FRISCO, Texas – There was an old photograph hanging outside my office at Valley Ranch, prominently placed in the hallway near the locker room.
It was a framed, glossy photo of Emmitt Smith – his shoulders emblazoned with stars – leaping over San Francisco defenders and into the end zone during the 1994 NFC Championship Game. I must have walked past this photo 15 times a day, and it was a regular reminder of the glory of the good old days and a rivalry that helped define an era of the NFL.
And, roughly 48 hours before I board a plane for the Bay Area, that rivalry couldn't feel further away.
Throughout this week, as we've wondered about Dez Bryant's knee and the Cowboys' ability to slow down Carlos Hyde, that's never been far from my mind. The visual of Cowboys-49ers might sound familiar, but we've come a long way from the 80's and 90's.
That's the first of a few things I'm thinking heading into the weekend.
1.I did some real quick math and discovered that the average age of the Cowboys' roster is 26. That means that, the last time Dallas and San Francisco met in the playoffs – that 1994 NFC Championship Game, which the 49ers won – most of today's players were babies. Ezekiel Elliott, the youngest player on the Cowboys' roster, wasn't born yet.
So forgive us youngsters if we don't wax nostalgic for those glory days. They feel long gone. It's hard for me to even fathom that these two clubs have played each other in six NFC title games.
How about even simply playoff games? In the 1970s, these two franchises combined to make 12 total playoff appearances. In the 1980s, that number rose to 13, and it peaked in the 1990s with 16 total playoff appearances between the two.
In the last 16 years, that number has dwindled down to 10 combined appearances – four total between the two since 2010. San Francisco made an impressive run of three-straight NFC Championship appearances from 2011-13 – although they lost their lone Super Bowl appearance in that stretch.
Dallas, as we know, hasn't made it to that stage in quite some time.
ESPN.com ran a ranking of this weekend's most intriguing matchups. Cowboys-49ers factored on the list at No. 13 out of 15 games.
The history will live forever, but it's hard to bill this "rivalry" as anything special – at least until someone has made some new history.
2.I decided to chart all 49 of the throws Brian Hoyer threw last week with the sole purpose of checking in on Morris Claiborne, who is off to a great start this season.
On 49 attempts, Hoyer threw in Claiborne's direction a mere 12 times. The result was 5-of-12 passing for 63 yards and no scores.
It wasn't all pretty. Alshon Jeffery turned a six-yard curl into a 13-yard gain off a Claiborne missed tackle. The corner also missed tackles on tight ends and running backs who were coming off other assignments.
The fireworks really began in the fourth quarter, though. For whatever reason Hoyer spent the final stanza of the game testing Claiborne deep – which was hardly a profitable strategy. He threw a grand total of six long balls, all of them either fades or go routes, toward Kevin White – who was Claiborne's primary assignment.
White hauled in one of them for a spectacular 32-yard catch. The other five were all incomplete – two of them out of bounds, three of them broken up thanks to fantastic efforts by Claiborne.
It's early in the season, sure. But Claiborne continues to answer the bell when opponents try to test him.
3.It's such a huge benefit that Dallas is so centrally located within this country. Even when the Cowboys take a road trip to San Francisco, they're not actually going that far. I've never been on a flight with this team that lasted long than maybe three, three-and-a-half hours – other than the 2014 to London, which was a special circumstance.
The Cowboys never have to leave early on their road trips, which you see frequently from east and west coast teams. So I don't think travel fatigue is a legitimate excuse for this team to lose a road trip, which perhaps might be the case with the Arizona Cardinals getting their doors blown off in Buffalo last weekend.
Having said that, the West Coast hasn't been great to Jason Garrett-coached teams. Since he took over midway through 2010, the Cowboys are 2-4 in games out west. The phenomenal, 30-23 win in Seattle in 2014 is a glaring exception.
Since the league realigned in 2002, the Cowboys are 5-9 when they play out there in the regular season.
4.Only Dez Bryant could lead a nation full of fans and reporters on a merry chase for answers for three days.
It was a cause of consternation all week, but the Cowboys finally announced that Bryant had suffered a hairline fracture in his knee in the game against Chicago last weekend. I've never had a hairline fracture in my knee, but the fact that Bryant might be able to play a game with this injury sounds like insanity.
That type of pain would melt me, I'm sure. Dez might be a mutant of some sort.
But anyway. It was beyond surreal to see the multi-day circus surrounding this injury update. Typically, when a player suffers an injury that requires further evaluation, he's had the necessary scan by the next morning. Dez got his on Wednesday.
Only Dez – and only the Cowboys – could turn a routine procedure into must-see TV.
5.It's a weekly ritual for fans and media that cover NFL teams to keep an eye on the opposition. While the Cowboys are trying to improve their record to 3-1 in San Francisco, the Redskins have a big opportunity to even their record at 2-2 against a woeful Cleveland team.
The Giants play on Monday Night Football, where they'll travel to face Minnesota in that brand new stadium – against a defense that's poised to give Eli Manning fits.
It all sets up for the Cowboys to make a push for first place in the NFC East – except for one simple fact. The unbeaten Eagles, who sit atop the division standings, aren't playing this weekend.
How is it that anyone has a bye week right now? It's like taking a bathroom break during the opening credits of a movie. We're literally just getting started! How can you take a break now?
Obviously, this isn't Philadelphia's fault, but a stupid quirk of the NFL scheduling system. We haven't even figured out who these teams are yet, and already they're starting to take breaks. Not only that, but these teams with early byes – Philly and Green Bay this week – will be faced with the prospect of playing 13 games in a row after this weekend off. Talk about a brutal stretch.
This is beyond stupid, and there's got to be a way around it. That's pretty much all I've got to say about that.
6.If I was an Ohio State fan who cared about either the 49ers or the Cowboys, I'd be so stupidly pumped for this game. Ezekiel Elliott and Carlos Hyde are arguably the best two players to come out of that school in the last decade or so. Odds are, they're both going to put on a show in this matchup, as neither team's defense is great against the run. Go Bucks.
7.Circling back to my point about Morris Claiborne earlier. I feel really good about this matchup for the Dallas secondary.
Why? Because who on* Earth* is playing wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers?
Their leading receiver is Jeremy Kerley, who they acquired in a trade right before the season. He's a sixth-year veteran, and he's had a solid career considering he was a sixth-round draft pick. But he's never caught more than 56 passes in a season.
Behind him, Torrey Smith – who signed on in free agency two years ago – has just eight catches for 103 yards. Quinton Patton, a fourth-round pick from 2013, has nine receptions for 93 yards. Rod Streater has three catches for 32 yards.
At the risk of sounding like a jerk, this is just not a scary-looking group. Claiborne and Co. have no business getting burned by these guys.
8. Myles Jack Watch:Strictly special teams for the second-round pick. The only defensive snaps Jack has played so far this season are the 16 snaps he played in a blowout loss to San Diego in Week 2. The Jaguars are reportedly working him at their Otto position, aka the strong side.
I've got to imagine Jack is going to start working his way onto the field, if for no other reason than the pressure currently facing Gus Bradley. The Jaguars are currently 0-3 after entering the season with as much preseason buzz as they've had in a decade. It can't sit well with too many people that their super-talented rookie linebacker has been on the shelf to this point.
9.This is a true statistic: in 2015, with veteran backups running the offense for 80 percent of the season, the Cowboys converted 34.5 percent of their third downs – which was good enough for No. 26 in the NFL.
In 2016, with a rookie quarterback under center, the Cowboys are converting 52.5 percent of their third downs and lead the league. They're a full percentage point in front of Detroit, who is No. 2 at 51.3 percent, and they're almost four points in front of the New York Jets – who sit in third at 48.7 percent.
I shouldn't need to tell you by now how impressive Dak has been. If you're reading this column, then you watch the games.
But the Cowboys' entire model for success this year is long, time-killing drives that not only keep their defense off the field but result in points. Both of those things are happening, and their ability to convert third downs is a huge part of that.
You can talk about his arm, his accuracy and his dual-threat ability. But easily the most impressive thing about Dak Prescott is his knack for making the right decision – even under duress. The Cowboys' excellence on third downs through three weeks is evidence of that.
10.What I've learned through three weeks is that I know how to pick the Cowboys' game. I'm 3-0 in determining the winner of their game – which totally makes sense, given that I spend literally all of my time reading and writing about them. I have no life whatsoever and it's utterly pathetic, but at least I know what's going to happen on Sunday, right?
In that same vein, it turns out I'm utterly mediocre at picking teams I don't cover. I went 8-8 with my picks last week, bringing my season record to 27-21.
Despite that, I press onward with Week 4 picks:
CINCINNATI over Miami
JACKSONVILLE over Indianapolis
HOUSTON over Tennessee
WASHINGTON over Cleveland
NEW YORK JETS over Seattle
Buffalo over NEW ENGLAND
Carolina over ATLANTA
Oakland over BALTIMORE
Detroit over CHICAGO
TAMPA BAY over Denver
ARIZONA over Los Angeles
SAN DIEGO over New Orleans
PITTSBURGH over Kansas City