Catch your breath. Take a sip of your favorite beverage. You’ve earned it after enduring thrilling, terrifying, frustrating, edge-of-your seat 49ers-Cowboys playoff game Sunday.
It was an instant classic that very few will have the stomach to watch again.
There were too many penalties, costly mistakes, and curious coaching decisions to have 49ers fans reveling in aesthetic football beauty. It wasn’t exactly as sweet, pure and highlight-worthy as “The Catch.” But San Francisco will take the 23-17 win and run toward next weekend’s momentous Divisional Round game in Green Bay.
Sunday’s contest had a face only a mother could love (if she’s a 49ers fan), ending on a bizarre sequence. Cowboys star Dak Prescott ran a quarterback draw with 14 seconds left and had the clock run out on him before he had a chance to spike the ball and set up one final heave to the end zone.
Officials, by rule, have to place the ball before each play, and the trailing umpire didn’t have enough time to run up the field, get the ball from Prescott and the center, who fell over each other, before time ran out.
“That’s the cool thing about football,” Kyle Shanahan told reporters afterwards. “It’s never a seven-game series. There’s lots of ways to win one game. And I think that’s why people enjoy watching football. It’s just one game. There’s so many different ways to win. I’d like to think we have the team to do it.”
Some of the crazy things that happened Sunday in Jerry World:
▪ The Cowboys using a fake punt, despite every 49ers player on the field, save for Josh Norman, playing like he expected it, leading to a field goal that made it a 13-point game in the third quarter.
▪ Jimmy Garoppolo throwing a horrendous interception in the fourth, airmailing Trent Sherfield with the pass directly to defensive back Anthony Brown in a moment the 49ers absolutely could not give the ball away. The Cowboys went on to make it a one-score game on the back of that pick. Garoppolo’s other attempt to Sherfield was also nearly intercepted when the pass was tipped by a defender.
▪ Shanahan calling a reverse to Deebo Samuel on third-and-10 with 1:21 left and nearly getting a first down. Replay officials overturned the first down on the field by 2 inches. Samuel had the game-deciding touchdown when he rumbled 26 yards on the first snap after San Francisco picked Prescott in Cowboys’ territory. It was Samuel’s ninth rushing touchdown of the season, coming two days after being named a first-team All-Pro receiver (he had six receiving scores).
▪ The 49ers failed to convert and fourth-and-inches because Garoppolo didn’t let left tackle Trent Williams get set after an odd pre-snap motion, where he flipped from left tackle to the right side. Williams was called for a false start before a quarterback sneak, forcing a punt to allow the Cowboys a chance to win before the clock hit zero. Garoppolo had enough for the first down had he waited an extra beat to take the snap.
▪ San Francisco’s defense, that was maligned early in the season while it was very clearly missing former captains Richard Sherman and DeForest Buckner, held the Cowboys to 157 yards and 7 points in the first three quarters. The only points they had in the fourth came following the fake punt and Garoppolo’s interception.
And that was without Nick Bosa, who suffered a concussion late in the second quarter, and Fred Warner, who turned an ankle during the Cowboys’ touchdown drive following Garoppolo’s interception. Dallas finished with 307 yards, fourth-fewest of the season.
▪ Cowboys receiver Cedric Wilson (the son of former 49ers defensive back, Cedrick Wilson) losing a pass from Prescott in the sun late in the first half. Yes, the Cowboys play in a dome, with a field running east to west (most NFL stadium fields go north to south to avoid sun issues) with giant windows that apparently give players on the field a glorious view of sunsets.
Punter Bryan Anger also had a punt hit the infamous floating scoreboard above the field, leading to a re-kick.
“It was good TV,” Garoppolo said after the game. “I guess.”
Said George Kittle: “A little bit of a roller coaster. That was wild. A lot of ups and downs, a lot of unknowns.”
Takeaways for Green Bay
The 49ers showed the same grit and resolve that got them to the playoffs last week when they stormed back from 17-0 to beat the Rams in overtime.
Only Sunday’s game in Dallas was the inverse. The 49ers jumped out to a 13-0 lead in a remarkably one-sided first half given the Cowboys were the No. 3 seed hosting a team that barely made it. But the 49ers were the ones holding off a furious comeback attempt that seemed possible only because of their mistakes.
Mistakes that must be cleaned up ahead of next week’s game in frigid Green Bay.
The 49ers likely won’t be able to overcome a turnover as costly as Garoppolo’s in the fourth quarter — or Garoppolo’s miss of a wide open Brandon Aiyuk on a third-and-11 that would have gone for a touchdown at best, a huge gain at worst.
They won’t be able to overcome the same special teams gaffes they seem to make on a weekly basis, like roughing the punter on a fourth-and-20 leading to an automatic first down, or allowing a pitch-and-catch first down on a fake punt — with their starting defense on the field.
San Francisco enters the week with uncertainty around their two most important defensive players: Bosa and Warner. Bosa will begin the week in concussion protocol, making his status for next weekend against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers unclear.
Warner, the emotional leader and signal caller of the defense, tried re-enter the game following his fourth-quarter ankle issue, but was held out. He’ll have further testing Monday, though Shanahan hinted the injury isn’t expected to be one that keeps him out long.
So here the 49ers are, with a chance to avenge their home opening loss to Green Bay all the way back in Week 3, when they took a late lead only to have Rodgers steal away with last-second brilliance (and some bad 49ers coverage) that led to a game-winning field goal as time expired.
And the Packers will try to exact revenge on San Francisco, which took Green Bay’s soul in the NFC title game two seasons ago with a 37-20 thumping at Levi’s Stadium. Green Bay, the top seed, will be fresh off a bye, while the 49ers will be playing a third straight road game, as an underdog, with their season on the line.
If the game at Lambeau is anything like the last two weeks, expect another thrilling roller coaster of emotions. And if it’s like the last two weeks, the battle-tested 49ers will have a chance at another upset.