If the Cowboys want to start a season 3-1 for the second time in the last eight years, they'll have to win Sunday at San Francisco without quarterback Tony Romo once again – and possibly without wide receiver Dez Bryant, too.
Romo is ruled out for Week 4, still recovering from a broken bone in his back that has sidelined him since late August, and Bryant officially has been listed as "questionable" with a hairline fracture in his right knee. Whether or not the star wideout can play Sunday, rookie quarterback Dak Prescott will lead the Cowboys into Levi's Stadium looking for the team's third straight win.
Leading into Sunday's 3:25 p.m. (Central) kickoff against the 49ers, here are the gut feelings from staff writers Nick Eatman, Rob Phillips, Bryan Broaddus and David Helman.
Nick Eatman: Before the actual game "gut feeling," I had to do one on the possibility of players such as Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith playing this week. As of Friday, I just don't get the sense that either Pro Bowler will be on the field for the Cowboys come Sunday. Already without Tony Romo, I just don't know how many more good players can sit out without it becoming a big problem. Even if the 49ers are struggling, they're still a team that won a home game 28-0 to begin the season. They'll be a tough challenge for any team, especially if you take away a team's three best players. If Dez and Tyron are playing, or even one of them, I might change my tune here. But overall, I think the Cowboys are going to have a hard time pulling this one out. My crazy predictions include Colin Kaepernick getting in the game, David Irving getting a sack, another touchdown by Lance Dunbar, and this game goes to overtime. But I see the 49ers making one more play and getting a 27-21 win.
Rob Phillips:As good as this rivalry has been over many decades, one of the more dramatic chapters was the Cowboys' overtime win at San Francisco in 2011. Dez Bryant was inactive in that game, and the key play was backup receiver Jesse Holley's 77-yard catch to set up the winning field goal. Who will step up in Bryant's place this time if he doesn't play or, at the very least, if he's limited? The focus is on the other Cowboys receivers, but to me, this Week 4 matchup will be decided by the defense. Running back Carlos Hyde has been the engine for the 49ers' offense so far, scoring four of their eight touchdowns in the first three games. The Cowboys rank 10th against the run but are allowing 4.8 yards per carry. If they can limit Hyde's production and Dak Prescott continues to play efficient football on offense, they can win a relatively low-scoring game at Levi's Stadium. I think the Cowboys win a close one to get to 3-1.
Bryan Broaddus: I worry about this being the game where the 49ers defensively make Dak Prescott look human. We all have been waiting for that game where Prescott has his struggles and things don't go as planned. This weekend feels that way to me due to the way the 49ers play their defense and the different looks they could give the rookie quarterback. I see them coming after Prescott especially if there's no Tyron Smith in the lineup. They're going to make Chaz Green and Doug Free face all kinds of pressure off the edge and that might be a little much. My gut feeling is that Prescott is not going to have the overall success that we've seen from him numbers wise and it will be a struggle for him. Dallas finds a way to win this game 21-13 in large part to their defense playing well in the win.
David Helman: If the 49ers had a bit more firepower on offense, I'd pick them to win this game. They have the defensive talent to slow down Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas running game, and they've got the experience from veterans like NaVorro Bowman and Eric Reid to make Dak Prescott look like a rookie. I think this will be Prescott's worst game as a Cowboy, to be perfectly honest. I think he throws his first interception, and I think he'll have a hard time finding plays downfield with Dez Bryant unlikely to play. That said, not much about this San Francisco offense scares me. Carlos Hyde is a good player, but the Cowboys will probably focus on the run to limit his impact. If they can force Blaine Gabbert to beat him with his arm, I just don't think he'll be up to the task. His receiving corps of Jeremy Kerley, Torrey Smith and Quinton Patton doesn't frighten me much, and he's posting a quarterback rating of 68.6 through three weeks. I think the Cowboys will grind out a hard-fought 120 rushing yards, and Dan Bailey will kick three clutch field goals – one of them coming with less than five minutes to play. This is going to look like some of the ugly games the Cowboys played in 2015, but the difference is that they'll win it –something like 23-14.