In the latest installment of this classic playoff rivalry, the Dallas Cowboys took San Francisco down to the wire, giving the favored 49ers all they could handle on their home turf.
Unfortunately, though, the Cowboys came up short, early mistakes, untimely penalties and key injuries leading to a 19-12 loss. This marked the ninth time, and second in as many years, that these past champions have met in the postseason. And keeping with tradition, the game was a physical battle from start to finish with each side unwilling to give an inch.
But in the end, the 49ers would hold the advantage on the stat sheet as well, outgaining Dallas, 312-282, and holding the time of possession, 32:53 to 27:07, while committing only three penalties for 30 yards to the Cowboys' seven for 50. San Francisco also converted 50 percent of its third-down tries (7 of 14) to the visitor's 33 percent (5 of 15).
Brilliant in the Cowboys' win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, Dak Prescott had his hands full in this one. Often under pressure, he completed 62.2 percent of his passes (23 of 37) for 206 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions for a pedestrian quarterback rating of 63.6.
Not that his counterpart on the other side was remarkably better. Brock Purdy finished with an 87.4 rating after totaling 214 yards on 19 of 29 passing, the Cowboys keeping the rookie quarterback under pressure as well. And the Dallas defense largely held the 49ers' potent running attack in check, Christian McCaffrey gaining just 35 yards on 10 carries with the team as a whole totaling 113.
If anyone proved to be the problem, it was San Francisco tight end George Kittle, who hauled in five catches for 95 yards to lead his side.
For the Cowboys, CeeDee Lamb posted a game-high 10 receptions for 117 yards, but no other Dallas pass-catcher was even able to surpass 30 receiving yards, Noah Brown having only two receptions, T.Y. Hilton one and Michael Gallup zero.
The Cowboys' rushing attack also suffered a severe setback with an injury to Tony Pollard, the team finishing the night with just 76 yards on the ground.
The Cowboys defense set an early tone, but found their backs against the wall with just over nine minutes taken off the clock. A Prescott pass intended for Gallup, who didn't give his quarterback much help, was instead picked off by 49ers cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, giving the home team the ball at the Dallas 21-yard line. But the Cowboys kept San Francisco out of the end zone, the 49ers having to settle for a 26-yard field goal but taking an early 3-0 lead.
Prescott would answer, leading his troops on an extended 14-play, 74-yard drive that lasted 7:47, and saw Dallas convert two third downs and a fourth down as well. The quarterback completed all seven of his pass attempts for 41 yards while also running for 11 more. The last of those throws was a 4-yard toss to tight end Dalton Schultz for the score, but when kicker Brett Maher's struggles continued, his extra-point attempt blocked, the Cowboys were left with six only points.
Which allowed the 49ers to then tie the game. Helped by a 15-yard unnecessary roughness call on cornerback DaRon Bland, San Francisco used 10 plays to reach the Dallas 29-yard line. There the Cowboys held the line, leaving it to Robbie Gould to kick the 47-yard equalizer.
With 3:38 left in the quarter, the Cowboys had a chance to double-dip, getting the ball to start the second half after having deferred the coin toss. So much for that.
When Prescott moved the chains on a fourth-and 4 scramble, Dallas had the ball at San Francisco's 26-yard line. But two snaps later, his pass to Lamb went off the chest of cornerback Jimmy Ward and into the arms of 49ers linebacker Fred Warner. Even worse, one play earlier, Pollard suffered an ankle injury, lost for the game.
Given the gift with 1:15 on the clock was plenty of time for the 49ers to get into field-goal range. An eventual 21-yard pass from Purdy to wideout Jauan Jennings put them at the Cowboys' 32-yard line, giving Gould a chance at a 50-yard field goal. His kick was good, San Francisco taking a 9-6 lead at the break.
In addition to seeing Pollard sidelined, Dallas defensive tackle Carlos Watkins would also not return for the second half due to a calf injury.
Although the Cowboys went nowhere to open the third frame, they got their own gift when Kelvin Joseph knocked the ball loose on the 49ers punt return with Damone Clark falling on the prize at San Francisco's 21-yard line.
Dallas was able to work down to the 7-yard line, but when the offense could advance no farther, out came Maher. Cowboys Nation held its collective breath, but his kick split the uprights, the 25-yarder tying the game.
The defenses would hold serve over the next two possessions with Dallas overcoming a 53-yard kickoff return to force a punt with San Francisco doing the same after a 46-yard completion from Prescott to Lamb.
The 49ers offense would find its form when they got the ball back late in the third quarter. Though starting at their own 9-yard line, Purdy and company worked their way down the field, helped along by three Dallas penalties, including a holding call on third-and-8 at the Cowboys' 20-yard line that moved the chains.
That all resulted in a 2-yard dash up the middle by McCaffrey on the first play of the fourth quarter for the touchdown and a 16-9 San Francisco lead.
Dallas would respond, though, after Turpin nearly took one to the house on the ensuing kickoff, darting 44 yards before being taken down at the Cowboys' 43-yard line. They would cross into enemy territory before stalling at the 49ers' 25, but Maher was good this time from 43 yards, narrowing the deficit to four with just over 11 minutes remaining.
With the Dallas defense starting to wear down, the 49ers really began to pound the ball on the ground. A 13-play drive saw San Francisco hand the ball off seven times for 43 yards with Purdy scrambling for six more. The Cowboys were able to prevent them from crossing the goal line, but the 49ers added another three points on Gould's 28-yard field goal.
Dallas was still within striking distance and down only seven with a tick under three minutes to play, but momentum was clearly with the home side. Taking possession at their own 18-yard line, the Cowboys went a quick three-and-out and desperately needed a defensive stop.
And by forcing a punt, the Dallas defense at least gave the offense one last shot. But it was too much to ask. Taking over at their own 10-yard line with just 45 seconds left, they were unable to cross midfield before the clock, and their season, hit zeroes.
The Cowboys' 2022 campaign comes to an end after having posted a 12-5 record with a victory over the Buccaneers in the wild-card round.