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Divisional Round Takeaways: Inside the 49ers’ Big Day Against Big D, Understanding Patriots Staff Changes

Fred Warner tells SI about how San Francisco picked off Dak Prescott twice and the Cowboys’ “very bizarre” play to end the game. And the next offensive coordinator of the Patriots is …

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I think we got a glimpse of what could happen if the clock strikes midnight on Brock Purdy for the 49ers—and I’d be relatively encouraged if I were San Francisco with the result. I’m not saying, to be clear, that the rookie quarterback played poorly against the Cowboys. Really, he didn’t. He finished 19-of-29 for 214 yards, didn’t turn the ball over and made critical throws on third-down slants to Brandon Aiyuk and Christian McCaffrey on the Niners’ last scoring drive. He did his job.

But Sunday wasn’t about Purdy. The Niners scored 19 points and had only two plays of 20-plus yards. And thanks to a promise fulfilled by the San Francisco defense, that was plenty.

So how good is that defense? Good enough, it turns out, to bring home a playoff win.

San Francisco linebacker Fred Warner breaks up a pass against the Cowboys' CeeDee Lamb during their NFC divisional playoff game.

Warner was all over the field for the 49ers with nine tackles and an interception against the Cowboys.

The numbers were all there to show what happened in San Francisco’s 19–12 win over Dallas. The Niners held the Cowboys to 282 total yards, including just 76 on the ground. They picked off Dak Prescott twice in the first half. They forced three punts in the second half. And there was only one Dallas possession after the break that included more than a single first down.

“I mean we’re just trying to be the best us, honestly,” captain and middle linebacker Fred Warner told me afterward. “It’s not about comparing to the past defenses or how we’ve been in the past here. We’re just trying to be our best selves, continuing to search for improvement in all areas and being at our best when our best is needed, which is right now.”

And the way the Niners’ defense has played the past six quarters in two playoff games—allowing just 18 points—says you’re getting their best right now.

But it was, in fact, a long road here, going back to a meeting Warner, Emmanuel Moseley and Arik Armstead had with defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans during the offseason. At that point, Ryans was still working on putting the pieces together, coming off his first year as a coordinator, and so he set out to commandeer a leader from each level of his unit to set tangible goals for the year ahead.

“We all said that we wanted to be No. 1; we wanted to be the best and be the rock for this team,” Warner says. “So anything less than that is unacceptable. We did that for the most part today. It wasn’t perfect at all; I think there were things that we could’ve been better at on our side of the ball. But I think, overall, we did what was needed to win the game.”

The first thing came midway through the first quarter, on a third-and-9, with Ryans’s bringing pressure to Prescott’s left. Armstead wound up in his lap, keeping Prescott from getting his body into the throw—and forcing a floater that Deommodore Lenoir easily picked at the Cowboys’ 27 to set up the Niners’ first points (on a Robbie Gould field goal).

“The formation they came out in was a look where I think the corners knew that the ball was going to either of them—it was just a two-man route concept,” Warner says. “And I don’t know how Deommo played it. I just turned around and I saw him in position to make a play on the ball. He made a huge play in a huge moment early in the game to kind of get us going. We know we have to take the ball away to have a chance at winning. And we did that.”

And they weren’t done doing it. Prescott would throw them another one.

With the game tied at 6 and 1:24 left in the first half, Prescott looked underneath for CeeDee Lamb, and veteran Jimmie Ward saw it—quickly breaking to undercut the route. Ward got there in time to break it up (he definitely should have caught it, too), and the ball bounced right into Warner’s waiting hands.

“Jim made a huge play—huge play,” Warner says. “Kind of squatted and CeeDee was on me one-on-one and kind of worked away from my leverage, and Jimmie made a huge play. That was a big assist in that moment.”

The Niners then drove for a 50-yard Gould field goal, went up 9–6 and wouldn’t trail again.

The biggest challenge from there probably came in the fourth quarter, right after the Niners took a 16–9 lead. KaVontae Turpin returned the kickoff 44 yards to the Dallas 43 and, just like that, the Cowboys were in business. The Niners bowed up, forced a field goal and the Cowboys wouldn’t cross midfield again.

“Honestly, through the entire game, we had ultimate confidence in ourselves,” Warner says. “And it doesn’t matter where they place the ball in the field, we know we gotta go out and we gotta execute at a high level. I think all the way through we did that. We held ’em. They had that long drive in the first half, but other than that, I think we held our standard and did what we needed to do to win the game.”

And did it in a way that, assuming Purdy and the offense rebound, should make the Niners that much tougher to beat.

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Bill O'Brien could return to the Patriots as their offensive coordinator.

O'Brien is the leading candidate to become the Patriots' offensive coordinator. 

The Patriots’ offensive coordinator search marks a sea change in more ways than one. It started with an out-of-nowhere, out-of-character team statement—attributed to no one—that announced a search for a named coordinator after a year of Bill Belichick telling everyone he wasn’t big on titles, and an ongoing negotiation from an organization that never talks about contracts. And 10 days later, it looks like the end might be in sight.

The Patriots interviewed five candidates last week over Zoom for their open OC job—Bill O’Brien, Shawn Jefferson, Adrian Klemm, Keenan McCardell and Nick Caley—and there are a couple of notable things about the way the interviews went down.

• The guy negotiating the new deal that was referenced in the Patriots’ statement, Jerod Mayo, appears to have already taken steps forward in his place on the staff. Belichick had Mayo in the room as part of the OC interviews, while the rest of his staff was enjoying a week-and-a-half vacation ahead of coaching in the Shrine Game. Mayo’s new deal with the Patriots isn’t done yet, but that he’s in on such an important hire matters. Given all that, I’d say there’s a good chance Mayo will wind up with an assistant head coach title.

• O’Brien’s the leader in the clubhouse for that OC job, and that makes sense. I wouldn’t be surprised if he lands it early this week. But he also has a relationship with Ossenfort, who could interview him for the head coaching job in Arizona, and he’s taken calls from just about every team with a coordinator opening.

• It also looks like the OC interviews here are set up to fill out the offensive staff, if O’Brien is the pick. That could mean Klemm as a line coach (he’s making nearly $1 million at Oregon), Jefferson or McCardell as receivers coach, with Caley potentially back as tight ends coach (if everyone can swallow their pride).

• What all this means for Matt Patricia and Joe Judge remains to be seen. Both are close with Belichick. The former served in a quasi-front-office role in 2021 (he even got Nick Caserio’s old office); the latter returned in ’22 on the promise of coaching offense rather than special teams. Would they accept moves back to defense and special teams? I’m really not sure they would.

So in the end, Mac Jones should have a more experienced offensive staff, and Belichick could have a designated successor in Mayo. And the Patriots would go forward with the most significant in-house shakeup since Tom Brady bolted three years ago.

The hire of Ran Carthon in Tennessee makes sense. And the reason why? The new general manager from San Francisco should be a really good fit for sixth-year head coach Mike Vrabel.

If you don’t believe me, you can take Thomas Dimitroff’s word for it. The former Falcons GM was with Vrabel—when Vrabel was still playing—for seven years in New England. He then brought Carthon into the scouting business in 2008 with the Falcons, where he’d be Carthon’s boss for five years. Carthon, of course, will replace another former Dimitroff staffer in Jon Robinson.