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X Factors

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X Factors: 10 game-changers for Cowboys & 49ers


FRISCO, Texas – Let's focus on some of the key players that will be involved in Sunday's game on both sides of the ball.

Since the Super Bowl is always the goal for every team, we decided to rank the Top 10 X-factors for the Cowboys and Patriots, using roman numerals, since 10 = X.

Here we go, these 10 guys will likely be big difference-makers one way or another.

X - Brock Purdy: Call him young, inexperienced or even a game-manager, but Purdy knows how to win games. Since he took over as the 49ers quarterback, all he's done is lead the team to huge wins and had it not been for an elbow injury in the NFC Championship Game, maybe he leads them to the Super Bowl as well. But he's back now and has his team 4-0. The Cowboys will try to pressure Purdy and make him beat them with the pass, but that plan doesn't seem to work for other teams, considering he's 9-0 as a starter in the regular season.

IX - Christian McCaffrey: One of the most dynamic players in the NFL, McCaffrey is the only player in the NFL with more than 600 yards from scrimmage this year. He's doing it on the ground, through the air and knows how to find the end zone, scoring four times in the first four games. Stopping him will be quite the challenge for the Cowboys, who allowed 222 rushing yards back in Week 3 against the Cardinals, but 225 yards in the other three games combined.

VIII - Fred Warner: While Nick Bosa won Defensive Player of the Year last season, the guy that gave the Cowboys the most problems was Warner, who had an interception in the second quarter. He also seems to be around the ball on just about every play, evident by his team-leading 33 tackles for the 49ers. He has two tackles for loss, two pass deflections and a sack this year.

VII - Brandin Cooks: Cooks has yet to have an explosive outing for the Cowboys, but it's also true he missed one of the first four games with a knee injury and other variables such as offensive line issues (in Week 3, specifically) and blowout victories kept a lot of the vertical game in Dallas' bag to avoid showing too much to future opposition. But as Cooks returns to his home turf on Sunday, it feels like a perfect time for the Stockton, California native to steal the show — much like he was doing in training camp … which was also in California.

VI - DaRon Bland: It's not only a homecoming for Cooks, but also for Bland, who is a native of Modesto (near both Stockton and Santa Clara) and a former star of Fresno State. Bland is off to the races in taking his Year 2 leap with three interceptions and two pick-sixes in only four games, asked to step up and to the role of boundary corner after the loss of Trevon Diggs. It is known that Brock Purdy has no interceptions this season, however, and that means Bland's ability to take the ball away will be at a premium in deciding the outcome of the game.

V - Brandon Aubrey: The last time the Cowboys faced the 49ers, it was Brett Maher doing most of the lifting. Aubrey has proven himself a much more capable kicker and one with a far stronger leg as well so should this game go to the wire, it'll be Aubrey's first real taste of a pressure-packed situation that will require him to save the day. Given how close this game has the potential of being, Aubrey needs to be perfect — as he has been this season on his field goal attempts — and that includes remaining a touchback machine to eliminate returns.

IV - Johnathan Hankins: San Francisco brings an elite offense to the field every Sunday, but an opportunity does exist in the interior of their offensive line to capitalize. Similarly so, the opportunity to capitalize on the Cowboys' stout defense is on the interior of their defensive line. With that, it's on Johnathan Hankins to win that battle up front and to generate some internal pressure. A pass rush being initiated from the interior along with forcing Christian McCaffrey to run out to the edges will allow Dallas to force San Francisco to make the first major adjustment.

III - Leighton Vander Esch: The linebacker duo of Leighton Vander Esch and Damone Clark stepped up against the Patriots in filling gaps and defending the run to their fullest effect, and they will need a repeat performance against San Francisco to keep Christian McCaffrey in check. That starts with the veteran Vander Esch who was most noticeably improved in week four, and it also extends into covering the middle of the field in the pass game. With weapons spread out within the 49ers offense, taking the middle of the field out of their game plan would be huge in determining a Cowboys victory.

II - Micah Parsons: You better believe Parsons has been champing at the bit to exorcise the demon that is the 49ers and though he probably won't admit it entirely (a bit, but not entirely), he's had this one circled on his calendar since the schedule dropped in April. Parsons will be key in putting a lot of pressure on Brock Purdy, who has four fumbles (one lost) this season when he's hit in the pocket. The lion is always hungry, but he's starved for this matchup and Purdy is the gazelle he's dying to get his paws on. If he can and/or force Purdy into the waiting claws of his defensive line compatriots, the Cowboys will feast.

I - Dak Prescott: If the Cowboys want to win on Sunday night, it will take Dak Prescott having an elite performance that involves him getting multiple pass catchers involved and stretching the field in the vertical game. In the two losses to San Francisco in the playoffs since 2022, Prescott has thrown for just 230 yards per game and has combined for three interceptions to just two touchdowns. A win on Sunday starts with Prescott taking care of the football and pushing the ball downfield.

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