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2021 NFL playoffs: What we learned from 49ers' win over Cowboys on Super Wild Card Weekend


1. The better-coached team triumphed. Kyle Shanahan and Co. cooked up a tremendous opening offensive script, covering 75 yards in seven plays for the game's first score, and a resounding punch in the Cowboys' mouth. San Francisco pushed its lead to 13-0 before Dallas woke up, and followed a key takeaway in the third quarter with a well-timed run to Deebo Samuel, whose cut upfield made the difference and led him to a runaway score. Niners defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans called an excellent game, confusing Dak Prescott and the Cowboys offense throughout the game, so much that he finished with just 23 completions on 43 attempts and posted a passer rating of 69.3. There were some questionable decisions late in the game (more on that later), but with the bar set rather low by Mike McCarthy's staff, Shanahan outperformed him significantly, even after nine accepted penalties against his team. The 49ers at least looked prepared, and played slightly cleaner football. That was the difference.

2. The Cowboys should be very harsh with their analysis of their performance. In a game that produced a total of 23 accepted penalties, the Cowboys committed 14 of them. They came in all shapes and sizes, wiping out positive gains, putting the Cowboys behind the chains and providing free yardage to the opposition. When Dallas tried to be creative, its offense usually botched it (save for a hook-and-lateral in the final minute), and more often than not, the Cowboys couldn't get out of their own way. Dallas played as if it hadn't adequately prepared for its opponent, getting out-coached in the first half and providing no answer for what San Francisco did defensively for the majority of the contest. The NFL's top offense was reduced to a unit capable of producing just seven points through three quarters. And in a fitting conclusion, when the Cowboys had enough time for two shots to the end zone from San Francisco's 41, Dallas called a QB draw, then failed to hand the ball to an official to reset it before attempting to spike it as the clock expired. That was how Dallas' season ended, and when viewing Sunday's game in total, there was no other way than this. Disappointing is an understatement.

3. We reached a point inside the game's final four minutes where it became apparent neither team deserved to win. McCarthy's team wasn't mustering much of anything with the ball, but it was still a two-possession game, so McCarthy conceded on a fourth-and-two and punted late in the third quarter. He nearly punted again a few minutes later in a similar situation, but instead scored his staff's greatest call of the afternoon when the Cowboys successfully executed a fake punt to set up a field goal. The mistakes, though, were overwhelming and made a close finish into a slog, capped by the perplexing decision to run Prescott with no timeouts and less than 20 seconds left. Meanwhile, Shanahan watched the quarterback for whom he drafted a replacement throw an interception that allowed the Cowboys back into a game they had no business being in, then punted on fourth-and-1 (and a chance to put Dallas away) with less than three minutes remaining. Shanahan, to his credit, redeemed himself with a third-down sweep to Samuel, who had a convoy of blockers, the edge, and just enough space to get close to the line to gain. He was short, begetting a false start on fourth-and-inches and forcing a 49ers punt into the end zone that was also rather mind-numbing. The San Francisco defense responded by surrendering the sidelines to Dallas, allowing the Cowboys to reach scoring range before they also outsmarted themselves in fatal fashion. McCarthy said afterward none of his guys blinked, but that’s simply not true. Both sides blinked way too much for a playoff game.

4. Deebo Samuel earned his All-Pro selection and played like one Sunday. San Francisco finished with 341 yards of total offense, but it wasn't exactly a four-quarter clinic on how to move the ball extremely efficiently. When they turned to Samuel, however, it tended to be bountiful. Samuel averaged 7.2 yards per carry on his 10 attempts, pushed the San Francisco lead to 23-7 in the third quarter with a stellar touchdown run, and nearly iced the game on a sweep. He added three catches for 38 yards, and was clearly San Francisco's most valuable and explosive player. He's much more than just a receiver these days -- he's a weapon who's not much of a secret anymore.

5. Great win for the 49ers; now, they turn to the injury report. The Niners are moving on and will play next week at Green Bay, and they might be doing so without their two most important defenders. All-Pro Nick Bosa exited Sunday's game with a concussion, while star linebacker Fred Warner suffered an ankle injury that forced him out for the remainder of the game. Ryans deserves a ton of credit for resisting a Cowboys comeback effort without his top two defenders, but he's certain to be hoping he'll get them back before the Divisional Round kicks off. It's tough to see the 49ers doing this for four quarters again without those two.

NFL Research: With his three field goals Sunday, 49ers kicker Robbie Gould moved into first place for the most career field goals made without a miss in the postseason with 18, passing Chris Boswell (16) and Ryan Succop (14).

Next Gen Stat of the game: Deebo Samuel gained +22 rushing yards over expected on his 26-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, his second-highest RYOE total on a single run this season.

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