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Spagnola: This Time Around Ready To 'Dial It Up'


FRISCO, Texas – Here we go. Can't wait. Rubbing my hands together.

Cowboys-Niners, 5:30 p.m., Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif., NFC Divisional Round Playoffs. Fourth time in the past 14 seasons for the Cowboys but never a step further. Been 30 years since their last NFC Championship Game road victory. Thirty now.

Same opponent, too, as back then. San Francisco 49ers. Nearly the same location, now 38.2 miles from where Candlestick Park used to be. Five days from the same date. Then, Jan.17, 1993. Now Jan. 22, 2023.

Back then, a trip to Super Bowl XXVII at stake, and a big "stake" at that since it had been 14 years since the last Cowboys Super Bowl appearance (1978). New owner now. New coach. New quarterback. Nearly the same narrative as this one going into that game.

Why, the upstart Cowboys were four-point underdogs, their first NFC title game since the 1982 season. The longest drought in the franchise's then 32-year history. Look, back then, in those days, the Cowboys considered reaching these heights their inalienable right, once the expansion Cowboys finally got their foot in the NFL ground, they had played in two NFL Championship Games (1966-67), losing both. Five Super Bowls (1970-71, 1975, 1977-78), winning two. Thirteen conference championship games, 13 now in 16 seasons, winning six of them.

The Cowboys had gone 13-3 that 1992 season, just their second winning season in seven years and just the second in the fourth season of the Jerry Jones-Jimmy Johnson era. The Niners won the NFC West at 14-2. They had the likes of Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Ricky Watters, Michael Carter, Bill Romanowski. They had been to the playoffs in nine of the previous 11 seasons. Had won four Super Bowls and played in six NFC title games.

The Cowboys were supposed to be too young. A year a way, they said.

Ha! The young, brash Cowboys 30, Niners 20, on their way to pummeling Buffalo in the Super Bowl.

So here we go again. Same thing, just not for all the NFC marbles, those a step away. The 49ers are 4-point favorites. Sound familiar? Cowboys are "underdogs." But like those Cowboys before them, these 13-5 Cowboys sure aren't acting like underdogs.

"We aren't no underdogs," the rookie Pro Bowl returner KaVontae Turpin said.

Nope, not like last season. Sounds different than when the 12-5, NFC East champion Cowboys, facing the 10-7 wild-card Niners at AT&T Stadium, sorta came out tippy-toeing in that wild-card game, getting beat on their home turf, 23-17, when time ran out on them at the San Francisco 20-yard line.

"Why weren't we more ready?" Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin said, as if still bewildered.

Why, they trailed 13-0 and 16-7 by halftime. Fell behind 23-7 after three quarters, before making that fourth-quarter surge, and came one second short of having a last-gasp shot at the end zone to tie the game, potentially win with an extra point, when for some reason NFL umpire Ramon George in the chaos of the final seconds unnecessarily re-spotted the ball, the clock running out before Dak Prescott could spike the ball for a final shot.

This time, new year, different team.

"This is how it's supposed to be," Cowboys third-year head coach Mike McCarthy said of getting a second shot at the now 14-4, NFC West champs, "whether you manifest it, or whatever your belief is. The league can humble you, but it also can also put you in a position to have opportunities to resolve some things."

He speaks of the long-lasting scar of being favorites to win last year's playoff game but squandering yet another opportunity for the franchise to advance to a conference title game. Maybe too young. Maybe not playoff ready. Maybe a tad intimidated by the brash Niners, who, if you remember, made their entrance before kickoff carrying a boom box and dancing to their own music coming out the tunnel.

"I really think we beat ourselves last year with the penalties, the offsides, things like that," Lionbacker Micah Parsons points out of this rematch too many are saying the Cowboys must play more like the Niners this time. "You just play your game. The biggest misconception is you've got to go out there and be different. You've got to go out there and try to out-physical a team, you've got to play their game. Why play their game? Play YOUR game. Let's play Dallas football. That's all we've got to do. Like, we've been playing Dallas football and we've won games.

"I don't want to go out there and try to outcompete the 49ers. They're going to beat my eyes out if I play their game. Let me play my game. So I'm going to bring my strengths and what I bring to the table. They'll bring their strengths.

"Let's dial it up."

When it comes to defense, Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn says their game on Sunday must constitute three things: Create takeaways, and the Cowboys led the NFL once again, this time with 33, three more than the Niners. Be good tacklers against a team excelling at run after catch or handing the ball to all-purpose back Christian McCaffrey. Finally, respect rookie quarterback Brock Purdy every darn play.

"Got to do what we do with our speed," said Quinn, knowing the Cowboys finished with 54 sacks this season, the second most in franchise history since posting 62 in 1985.

Offensively, just keep doing what they've been doing, short of the Washington game. Ring up a pinball-game-like number of points. Look, one game after Dak returned from his hand surgery, Week 8 through Week 17, the Cowboys averaged 36 points a game over the next nine before that six-point washout at Washington. And then stuck another 31 on the Buccaneers in their first-round playoff, 31-14, win.

That's what you must do with four Pro Bowl players on offense: CeeDee Lamb, Tony Pollard, Zack Martin and Turpin, the return specialist. And aside from the interceptions, Prescott has been playing at a high level.

"I just think it's a different team, much more mature, much more connected," said Dak, knowing he has a threat down the middle with tight end Dalton Schultz, an offensive line he can trust, and unlike last year against San Francisco, wide receiver Michael Gallup available.

Plus, think about this: 31 players from last year's team are either gone or not playing in the same place.

And while the Cowboys must worry about McCaffrey, and for sure Deebo Samuel, the Niners special sauce, don't you think they must worry about Dak playing at the level he did in the playoff win over Tampa Bay, his line: 25 of 33, (75.8 percent), 305 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, a 143.3 QB rating, no sacks and, oh, seven runs for 24 yards.

That should give the Niners something to worry about since they have been susceptible to giving up a bunch of points playing better teams: Atlanta 28 in a 14-point loss, the Raiders 34 in a three-point overtime win and then Kansas City hanging 44 in a 44-23 loss, their last loss before the now 11-game winning streak. With the third-string rookie Purdy now responsible for seven of those wins in relief of the injured Jimmy Garoppolo.

When asked about his team versus the weapons San Francisco has, Parsons didn't hesitate, "But I don't think they face nobody like us this year either, so it's really matchup against matchup. People always talk what they facing, but what about what they facing and how we're going to stop them. I think we're pretty hard to stop ourselves. That's what we've got to be focusing on, not beat ourselves."

Parsons is just 23 years old. Won't turn 24 until May. But so pragmatic for a second-year NFL player. And if the rest of this team copies his nature, like when asked what is everyone going to see out of Micah in this game, he said, "The bigger the stage, the bigger the players, right?"

Or this one, asked about meeting the 49ers a second consecutive playoff season: "I'm super excited. This is who I wanted, this is who I wanted. I mean, people like to go around, 'Ah if they lose here we (get) to play …' This the three-headed dragon. We need to cut one of the heads off. I don't care who it is. You've got to line it up because either way, you're going to meet them at some point.

"You going to be ready for your moment? I'd rather now then later, you know what I'm saying?"

Well, here is the Cowboys' moment. If this means anything when it comes to winning or losing, sure sounds right. Sounds like they are ready for their moment, just like that 1992 Cowboys team was ready for its moment in that NFC title game against the Niners 30 years ago at old Candlestick Park, where they too were underdogs in that game.

Underdogs again?

Micah, take it away:

"I've studied boxers, and I know when you're getting ready to go into a fight you prepare as if it's going to go 12 rounds. I've watched Ali, he's the greatest almost every week. He talks about how he's ready. [But it's] he's got this guy, (his opponent's) too big, he's too strong, Ali's going to get knocked out. And that's what everybody is saying [about us]. We hear it. Everybody, 'No way the Cowboys are going to win, no way.'

"Honestly, I think you should love that stuff when no one believes in you, that's the best feeling. Not when everyone believes in you, the Kool-Aid is up, and everyone is smiling, 'They can't lose, they're too good.' You don't want that feeling. Then it's like, dang, what if I don't win. When you're already at the bottom, you can only go up.

"I really like to be the underdog and that feeling. It's a great story always to tell."

And from the sound of things, at least this time, the Cowboys are ready to tell a better tale.

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