In this rapidly changing world, despite being pretty well set in my own personal ways since, I don’t know, junior high, probably, I try not to be an inflexible, curmudgeonly old-timer. Pluto isn’t a planet anymore? OK. Kids learn to do math with squares? Alright, I guess. My skinny jeans are out, but those hideous mom jeans are in? I certainly don’t get it, but, hey, whatever, man.
There is one area, however, in which I might be currently suffering a bit of good-old-days syndrome, and that’s NFL football. I don’t mean with the same silly (see also: bigoted) frustrations your redneck uncle might offer unsolicited over the Thanksgiving table — things like who stands for what song, the players’ supposed “unprofessional” appearances, and their so-called “excessive celebrations.” I’m referring to real, significant, alter-the-fabric-of-the-game type changes like the number of games in a season or how many teams make the playoffs. (I just don’t really see how 17 games or 14 playoff teams improves anything but the size of owners’ already-fecund pocketbooks.) But whatever. If Pluto is now a “dwarf planet” and the high-waisteds get high-fives among the Zoomers, I can roll with this, too, I suppose.
I have good news! For those like me who might find themselves a confused and befuddled caveman among the fast-moving technological wonderland of the “modern day” NFL, we can now take a little solace in something timeless and familiar, wholesome even. Yes, even your overly opinionated uncle will surely bask in the nostalgia of the utopian mid-’90s which will no doubt be diffused in great volumes into the very air around DFW this week. Sadly, we aren’t being transported back to the great economy or the amazing music regularly spun on commercial radio, but nearly as good, the Cowboys will play the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs! Where’s my white and blue Starter jacket?
That’s right. Due to the Cowboys having their first ever 12-5 regular season record (those numbers still hurt my brain), they have landed the 3-seed in the NFC and as such will host the 6th-seed Niners at AT&T Stadium on Sunday for the Cowboys’ first playoff game in three years.
No, there’ll be no Steve Young or Jerry Rice donning the crimson and gold, and the Triplets™ won’t be riding into battle in silver and blue, but this year’s reimagining of the historic playoff rivalry could be just as evenly matched and every bit as enticing as those classic bouts in the 1990s.
Though the consistently solid NFC West stalwart 49ers have probably been largely out-of-sight-out-of-mind for most Cowboy fans, they’ve silently had a freakishly similar season to our hometown heroes. The ’Boys and Niners appear as near mirror images of each other. At least on paper. Each team ended the season with double-digit wins amassed mostly against bad opponents. (Less than half of each team’s victories came against teams with winning records.) Each arrive in the postseason fairly hot. San Francisco won seven out of their last nine while Dallas won six games in the same span. They both reside in the top third or better (in Dallas’ case, much better) in all offensive categories, points per game, passing, and rushing — yes, rushing! Somehow the Cowboys finished Top 10 in that category. Thank you, Tony Pollard. And both hold similarly respectable rankings in most defensive categories as well. The two have the requisite characteristics of well-balanced teams primed for potential postseason success.
If there’s much daylight between the two, it’s certainly on offense. As many Dak detractors as there are out there, I’m not sure many would rather have Jimmy G under center in his place. I suppose for most of us that depends on which version of Dak Prescott we may see. I would argue that that depends on which version of the offensive line we see. If we see the same version that had all the blocking ability of a Glenn Danzig mesh shirt like the kind that trotted out against the Denver Broncos in Week 9 against San Francisco’s monstrous defensive front, it could be a very long game. However, if they can be the version that allowed just a 20% pressure rate (the fifth-lowest in Week 8) against a similarly terrifying Vikings front, Dak should be able to get his work done through the air.
San Fran’s run-heavy offense is a bit of a mismatch for Dallas. Rushing is still a vulnerability for this defense, and that does give me pause. I’d also give the Niners the clear coaching advantage with Kyle Shanahan, both as a coordinator and as a game manager, but it’s possible Dallas has a neutralizer in the form of one Dan Quinn, who has turned this same Dallas defense into a turnover machine. With the Cowboys a +14 in turnover differential for the season to San Fran’s -4, an extra possession (or two) could help break a potential deadlock and ultimately swing things the Cowboys’ way.
I know neither team wants it to come down to the kicking game. Both Greg “Once Had a Leg” Zuerlein and the Niners’ (likely future Hall of Famer) Robby Gould are an identical 29 of 35 on the year. Pretty sure both fan bases have been conditioned to turning blue from holding their breath every time either one of them approaches a snap and hold.
With the line opening Dallas -3.5, it’s literally anyone’s game. It’s the playoffs. It’s the NFL. It’s supposed to be close. It’s as designed. For some reason, I’m feeling good. Maybe I just feel that the constant storm of shit we’ve been bracing for since about 2016 has built up a little positive karma that could finally be headed our way. Maybe I’m delusional. Whatever it is, just like in the ’90s, both teams are really good, but Dallas is better by just enough. I’ll take the homeboys in a close one 27-24. Let’s just hope they don’t blow all that karma and all of that sweet ’90s juju in the first round.