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The Dallas Cowboys come into their matchup against the San Francisco 49ers with some serious demons to exorcise.
Dak Prescott has shown a lot of talent since coming into the league in 2016, and the Cowboys as an organization have had some good rosters. But none of it has created meaningful success in the playoffs.
Prescott has started just three playoff games in his career with one win to show for it, but this isn’t all on him. Games are won by teams, not individual players.
However, it’s an inescapable truth that signal-callers and teams are judged by what they do in the postseason. With their best record since 2016, this is a huge postseason for both the 28-year-old and the franchise.
The wild-card game against the 49ers won’t just be decided by the quarterback, though. There are matchups all over the field that will play a massive role.
Here’s a look at the three biggest ones.
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When another team has one of the best receivers in the game, it’s customary to shadow him with your best receiver. With the San Francisco 49ers’ Deebo Samuel, that’s not really an option.
The 25-year-old lines up everywhere for the Niners. He has made plays for Kyle Shanahan on the outside, in the slot and even lines up in the backfield on occasion. He’s a unique weapon with over 1,400 yards receiving and 365 rushing yards and 14 total touchdowns (six in the air, eight by land) this season.
In short, covering Samuel isn’t as easy as the Cowboys throwing Trevon Diggs at him and hoping they win the individual matchup.
Dallas has done an admirable job against receivers this year and hasn’t given up 100 yards to one since Week 12 against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Hunter Renfrow’s success against the Cowboys is a dangerous precedent, though. His ability to gain yards in the slot is easily repeatable, and Samuel is even better with the ball in his hands.
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Trent Williams has proved to be worthy of the massive contract the Niners awarded him this offseason. He is Pro Football Focus’ top-graded offensive tackle with an absurd 98.3 overall mark.
The 33-year-old has been an incredible blindside protector, but his work in the run game has been invaluable. Shanahan’s run game is the linchpin of the offense, and Williams has the top run-blocking grade among all tackles.
Leaning on the run will be vital once again, but it’s unclear at what level the former Washington man will play. He missed the season finale against the Los Angeles Rams with an elbow injury.
Williams’ health could be a major factor in the playoff game. If healthy, he will draw the assignment of blocking Randy Gregory. Micah Parsons’ season of pass-rushing production has drawn all the attention, but Gregory has had a great season in his own right.
The 29-year-old is second on the team with 29 total pressures. Blocking him will be crucial when the 49ers look to stretch the field, so Williams’ health could be key.
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It’s a good thing the San Francisco 49ers have one of the best pass rushes in the league. Because when quarterbacks have found the time to get a throw off, it hasn’t been pretty.
The Niners are fifth in the league in sacks but have the eighth-highest passer rating allowed (97.0).
Going into this game, that may be the scariest stat for San Francisco. When you look at the teams who have been worse at forcing quarterbacks to be inefficient, the only names that come up are ones who will be picking early in the NFL draft in April.
To make matters worse, Prescott has been dealing recently. Over the final three weeks of the season, he has thrown for 851 yards, 12 touchdowns with no interceptions.
Given the perception he can’t win in the playoffs (he’s 1-2 in three games), he’s going to want to prove himself. With both Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb at his disposal, the 49ers secondary has to step up to win this game.