The Dallas Cowboys have Super Bowl dreams but perhaps the toughest matchup of all the home teams in the NFL Wild Card round.
That's because the NFC's third seed drew the sixth-seeded San Francisco 49ers in the late-afternoon window on Sunday. San Francisco boasts a strong running game and a stronger run defense. It enters with momentum after finishing a 10-7 season with seven wins in their last nine games.
"We know we have a chance to do something special," 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. "You don't get that opportunity every year. I've been on a number of teams that went to the Super Bowl... there's a feeling and you want to make them count as long as you have them."
Some believe the 49ers' chances of making a deep postseason run hinge on what Garoppolo does. The version of him that led a rally from a 17-0 second quarter deficit in a 27-24 overtime win at the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday can help San Francisco win multiple playoff games.
Garoppolo connected on 23 of 32 passes for 316 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, spearheading an 88-yard touchdown drive in the final 90 seconds that forced overtime. And he did that with a thumb injury suffered in a Dec. 23 loss at Tennessee that will require surgery when the season ends.
When asked about the thumb on Wednesday, Garoppolo said, "It was a little sore after the (Rams) game, but it's feeling great right now."
The 49ers are seventh in the league in rushing at 127.4 yards per-game despite losing Raheem Mostert after two carries in the season opener with a knee injury. Rookie Elijah Mitchell returned from a December injury to average 102 yards per-game over his last two outings.
San Francisco also expanded Deebo Samuel's role when necessary, using him like Atlanta used Cordarrelle Patterson. In addition to his 1,405 receiving yards, Samuel rushed for 365 yards this season -- good enough for second on the team -- and led the club with eight rushing scores.
But the game's most intriguing portion figures to occur when Dallas (12-5) owns the ball. That's because its high-powered offense must cope with a defense ranked second in the league against the rush and fifth in the league in sacks with 48.
The good news for the Cowboys is that left tackle Tyron Smith has been activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list and is expected to start. That should ease the mind of quarterback Dak Prescott, who will lean on Smith to keep the likes of Nick Bosa from disrupting his pocket.
Prescott is coming off a highly efficient, highly productive performance in Dallas' final regular season game. In a 51-26 road rout of Philadelphia on Jan. 8, Prescott completed 21 of 27 attempts for 295 yards and five touchdowns in three quarters and 22 seconds of action.
The Cowboys finished the season as the NFL's top-scoring team at 31.2 points per game and set a franchise record with 22 different players scoring at least one touchdown.
Prescott spread the wealth around, with CeeDee Lamb, Dalton Schultz and Amari Cooper each catching at least 68 passes. Four other players caught between 35 and 47 balls, and Ezekiel Elliott squeaked out a 1,000-yard season on the ground with 87 yards at Philadelphia, giving him 1,002 in the regular season.
The matchup also features a reunion of 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan and Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. They were together in Atlanta when the Falcons made Super Bowl 51 with Quinn as the head coach, only to infamously blow a 28-3 lead and lose in overtime to the New England Patriots.
Quinn invoked the memories of some early 90s playoff showdowns between these franchises when asked about this game.
"I can hear (John) Madden and (Pat) Summerall talking it through," Quinn said. "My first Dallas and Niner playoff game -- I'm pretty fired up to do it, man."
The 49ers and the Cowboys have met in the playoffs seven previous times, but this will be their first postseason matchup since Jan. 15, 1995, a 38-28 49ers win.
Cowboys linebacker Keanu Neal was ruled out with a biceps injury along with backup running back Tony Pollard (foot). Backups Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard are expected to be called upon to play more significant roles with Neal out.
The 49ers listed four players as questionable on their final injury report: linebackers Azeez Al-Shaair (knee) and Marcell Harris (Achilles), punter Mitch Wishnowsky (concussion) and safety Talanoa Hufanga (knee).
--Field Level Media