The Wild Card extravaganza of the 2021 NFL season eventually took its first prominent victim, the Dallas Cowboys, when the 49ers escaped a late comeback attempt to win 23-17 at AT&T stadium. Here are the five takeaways from that game.
Discipline was the key.
The 49ers led the league in pass interference penalties. And during last week's game against the Rams, Dre Greenlaw committed unnecessary penalties. But during the Wild Card weekend, the Cowboys gleefully took their turn with a mega penalty giveaway in Arlington, Texas. Their penalty count totaled up to 14. In the third quarter's first drive, two back-to-back false start penalties pushed manageable 3rd and 4 to 3rd and 14. The Cowboys opted to punt on the 4th down in that drive only to be saved by 49er special team player Mark Nzeocha crashing into the punter.
The 49ers let the Cowboys die from self-inflicted wounds.
Cowboys need soul searching.
In Week 1, they started with a gutsy performance against the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, indicating that this could be the new version of "America's team." The Cowboys finished with a 12-6 record, which is outstanding. This season, they scored 31 points per game. But the numbers hide the deficiencies this team had. That number was helped by thrashing their own division.
The Cowboys were 6-6 outside the division. Their only win against a playoff team outside their division came against New England Patriots, which went to overtime.
Quarterbacks with hefty price tags
Dak Prescott is among the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league, but was poor in decision-making as well as execution against the 49ers.
On the other hand, Jimmy Garoppolo started the game with encouraging plays. He led the team to a 23-7 lead in the third quarter without committing too many mistakes. As time went on, the errors started to creep in. He threw an interception allowing the Cowboys to start a drive that resulted in a touchdown.
While the Cowboys need to figure out whether Prescott is worth the price tag, the 49ers can find some peace knowing that a rookie QB with potential is waiting to take over in 2022.
The game could have been a blowout
The Cowboys wept over referees jeopardizing a potential game-winning drive, but it could have been much worse if not for the second half performance by Garoppolo. Apart from his interception leading to a Cowboys touchdown, Garoppolo missed Brandon Aiyuk wide open down the field. This was almost exactly like the play he missed against Titans on Thursday night. If the 49ers had scored, the game would have ended in a brutal awakening for the Cowboys. Instead, the 49ers had to grind it out until the end. And now, they will have to face the well-rested Green Bay Packers in rigid arctic-like temperatures.
Garoppolo was the difference when the 49ers made multiple comebacks during the regular season, which enabled the team to come this far, but he might be the reason that leaves the team empty-handed.
The team is relatively healthy, which is a surprise compared to how the injury bugs caught up last few years. If Garoppolo can play mistake-free football, he might be able to extend his stay in Santa Clara. Maybe it is too much of an ask from what we have learned over the years.
The defensive unit and Gould special
Deebo Samuel might run away with the MVP award of the team, but the defensive unit held its nerves and delivered as usual. By every week, DeMeco Ryans' stock is rising at a rapid rate more than the snowpack of Tahoe. The 49erds defense sacked Prescott five times and limited Dallas rushing attack to 77 yards.
Even when Nick Bosa left the field due to an injury, the defense held its own. The defense lays a solid foundation continuously. They will have the opportunity to take their revenge on the Packers after the Week 3 meltdown in the hands of Rodgers and Adams.
While special teams committed a penalty and were tricked by Dallas, Robbie Gould came up with platinum tier performance. This was the season's best showing so far from the aging veteran.