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Spagnola: Boys back in line for this biggie


FRISCO, Texas – And five weeks in the making, 259 days of a festering sore for the Dallas Cowboys, in those line-of-scrimmage words of Dak Prescott, why, "Here we go!"

Cowboys-Niners, 3:25 p.m. Sunday, Levi Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.

The 3-1 Dallas Cowboys butting heads with the 4-0 San Francisco 49ers, the first matchup for either team currently with a winning record.

The No. 2 Cowboys defense vs. the Niners No. 2 offense.

The San Francisco No. 3 scoring offense, with 31.25 points a game, vs. the Cowboys No. 4 scoring offense with 31.1 points a game.

A San Francisco offense having turned the ball over but once so far in four games vs. a Cowboys defense tied for second in the NFL with 10 takeaways, three of those returned for touchdowns, along with a special teams blocked field goal returned for a touchdown.

The 49ers have Nick Bosa. The Cowboys have Micah Parsons.

The Niners have Javon Hargrave. The Cowboys have DeMarcus Lawrence.

The Niners have Fred Warner. The Cowboys have Leighton Vander Esch.

The Niners have Deebo Samuel. The Cowboys have CeeDee Lamb.

The Niners have Christian McCaffrey. This time the Cowboys have Tony Pollard.

Both have quarterbacks, Brock Purdy and Dak Prescott, selected the third day of the NFL Draft.

In fact, both teams are operating with rookie kickers, the Cowboys Brandon Aubrey tied for the NFL lead among kickers with 48 points, perfect on all 13 field goal attempts, and the Niners' Jake Moody, fifth with 41 points and perfect on all nine field goal attempts.

This is a San Francisco team having won 14 consecutive regular season games, riding a 10-game home winning streak and owning a 16-1 home record since the middle of the 2021 season, up against a Cowboys team having won nine of their last 12 games.

And the last two times these teams have met, the Niners have eliminated the Cowboys from the playoffs these past two seasons, the most recent being but a 19-12 win out there in Santa Clara.


"I think everybody knows what this game is," says Cowboys veteran safety Jayon Kearse. "That's why its _Sunday Night Football_."

Now, this game is being built up as one of these Game of the Century clashes, except each will have 12 more to play after this one. So some context is needed.

The coaches understand.

"It's another game, it's a big game, it's the NFC," Cowboys offensive coordinator Brian Shottenheimer said. "Should be a helluva game."

As for 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, "I think anytime you have a Sunday night game it's always bigger. Sunday night, Monday night, Thursday night, there is always a little more excitement in the building when everyone is watching you. Got a lot of respect for the Cowboys, how good of a team they are. We know we have the challenge we have in front of us, and think we are aware of that rivalry, which is back in history, which is always cool.

"Besides that, it's Week 5."

Point taken. This is not the 1981 NFC title game the Niners won with "The Catch." This is not the 1992, 1993, 1994 NFC title games, the Cowboys winning the first two of the three. Not even the playoff matches these past two seasons, both won by the Niners. Though from those two games, two big plays still resonate to this day. Jan. 6, 2022, NFC Wild Card Game at AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys rushing to the Niners' 20-yard line to spike the ball for one more play, yet the late-arriving umpire to spot the ball with the clock running, then fiddling around with it, helping to foil Dak's ability to spike the ball in time to stop the clock. Ball game, 23-17 Niners.

Then this past Jan. 22, Levi Stadium, score tied 6-6, Cowboys first-and-10 at the Niners' 26, 1:26 left in the first half, Tony Pollard goes 8 yards to the 18. Yet in one of those dangerous tackles from behind, where 49ers defensive back Jimmie Ward lands on the back of Pollard's legs while yanking him down, the Cowboys' dynamic running back out for the game with what was determined a spiral leg fracture/ankle ligament injury. And on the very next play, Prescott on second-and-2, trying to fit a tight pass over the middle into Lamb, is intercepted by linebacker Fred Warner on a tipped ball with just enough time left in the second quarter to set up a half-ending Robbie Gould 50-yard field goal.

No touchdown on the drive the Cowboys desperately needed, losing 19-12 in a game the Cowboys held McCaffrey to 35 yards on 10 carries and the Niners to the second-fewest points they have scored in their last 13 games (playoffs included), the fewest being the seven in the NFC title game loss to Philadelphia when they ran out of healthy quarterbacks.

Yep, the Cowboys will have their hands full Sunday night. But you know what? So will the 49ers. While they are undefeated, the combined records of the four teams they have beaten is 6-10, two 2-2 teams (Steelers and Rams) and two 1-3 teams (Giants and Cardinals).

And maybe, just maybe, making this Cowboys offense a tad more dangerous – and remember, thanks to this defense the team also is averaging 31 points a game, scoring just one point fewer than the 49ers – will be this:

Now, not to jinx this or anything, and Dak for good reason hesitated from answering this question, saying, "Last time we talked about it," meaning the Cowboys seemingly on the Thursday before the Arizona game would have their five projected starting offensive linemen in the game for the first time this season, "something bad happened."

Because by Sunday in Arizona, the Cowboys were starting three backups instead, two of those elevated from the practice squad for their first NFL starts.

Well, if what those in the know are saying and the Friday injury report is indicating, the Cowboys will have their starting five offensive linemen back together for this San Francisco game for the first time since that Jan. 16, 2022, date at AT&T Stadium. For real, that long ago.

Why, last year the Cowboys started the season off without Tyron Smith, forcing first-round draft choice Tyler Smith to move to left tackle for the first 15 games of the season. Then when Tyron was about ready to return, they lost Terence Steele to a season ending knee injury, Tyron moving in at right tackle.

Even this offseason, Steele was still rehabbing and Zack Martin was rehabbing/withholding services for a reworked contract, and neither was participating fully at the start of training camp. Then Tyler Smith went down, missing the first two games of the season, then Tyron Smith, Martin and Tyler Biadasz all miss Game 3 in Arizona, with Tyron missing Game 4, too.

Now for San Francisco, from left to right, finally it's Tyron, Tyler, Biadasz, Martin and Steele. Well as of Friday. Whole once more.

"For us, we all compete, and are all on the same page," says Tyron, the man of few words.

And while Dak didn't want to jinx this probability, he knows darn well the meaning of having his five dudes, three of those Pro Bowl players, in front of him. Hey, open up the playbook. No more compensating for missing parts with conservative play calls to protect the backups.

Yet somehow, be it touchdowns or field goals, this offense has scored on 21 of 33 full possessions. Somehow, the Cowboys have won three of four games. Somehow, despite the offensive line shuffle, they lead the NFL with a 51.6 percent third-down conversion rate.

And now this: A Game 5 showdown.

"This is a tremendous game for us," owner Jerry Jones says, pointing out the Niners are playing "the best" in the NFL right now. "To see how we stack up against them."

On the line Sunday night?

Well, bragging rights for sure. Confidence going forward. The Cowboys trying to stay on the heels of NFC East-leading Philadelphia. The Niners trying to win their 15th consecutive regular-season game and stay at least one game ahead of Seattle in the NFC West. And as for down-the-line implications, gaining a potential playoff head-to-head advantage.

"You don't go into any game thinking that we don't need this one or this one is as big as that one," Dak adds for perspective. "But from a team that's been consistent the past few years, knocked us out of the playoffs in the last few years, there's a lot that we can gain from this win that makes it definitely more than just one game."

Yep, Big Game Sunday.

Let's go.

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