One of the NFL’s greatest historical rivalries has been reborn.
Two titans from decades past are once again among the Super Bowl favorites out of the NFC, and tempers may flare after playoff meetings in two consecutive seasons.
The Dallas Cowboys’ visit to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, to face the San Francisco 49ers on NBC’s Sunday Night Football will evoke memories of Dwight Clark pulling down “The Catch” in 1982 or of all-time greats like Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith competing in three straight NFC title games in the mid-1990s.
Including the playoffs, these rivals have evenly split 39 all-time meetings, with 19 wins apiece and one tie.
But while the shadows of the distant past will loom over this game, the Cowboys will be hoping to exorcise the demons of recent history as they seek revenge on a 49ers team that ousted them from the wild-card and divisional rounds in the past two years.
Even without the bad blood or historical significance, this would be a marquee matchup. And SmartRatings gives this matchup a score of 79, making it the most anticipated kickoff of NFL Week 5.
Sportsbooks also have assigned the 49ers as the moneyline favorites with the point spread at 3.5 and an over/under of 45. Our predictive model leans slightly to the underdogs as the best bets, giving the Cowboys a 52.5% chance to take down San Francisco.
At 4-0, the 49ers are one of two remaining unbeaten teams in the NFL (Philadelphia Eagles) and are rolling after wins over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Rams, New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals.
The Cowboys, who lost to the Cardinals in Week 3, bounced back last week with a dominating 38-3 win over the New England Patriots to improve to 3-1.
Even a quarter of the way into the regular season, Dallas has yet to be involved in a balanced, competitive game. The Cowboys held 26-, 11- and 25-point first-half leads in their three wins but fell behind by 11 at halftime of their loss.
These early leads have allowed coach Mike McCarthy to call a relatively safe game. The Cowboys lead the NFL with 21.0 second-half rush attempts per game as they have largely focused on protecting the ball and milking the clock.
Following this game script against the 49ers, however, could be a challenge. San Francisco is allowing an average of 131.8 first-half yards per game – the third fewest in the league. The 49ers also haven’t committed a first-half turnover this season.
With this game likely to remain close into the second half, the Cowboys will ask more of Dak Prescott than in previous weeks. He threw 15 interceptions last year – tied with Davis Mills for the most in the league – with 3.8% of his attempts ending up in the wrong hands.
This season, Prescott has just one interception in 136 attempts – 0.7%. He’s been very careful so far, thanks largely to an emphasis on a short, quick passing game.
Prescott’s average release time this season is 2.26 seconds, which is the fastest among quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts. He is also averaging just 5.90 air yards per pass – the second-lowest mark in the league (Bryce Young of the Houston Texans, 5.66).
Prescott is doing this despite a check-down rate of 9.8% (the NFL average is 9.4%), meaning he and McCarthy are focusing on quick hitters by design. (Tony Pollard is third on the team with 15 receptions.) Even on play-action concepts, when the NFL averages nearly 14 air yards per attempt, Prescott is targeting receivers just 6.83 yards downfield.
A tighter game situation may mean that Prescott will look to stretch the field, a tough task against the 49ers defense that has allowed just four passing plays of 20 or more yards.
SF Keys: Protect Purdy/Stay Balanced
After starting last season as a third-stringer, Brock Purdy has been labeled by some as a system quarterback and a game manager.
Call him whatever you’d like, but he keeps producing. And winning.
Excluding last season’s NFC championship game in which Purdy was injured after just four passes, the 49ers are 11-0 when the former “Mr. Irrelevant” starts under center. He has 19 touchdowns and just two picks in those games.
Including the postseason, Purdy has appeared in 16 games since the start of last season. Over that span, he has a 110.3 passer rating, best among qualified quarterbacks, with more yards per attempt (8.59) than Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and a lower interception rate (1.2%) than former Green Bay Packers great Aaron Rodgers.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan has certainly seen enough to be a believer, telling the media this week that he rejects the notion that Purdy is a product of his system.
“That’s pretty ridiculous,” Shanahan said. “You’ve just got to watch the tape. He plays at a high level every time he has been out there.”
What makes San Francisco so difficult to defend, however, is its balance. The 49ers rank second in the NFL in pass success rate (52.7%) and fifth in run success rate (41.8%). That balance has kept opponents guessing and has allowed Purdy to complete 78.6% of his passes after play-action.
As good as Purdy has been, he has shown some weakness in his decision-making and struggled to get the ball to weapons like Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel while under pressure.
While pressured, 62.5% of Purdy’s attempts have been directed toward open targets. That’s the sixth-worst rate among qualified quarterbacks and has resulted in a below-average expected completion rate while pressured of 60.4%.
The 49ers have allowed pressures on 38.8% of drop backs this season, but that number jumps to 54.5% on third downs.
Protecting Purdy will be crucial if San Francisco hopes to move the ball against a tenacious Dallas defense.
DAL Keys: Improve Run Defense/Maintain Pass Rush
If any unit can get after Purdy and force him into mistakes, it’s the Dallas defense.
The Cowboys have battered opponents, created turnovers and dictated game flow this season. While some defenses choose a fundamental approach and others try to generate game-changing plays, Dallas has managed to do both.
Dallas Cowboys Defensive Ranks
- Points Allowed/Game (10.3/1st)
- Net Yards Allowed/Game (259.8/2nd)
- Third-Down Conversion Percentage (30.6/4th)
- Sacks (14/T-6th)
- Interceptions (7/2nd)
For Dallas, it all starts with a fearsome defensive front anchored by two-time All-Pro rusher Micah Parsons. He’s again among the NFL’s sack leaders with four in four games, but he and the rest of the pass rush are consistently disruptive even when the sack numbers don’t show it.
Dallas has pressured opposing quarterbacks on an NFL-best 50.0% of drop backs this season while blitzing at a below-average rate of 27.5%.
Parsons ranks fifth among qualified edge defenders with a 26.3% pressure rate, but he is hardly alone in harassing quarterbacks.
Parsons’ edge counterpart DeMarcus Lawrence has a 17.9% pressure rate, while Chauncey Golston’s 24.0% and Osa Odighizuwa’s 23.3% rates are well above average for interior defenders.
The secondary has held up its end of the bargain as well, boasting a 36.5% burn-allowed rate –the second-best mark in the league.
The Cowboys have held big leads in their wins over the Giants, New York Jets and Patriots this season, allowing their front four to focus primarily on rushing the quarterback. If they hope to slow down the 49ers’ balanced attack, however, they will need to improve in stopping the run.
Dallas is surrendering 3.3 rushing yards before contact on the ground despite playing with at least one extra man in the box on 53.3% of snaps. The Cowboys will need to improve their run fits to slow down the NFL’s leading rusher, Christian McCaffrey.
Highest Pct of Team’s Total Scrimmage Yards
- Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers (36.8%)
- Bijan Robinson, Atlanta Falcons (36.0%)
- Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings (35.1%)
- Davante Adams, Las Vegas Raiders (32.9%)
- Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals (31.2%)
A versatile weapon who is just as dangerous as a receiver as he is as a runner, McCaffrey could be key in providing an outlet when Purdy is under fire.
If Dallas can slow the Niners’ ground attack, however, Parsons and Co. could turn the heat up on a relatively inexperienced quarterback and exact revenge on the team that ended their season two years in a row.
Check out the rest of our picks, along with every team’s chances at making the playoffs in our NFL season predictions. We also have all the college football top 25 predictions for Week 6. And don’t forget to follow us on X and Instagram.