 championship season with the Packers and collective effort it took to win the title -- 77 players, to be exact. The Cowboys are now at 72 players who have taken snaps on offense, defense and/or special teams.

Wilson is a great example of someone seizing opportunity down the depth chart.

I Have No Idea…

about the physical and mental aspects of kicking in the National Football League, but special teams coordinator John Fassel and the club still have belief in Greg Zuerlein.

The veteran kicker made a 48-yard field goal in the regular-season finale against the Eagles but also missed his sixth extra point of the season. He's never missed more than three in his 10-year career, though they've become longer, 33-yard attempts since the 2015 rule change.

Zuerlein is also 29-of-35 on field goal tries as the Cowboys move into the playoffs.

"I love Greg, I believe in Greg and I'm not supporting him just because of my experience with him over the last 10 years," Fassel said. "This is a production business and when we stop producing things change. But I have full faith in Greg. I do. And if I'm wrong, then I'll be wrong. But I just really think I'm going to be right."

Fassel acknowledged that Zuerlein's offseason back surgery might have impacted his rhythm this season but thinks the misses lately are partly "psychological."

"And there's actually something we're going to do to help out a little bit (this week) that we talked about," Fassel said.

History is a factor in Fassel's thinking, too. In 2015 with the Rams, Zuerlein went 20-of-30 on field goals, a career-low 66.7%, but rebounded at 86.4% the next year and made the Pro Bowl in 2017.

He's confident Zuerlein will find that consistency in a win-or-go-home situation against San Fran.

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