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ARLINGTON, Texas – As they have so often done – and in an ending befitting of their historic rivalry – the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys battled to the bitter end of Sunday’s nostalgic NFC wildcard meeting.
In the end, a strong Niner’s defensive effort combined with countless Dallas errors allowed San Francisco to come away with a 23-17 victory in the first postseason meeting between the teams since 1995, and the first matchup between two franchises with at least five Super Bowl wins each.
In the process, the 49ers became the first underdogs (+3.5) and road team to win this offseason. It’s a victory that comes 40 years and a week after “The Catch” in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, and a victory that will have special significance for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, whose father, Mike, was the Niners’ offensive coordinator for some of the famous meetings between these teams in the 1990s.
The Niners’ victory moves them to 3-5 all the time against Dallas in the playoffs and pits an NFC division game up against another historic rival, the Green Bay Packers, next weekend.
None of that would have been possible without a great assist from the Cowboys. Dallas, No. 3 in the NFC, repeatedly made important mistakes throughout the game, including a Dak Prescott interception that turned into a 49ers touchdown.
The Cowboys received 14 penalties – the most draws in a playoff game in franchise history – for 84 yards. Many of them came in key moments, including third downs, to keep the San Francisco drives alive.
The Niners made some of their own mistakes in the fourth quarter, including an interception from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to establish a Dallas touchdown.
“Yeah, the wiretapping just … got away from me,” Garoppolo said. “These are the easy lay-ups you just have to make.”
As only a San Francisco-Dallas playoff game could provide, all of this led to significant drama in the closing moments. The Niners’ 23-7 lead evaporated as Dallas trimmed it to 23-17. The 49ers gave the ball back to the Cowboys with a late punt after a delay in the game’s penalty moved the Niners from fourth-and-1 to fourth-and-6.
The Cowboys quickly entered San Francisco territory with a 38-yard pass to tight-end Dalton Schultz. But the 49ers’ defense, as it had throughout the game, delivered when it needed it most, even without linebacker Fred Warner (ankle) and defensive end Nick Bosa (concussion), both of whom traveled during the match and did not return. The 49ers’ defense played just 23 snaps throughout the regular season with Bosa and Warner both off the field.
“Still trying to figure out where I am – it was pretty emotional out there,” Shanahan said. “Many opportunities, I thought we had to win the match – I felt like we did a number of times – but those guys just kept fighting.
“And we had a couple of mistakes there in the end that should not have let it get there; just for the guys to get out and end that fight, especially in that environment, it was a hell of a victory for the guys.”
Garoppolo described it as “an emotional game” with ups and downs, but said it never felt like the game was heading away from the 49ers.
“I always felt like we had control of the game, but I just made some good TV,” Garoppolo said with a laugh.
Garoppolo finished 16-of-25 for 172 yards without touchdowns and interception for a pass rating of 67.4. Prescott was 23-of-42 in 254 yards with a touchdown and an interception for a pass rating of 65.7.
The Niners and Cowboys went into Sunday’s meeting with a total of 67 playoff wins, a draw like most ever in a playoff game. Dallas had won its last three wildcard games, all at home, before Sunday’s defeat. The 49ers improved to 4-1 in away playoff games since 2012 after having 2-9 in franchise history before that.
Traditionally, the winner of a 49ers Cowboys playoff game has moved on to postseason success. The winner of five of the previous seven postseason meetings, including each of the last four, has gone on to win the Super Bowl.