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Spagnola: This Is Stuff Dreams Are Made Of


FRISCO, Texas – Had a dream the other night, a quite vivid dream must say.

Was walking into the Super Bowl media center to register for my credential, something I've not done in quite some time. Not since Mike McCarthy's Packers won super Bowl XLV at AT&T Stadium, 31-25, over Pittsburgh on Feb. 6, 2011. Gosh, that's 10 years ago.

Right there in the dream was my late newspaper-days friend Steve Schoenfeld, his career covering the NFL, lastly for the _Arizona Republic_, honored in the Arizona Cardinals State Farm Stadium press box after passing away on Oct. 24, 2000, when struck by a hit-and-run driver while walking across a road on the campus of Arizona State, in Tempe, Ariz.,

After that, ran into Rich Pemenko, the guy who helped hire me for my first radio gig at KRLD-AM in Dallas.

Weird, right? Especially with the Cowboys set to start the franchise's 34th NFL playoff venture at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at AT&T Stadium against the San Francisco 49ers, the eighth time these franchises have met in the playoffs, first during the 1970 season and lastly during the 1994 season.

Just an unconscious dream on my part.

But for the 12-5 Cowboys' dream to come true, to return to the

Super Bowl after a 25-year drought, longest in the franchise's 62-year history, first things first for the NFC's third-seeded team. Got to beat the 10-7 49ers, the sixth seed and winners in seven of their last nine games.

One game at a time.

"These big moments, this is where you've got to have your best performances," Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott said of entering his third soiree into the playoffs. "These moments like this are what your career is remembered as. This is where you leave your legacy. Just got to go out there and take advantage of the opportunity."

Win or go home.

Now, there has been a lot of chatter in these parts, fearing what the 49ers have. How in the world will the Cowboys deal with that San Francisco physical running attack, seventh best rushing offense for the seventh best total offense in the NFL? How will the Cowboys ever deal with a Niners defense having bagged 48 sacks this season, 15.5 by Nick Bosa? And this Deebo Samuel, can they keep this All-Everything All-Pro player from terrorizing the Cowboys on their home turf, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones dreaming of some 100,000 people piling into AT&T to witness the continuation of this playoff rivalry?

But look, while the 25-22 loss to Arizona in Game 16 took some luster off the Cowboys winning five of their last six games, Dallas presents the Niners a bundle of problems, too. Like, how do the Niners deal with the NFL's No. 1 offense? The No. 1 scoring team, totaling more points than any in franchise history? The team leading the league with 34 takeaways? Are those league-leading 26 interceptions plastered to a Niners' caution sign?

All making this such a delicious matchup, maybe the best one of the NFL's self-proclaimed Super Wild Card Weekend.

"That's the playoffs," Jones said. "These things are razor thin."

Think about this: Of the seven times the Cowboys and 49ers have met in the playoffs, six of the games have been decided by no more than 11 points, one of those by one and another by two. And then there was the Cowboys' 38-21 victory in that 1993 season NFC title game, the one Jimmy Johnson predicted with his "We will win" declaration the Thursday night before the game, going on to say when he called into a local radio talk show, "You can put it in three-inch headlines."

And when Niners head coach George Seifert was asked about the headline the very next day during his NFC press conference, he basically shrugged, saying, "He's got some brass ones."

And to me, this game will be a close shave, going to come down to these factors.

First, can the Cowboys control Samuel? He leads the Niners with 14 touchdowns, six receiving, and an NFL receiver-record eight rushing, averaging 18.2 yards on his team-leading 77 catches for 1,405 yards. Oh, and he just threw for a touchdown this past game against the Rams.

But then the Cowboys have these two All-Pro guys, the equally versatile Lionbacker Micah Parsons, leading the team with 13 sacks, 12 tackles for loss and get this, another 42 QB pressures. Then Trevon Diggs, too, with his NFL-leading 11 interceptions, tying that Cowboys single-season franchise record.

"And I think it's going to be versatility on versatility," Parsons said.

Now then, let's go into the trenches. The Niners fancy their defense. They are stout against the run. That, in turn, allows them to pressure quarterbacks in the passing game.

So, to me, for Dak Prescott to do his thing with the NFL's No. 1 offense, one he stuffed a franchise-record 37 touchdown passes into, for Zeke and Tony Pollard to help in the running game and for the Cowboys trio of receivers, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Cedrick Wilson, along with tight end Dalton Schultz, to exploit the San Francisco secondary, then that Cowboys offensive line must excel. And a starting five missing 18 starts over the course of the season is back together again, Tyron Smith back from COVID, the Pro Bowler ready to go, and for sure All-Pro guard Zack Martin, too.

But on the other hand, a San Francisco offensive line that has only missed 11 starts of a possible 85, nine of those belonging to starting tackle Mike McGlinchey, must be able to run block against a Cowboys improving defensive front, especially with the return of defensive tackle Neville Gallimore in the middle after missing the first 12 games of the season (dislocated elbow). And count on a whole lot of Parsons at linebacker, the Cowboys knowing they must minimize a San Francisco running game that protects quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

"We understand this game starts up front, and it's going to end up front," McCarthy said. "I know both our offensive line and defensive line are very excited about this game."

Plus, not to overload on stats, but here is the one that might just decide the game: This annoying penchant of the Cowboys defense giving up big plays – run or pass plays of 20-plus yards – has been its kryptonite. The Cowboys have given up 76 of those, 10 for touchdowns, opponents averaging 30.7 yards on those big plays. Like, 40 percent of opponents' total yards gained this year has taken place on just seven percent of the plays.

And guess what? San Francisco has totaled 70 combined run and pass plays for 20-plus yards.

Can't win being susceptible to the biggies. Not in the playoffs.

See, for the stars on both teams to come out, those worker bees in the trenches must do the dirty work. And while we all are wont to follow the ball, to focus on the quarterbacks, be a good idea to keep an eye on what's going on up front, on both sides of the ball. The offensive lines must be the most valuable assets in this game, or else.

Sounding too old school? Nope, this is post-graduate stuff, not even the analytic geniuses can quantify.

Give Dak time, this Cowboys offense will rip apart the Niners.

Allow the Niners to run through this Cowboys defense, the Cowboys will need at least three takeaways to hold San Francisco to a beatable number of points.

Me, can't wait.

Sounds as if one of the older hands on this Cowboys team, DeMarcus Lawrence, in his eighth season, the oldest and most experienced guy on the defense, can't wait either. This is his fourth go around in the playoffs, and he has never made it past the second round, and neither have the Cowboys since that 1995 Super Bowl-winning season.

The guy has fought through injuries, including needing surgery this year in the second week of the season to repair a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot, causing him to miss the next 10 games before returning for Game 12. "Tank" has fought through non-playoff seasons of 4-12, 9-7, 8-8 and 6-10. Had his heart broken in two grueling playoff losses, the first in 2014 as a rookie returning from fracturing that same fifth metatarsal during training camp, and then in 2016. Both times to McCarthy's Packers, each time a win away from going to the NFC title game.

"Oh, man, I'm truly blessed," Lawrence said of being where he is today. "The Lord sat me down earlier in the season and told me, 'That wasn't my team.' Being able to bring me back with the team that made the playoffs, and now we can go on this playoff run and potentially a Super Bowl, it means a lot to me, man.

"This is what a young kid always dreams of – making it to the NFL and playing in a Super Bowl or winning a Super Bowl. I'm just excited to be here, excited to play this game with my teammates and win."

And who knows when those dreams just might come true.

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