We're just a few hours away from the biggest kickoff of the Dallas Cowboys' 2021 season. What's the confidence level going into this playoff showdown with the San Francisco 49ers? Here are my final thoughts for the first round.
Going into this season the two biggest questions were how Dak Prescott would return from a major injury and how the defense would improve for historically bad play in 2020. Appropriately, these are the two biggest factors for the Cowboys today.
As you've been hearing all week, the 49ers' rushing attack and tough defense are their greatest strengths. But if Dak Prescott and the Cowboys' passing game play up to their best, that shifts the pressure to San Francisco QB Jimmy Garoppolo.
This is how Dallas' offense can help its defense. Putting heat on Garoppolo makes him prone to mistakes. With only 20 touchdowns to 12 interceptions this season, Jimmy G hasn't been asked to carry his offense and could be exposed in a shootout.
But this is where the Cowboys' improvement on defense also has to manifest. The last time we saw Dallas in the playoffs, the Los Angeles Rams rushed for over 250 yards and bounced us from the tournament in embarrassing fashion.
Sure, that was three years ago, but run defense is still a concern for the Cowboys today. They were only 16th against the run in the regular season and gave up 4.5 yards per carry. If 49ers RB Elijah Mitchell and versatile WR Deebo Samuel are allowed to run with impunity, Dallas will have to be close to flawless in its own offensive execution to keep pace.
In general, the vibe all week has been very pro-Niners. But while San Francisco certainly has strengths and is a worthy playoff opponent, it's almost like people have forgotten who has homefield advantage today and won 12 games this year. The push to promote the 49ers' chances as the underdog has gone too far, now making them sound like the favorite.
I certainly expect this to be a close game. Like Michael Irvin, I don't love this matchup for Dallas compared to others they could have had.
But as history has proven, especially in the NFL's modern era, quarterback superiority carries a lot of weight. The Cowboys have that critical advantage, but that's dependent on Dak Prescott, his receivers, and blockers doing their jobs and executing the way we know they can.
Hopefully we see the best of the Cowboys offense today. And even more hopefully, they do enough that the game won't be decided by Greg Zuerlein.