After fighting through a tough 17-week schedule to earn a berth in the playoffs, the Cowboys must play their best football to advance in the single-elimination tournament. Although the team does not need to be the best team in the league each week to move onto the next round, Mike McCarthy has to get his squad to outplay the Niners to move beyond the Wild Card round.
Given some time to review the game tape from each opponent prior to the matchup on Sunday, here are a few thoughts and observations on what the Cowboys need to do to chalk up a win…
The playoffs are different
The Cowboys' success throughout the regular season has put the team in a position to make a run at the title, but succeeding in the playoffs will require more effort and better execution. To win a series of "do-or-die" games on the way to the Super Bowl, the Cowboys will need to play their best football in each of the three phases (offense, defense, and special teams) of the game.
The urgency and attention to detail will test each team member's ability to focus on the task at the end without succumbing to the pressure of the moment. With so many young players placed in prominent roles, Mike McCarthy has to make sure that Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, Tony Pollard, and the rest of the team's youngsters are ready to play in a high stakes contest that is faster and far more physical than any game they have experienced to date. How well the Cowboys' young players react to playing in a big game on a big stage could determine if "America's Team" is one and done in the postseason.
Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn must stay true to the team's identity
The pressure of calling a game in the postseason can take coaches on a sixty-minute roller coaster ride if they are not able to control their emotions throughout the contest. Overreacting to a slow start or a series of bad plays can derail a team's chances if the play-caller deviates from the plan.
That said, astute play-callers have a knack for making subtle tweaks and adjustments that enable their units to handle the curveballs thrown at them throughout the game. Moore and Quinn will need to have their fingers on the pulse of their respective units to know it is the right time to go to the back page of the menu to find a couple of play calls that enable the Cowboys to make a key play on a critical down. If either coordinator enacts Plan B before fully exhausting the options on the original plan, the players will feel a sense of panic and that could result in the team falling apart in the middle of the game.
With that in mind, Moore must remain true to the Cowboys' identity as a high-octane offense that relies on a balanced approach to move the ball. If he deviates from the running game too early, the one-dimensional attack will put too much pressure on the offensive tackles to hold up against a ferocious pass rush.
Defensively, Quinn needs to make stopping the run the top priority while retaining some of the creativity that has made the Cowboys' defense a turnover machine. If he continues to call an aggressive game with Demarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Micah Parsons attacking from all over the field, the defensive stars will find a way to produce enough splash plays to win.
The O-line needs to step up
Despite the Cowboys' reputation for featuring a five-star offensive line, the beefy quintet has been inconsistent at the point of attack. The unit's disjointed play has impacted the running game (SEE Ezekiel Elliott's production) and could torpedo the team's title chances if the play does not improve in the playoffs.
Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, Zach Martin, and La'el Collins must elevate their performance to neutralize an energetic Niners' defense that features a couple of disruptive playmakers (Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa) in key spots. The combination of speed, power, and energy from the defensive frontline will test and expose any cracks along the Cowboys' frontline, and wreck a game plan that should revolve around the team's star power.
If Williams, Biadasz, and Collins, in particular, are unable to win their one-on-ones, the Cowboys could have a tough time moving the ball against a disruptive unit with a front seven loaded with playmakers.
Bring the big boy pads
The Niners' creative old-school offense will test the discipline, toughness, and physicality of the Cowboys' defense. Kyle Shanahan wants to bludgeon the Cowboys will 30-plus runs between the tackles and on the edges to control the game and wear down the defense with a barrage of body blows in a 12-round fight.
To win the heavyweight bout, the Cowboys will need every defender on the field to play a key role in defending the run. From nose tackle to cornerback, the Cowboys must demonstrate enough discipline to stay in their assigned gaps while fending off blockers at the line of scrimmage. If defenders attempt to run around blockers or shoot gaps on random guesses and gambles, the Niners' running backs and wideouts (jet sweeps) will run through the defense like a hot knife through butter.
The defense must also match the Cowboys' physicality on the perimeter to limit the Niners' big plays in the running game. The Niners are one of the league's best blocking teams on the edges with their tight ends and wideouts excelling on stalk blocks. Trevon Diggs, Jourdan Lewis, and Anthony Brown will need to fight force with force to set the edge and keep Elijah Mitchell from turning the corner on sweeps.
If the secondary can destroy the blocks on the perimeter and join the tackling party on the edges, the Cowboys can contain the run and force Jimmy Garoppolo to win the game from the pocket.
Dak needs to be the closer
The analytical community does not consider team wins as a quarterback stat, but elite quarterbacks get the big bucks due to their ability to win games. As a newly minted member of the "$40 Million Club", Prescott understands that he is expected to win big games in the playoffs as a five-star quarterback.
That is not a hot take or clickbait. That is a reality in a league in which quarterbacks earn "G.O.A.T" status due to the number of Super Bowl wins on their resume. Prescott certainly understands that based on how Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman are revered in Big D, the pressure is on him to deliver big wins on the championship journey.
Against the Niners, No.4 might not need to put up a 300-yard day to get it done, but he has to make a handful of big-time throws on critical downs to secure the victory. Whether he drops a dime in the red zone or tosses a laser to Amari Cooper or CeeDee Lamb on a critical third-down conversion to seal the game, Prescott must make the throws in key moments to get the Cowboys past a pesky opponent.
Considering how playoffs are ultimately decided by the play of the quarterback, the Cowboys need their QB1 to be the best quarterback on the field on Sunday.