Mike McCarthy repeated the phrase three times Saturday night in the Cowboys’ postgame locker room: “starting line.”
"It starts right now," he told his NFC East champion team after a 51-26 win in Philadelphia. "Our starting line starts when we (expletive) touch down. It’s going to get real. And we’re ready."
The No. 3 seed Cowboys (12-5) will host the No. 6 San Francisco 49ers (10-7) in an NFC wild-card matchup Sunday at 4:30 p.m. ET. The game will air on CBS, Paramount+, Nickelodeon and Amazon Prime Video. It will feature a contest between two teams with a storied playoff rivalry. But neither franchise advanced to the postseason last year.
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"Win to keep going and we plan to keep doing that regardless of who we play or who we line up against," Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott. "Line ’em up, we’re ready to go. Going to look forward to making a run."
The Cowboys arrive at the postseason averaging an NFL-best 31.2 points and 407 offensive yards per game. But an offense anchored by a high-performing lineup of homegrown talent – including Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and wide receiver CeeDee Lamb – no longer need carry games on its shoulder alone. Dallas’ defense improved drastically from 2020 to 2021, and the Niners best beware young stars in cornerback Trevon Diggs and rookie chess piece Micah Parsons. Diggs intercepted a league-high 11 passes in 16 games; Parsons’ impact ranged from 13 sacks and three forced fumbles to 84 total tackles including 20 tackles for loss.
The 49ers arrive with late-season momentum to the tune of seven wins in their last nine games. They advanced to the postseason after an upset comeback to beat the Rams 27-24 in overtime Sunday. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has battled through a torn ligament in his thumb but nonetheless threw a 43-yard dart to receiver Deebo Samuel in the final minute of regulation, followed by a 14-yard touchdown to Jauan Jennings.
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On paper, the Cowboys offense facing the 49ers defense should excite. Only the Bills and Panthers have been stingier than San Francisco’s 310 yards allowed per game; the Niners’ 103.5 rushing yards per game also is among the seven best in the league. That understates how well San Francisco has stopped the run in that late-season run. Only the Seahawks have rushed for 100 yards against San Francisco in the last two months. The Cowboys have emphasized the necessity of their run game to win in January and February.
"The more balanced we are," Elliott said Saturday night, "the better team we’ll be on offense. … We need the running game to close out games too."
As intriguing will be the coaching bloodlines as the Cowboys’ reformed defense takes on the San Francisco offense. 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan worked as Falcons offensive coordinator under Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who previously coached Atlanta. As Quinn considers head coaching vacancies this winter, he has the chance to demonstrate how deeply he understands his former coordinator and how meaningfully he can prepare Cowboys defenders to face weapons like Samuel and All-Pro tight end George Kittle.
Shanahan declined to offer much insight on the Cowboys on Sunday evening but acknowledged both players and coaching staff. McCarthy earned his 10th postseason berth in 15 seasons as a head coach but his first since 2016 and first with the Cowboys.
"They’ve had a hell of year," Shanahan said. "They have really good players and really good coaches. We’ll enjoy tonight and then we’ll get on the film first thing (Monday) morning."
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter: @JoriEpstein
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dallas Cowboys-San Francisco 49ers: What to expect in wild-card game