SANTA CLARA, Calif. — They admittedly did not play to their expectations. Their quarterback looked like a rookie for the first time all year, their vaunted running game was largely invisible, their top-ranked defense showed cracks in the foundation, and their special teams were far from special.
But when you’re as deep and as talented as the 49ers are, you are able to advance to your third NFC Championship Game in four years despite having an off night or being stared down by an inspired opponent seeking payback for a painful defeat that knocked it out of the playoffs a year.
The 49ers were not great in their 19-12 victory over the Cowboys on Sunday in Levi’s Stadium, but that’s what made their performance so impressive. When a play needed to be made or a drive needed to be sustained at a key moment, they came through.
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“It says we’re a complete team,” linebacker Fred Warner said. “It takes what it takes — no matter what, we’ve got to find a way. The offense has been scoring 30-plus for the last however many weeks, but I told everybody, especially on defense this week, we can’t rely on them to score 30 every week. If we are the best defense in the league, we’ve got to go play like it. Even then we didn’t play our best game, but we did enough.”
The 49ers know they will have to be better this coming Sunday when they face the Eagles in Philadelphia for the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LVII, but here’s the thing: It’s hard to imagine them playing any worse.
Of course, “worse” is relative when discussing the 49ers, who have won 12 in a row. Almost every other team would warmly embrace what they consider to be their ‘B’ game. But that speaks to how proficient they have been over the last two months.
Entering Sunday, they had scored 31 points or more in four consecutive games, six of their last seven, and seven of their past nine. They had allowed an average of only 5.5 second-half points over their past 11 games. And their first-year quarterback had thrown for multiple touchdowns in each of his six starts.
But from the beginning on Sunday it was clear they would have to grind for a 12th straight win. Brock Purdy — the rookie quarterback who had played so brilliantly after taking over the injured Jimmy Garoppolo, who took over for the injured Trey Lance — finally looked like the final pick in the 2002 draft.
He rushed some throws and missed on others, largely due to constant pressure from the Dallas pass rush, notably linebacker Micah Parsons. But the 49ers prevailed because he did something his more celebrated counterpart did not: protect the football.
Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott threw two first-half interceptions, both of which resulted in San Francisco field goals. He was flawless the week before in a win over Tampa Bay, throwing for four touchdowns and 305 yards, with no turnovers, but he was disturbingly off for much of Sunday afternoon, particularly when the Cowboys needed a play to be made.
For instance, trailing by four with just under three minutes to play, he had wideout Michael Gallup running down the right seam with a step on a defender. An accurate pass could have produced a long gain, or possibly a touchdown. But Prescott’s pass was to the outside instead of to the inside, preventing Gallup from making a credible play on the ball.
And so it went for Prescott, who finished 23 of 37 for 206 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. He needed to be at his best for the Cowboys to prevail — particularly after running back Tony Pollard left the game for good late in the second quarter with an ankle injury. The score was 6-6 at the time, and Dallas was at the San Francisco 18-yard line.
Next play: interception, which the 49ers converted into a field goal and a 9-6 halftime lead.
There is no overstating how much Prescott and the Cowboys missed Pollard. He is the Cowboys’ most explosive player, dangerous as both a runner and a receiver, with a quickness as well as long speed. It was painful in his absence to see Ezekiel Elliott fail to get through openings because he lacks the burst that Pollard possesses. It is not his fault. As they say, Father Time is undefeated. But the Cowboys could not help but wonder what might have been.
Purdy, who finished 19 of 29 for 214 yards, was also was off his game, failing to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in seven starts. But the four-year starter from Iowa State kept the ball out of harm’s way. That was huge because coaches love to say how more games are lost more than won, and with the San Francisco defense being stingy and opportunistic, the 49ers needed only a handful of plays to lock up the win.
One came late in the fourth quarter, with the score tied at 9. Purdy spotted tight end George Kittle in the right seam and zipped a pass into the opening. Kittle reached out with one hand, deflected the ball off his facemask while in full stride, then reached out with both hands to pull it in for a 30-yard gain that eventually led to the decisive score — a 2-yard touchdown run by Christian McCaffrey.
“I’ve seen George make some crazy plays through his career, but that was probably one of the craziest,” said defensive lineman Arik Armstead. “That definitely got us going.”
Safety Tashaun Gipson was equally impressed with the teammate who delivered the pass, and his perseverance under tough circumstances.
“That’s just a testament to him as a player,” he said of Purdy. “Take your hat off to the Cowboys, that’s a great defense. For him to go out there and still perform enough for us to get this win, that just tells you about a guy like him. I’m happy he’s on my team. The moment is never too big for him.”
It is not a stretch to say we learned more about Purdy on Sunday than we did in his first postseason start last week against Seattle, when he threw for a personal-best 332 yards and three touchdowns with another score on the ground. Things just flowed in that game. Against the Cowboys, it was a challenge from start to end.
At times, he appeared to feel the pressure before it arrived, and when he was able to get outside the pocket, his passes were uncharacteristically off target. For a moment, it was hard not to wonder if the moment had caught up to him, but that would be minimizing the speed and physicality of the Dallas defense.
Purdy has been so good for so long, relatively speaking, that you tended to forget he was the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft. But he has shown in his small sample size that he is the team’s best quarterback by a wide margin, even when everyone is healthy.
That bodes well for the franchise’s long-term future, not to mention its upcoming game against the Eagles. Purdy doesn’t have to be great, just good enough, like against Dallas.
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