Instant analysis of 49ers’ 23-17 win over Cowboys in a harrowing, wild-card finish

ARLINGTON, Texas — Advancing with a playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys never gets old nor boring for the 49ers.

Sunday’s 23-17, wild-card victory came with a hold-your-breath, heart-stopping fourth quarter.

Next up is a trip to Lambeau Field to face the No. 1-seeded Green Bay Packers, who had the NFC’s lone bye this wild-card weekend.

The 49ers, who made it into the playoffs by virtue of an overtime win at the Los Angeles Rams a week ago, survived Sunday despite nearly blowing a 16-point, fourth-quarter lead.

“It was kind of getting kind of crazy at the end,” wide receiver Deebo Samuel said. “But our defense is really good and went out there and got a stop. The emotions are through the roof.”

It wasn’t over until, well, until referee Alex Kemp announced: “That’s the end of the game,” when Dak Prescott ate up the final 14 seconds by scrambling to the 24-yard line and then taking one last chance to spike the ball with no time left.

And, so, the 49ers (11-7) emerged with their third playoff win all-time against the Cowboys. Their 1981 and ’94 teams won the NFC Championship against Dallas en route to Super Bowl championships.

 

ARLINGTON, TEXAS – JANUARY 16: Nick Bosa #97 of the San Francisco 49ers is helped up after an injury against the Dallas Cowboys during the second quarter in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 16, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Missing from the 49ers defense’s final, straining drives were its premier defenders: Nick Bosa, who left with a concussion just before halftime, and Fred Warner, who staggered off with a fourth-quarter ankle injury.

Warner’s injury came shortly after a Cowboys’ interception, on a Jimmy Garoppolo overthrow, spoiling what had been a necessary, turnover-free outing.

Other contributing factors to the Cowboys’ comeback bid: special-teams mistakes, a major flaw this season for the 49ers. They surfaced twice in the second half (roughing the punter; fake-punt conversion), though that led directly to only a Cowboys’ field goal that pulled them within 23-10 with 11:53 left.

Would this lead evaporate the way their halftime leads did in road losses to the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans, not to mention their infamous home-opening defeat in which they surrendered a lead in the final 37 seconds to the Green Bay Packers?

No, and now they get their rematch with the Packers.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) passes to wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (11) during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

The 49ers have won their past three playoff matchups with the Packers, including a January 2014 wild-card win in Green Bay (23-20) and the 2019 season’s NFC Championship Game route (37-20) at Levi’s Stadium. The all-time postseason series is tied, 4-4.

Look for the 49ers to play the Packers on Saturday, considering the No. 2 Tampa Bay Buccaneeers figure to host a Sunday game against the winner of Monday night’s Rams-Cardinals game.

The 49ers thought too many times they had won before 93,470 at AT&T Stadium until officials finally declared it so. The final minutes saw a fourth-down incompletion by Prescott, followed by a 49ers’ drive that stalled once officials, after lengthy reviews and re-spotting of the ball, ruled Deebo Samuel short of a third-down conversion, and although the 49ers were set to go for it on fourth-and-1, Trent Williams’ false-start penalty led to a punt and Dallas’ last drive.

The 49ers looked in great shape after a blistering, three-play sequence in 50 seconds gave them a 23-7 lead in the third quarter. First, D.J. Jones sacked Dak Prescott for a 13-yard loss, back at the Cowboys’ 19-yard line. Next came an interception at the 26-yard line by nickel back K’Waun Williams, who missed last game recovering from COVID.

Then, suddenly, Samuel weaved his way down the right side for a 26-yard touchdown run. It was his team-leading ninth rushing score this season, giving more credence to his self-defined position of “wide back” – a wide receiver playing running back.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS – JANUARY 16: Deebo Samuel #19 of the San Francisco 49ers carries the ball against the Dallas Cowboys during the second quarter in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 16, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

They got to the fourth quarter with that 16-point lead intact. Eight minutes separated them from the divisional round. They made it. Somehow.

“That’s the cool thing about football. It’s never a seven-game series, so there are lots of ways to win one game,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “… I feel we have a team built do to do it. You do that through experience and we’ve won a number of different ways.

“I’d like to finish people out better at the end and we shouldn’t have given the ball back to them. But I’m proud of the guys, that when they hit bad adversity they still found a way to win.”

After not punting in the first half, the 49ers offense bogged down, scoring on only 1 of 6 possessions and punting four times.

Garoppolo, who also had a bad overthrow of an open Brandon Aiyuk in the third quarter, finished 16-of-25 for 172 yards.

Samuel, the 49ers’ offensive catalyst, ran for 72 yards (10 carries) and added 38 yards receiving (three catches).

Prescott, a week after throwing five touchdown passes, had only one, and that came in the first half on a 20-yard throw to Amari Cooper over K’Waun Williams.

The 49ers took a 16-7 lead into halftime, and while that certainly wasn’t commanding, it was made so precarious by Bosa’s exit. He sustained a concussion when he collided with teammate D.J. Jones, after getting pulled down by right tackle La’el Collins, whose holding penalty on Bosa stalled that Cowboys’ drive.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS – JANUARY 16: Nick Bosa #97 of the San Francisco 49ers gestures to the crowd after an injury against the Dallas Cowboys during the second quarter in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 16, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

That first half started in dominant fashion by both the 49ers’ offense and defense. First, they zipped down field for an opening-drive touchdown — Elijah Mitchell’s 4-yard, carefree run to the right pylon behind blocks from Kyle Juszczyk and Brandon Aiyuk.

Then it was the 49ers’ defense’s turn: Azeez Al-Shaair pressured Dak Prescott into a first-snap incompletion, Dre Greenlaw stopped Zeke Elliott for a 3-yard loss, and, on an ever-tricky third-and-long, Bosa and Samson Ebukam sacked Prescott.

The 49ers’ next three possessions produced Robbie Gould field goals, and a reminder he’s never missed a postseason kick in his career. He made 53-, 40- and 52-yard attempts to make it a 16-7 lead with 3:03 until halftime.

They can’t settle for such field goals against Aaron Rodgers. But they’ve got another chance at him, at the NFC crown, at their sixth Lombardi Trophy, 27 years after winning their fifth by downing the Cowboys in the conference finals.

“We have to get off this win and get ready for next week,” Samuel added.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS – JANUARY 16: Samson Ebukam #56 and Nick Bosa #97 of the San Francisco 49ers sack Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys during the first quarter in the NFC Wild Card Playoff game at AT&T Stadium on January 16, 2022 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

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