Cowboys vie to bounce back in road tilt with 49ers
For clear proof that an NFL game can't be truly decided opening results.
This matchup could very nearly have been billed as a battle between a pair of early unbeatens led by bright young head coaches if the Cowboys had held up their end. Instead, Dallas will be coming in with a heightened sense of urgency after squandering a 14-point lead in a potentially-costly 27-24 loss to the New York Jets this past Sunday.
The Jets rallied for 17 unanswered points over the final 12 minutes, with the Cowboys aiding the comeback by committing two critical turnovers and having a punt blocked that was returned for a game-tying touchdown.
The deciding points came on a 50-yard field goal by onetime Dallas kicker Nick Folk with 27 seconds left to play, a scenario that was set up when Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo had an ill-advised pass intercepted by Jets shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis in the final minute of regulation.
Romo was also responsible for another catastrophic blunder earlier in the fourth quarter, losing a fumble at the Jets' three-yard line with his team clinging to a seven-point advantage. While the three-time Pro Bowl honoree put up an impressive 342 yards and two touchdowns on one of the most highly- regarded pass defenses in the league, those two damaging errors only enhanced his previous stigma of a player that struggles to come through in the clutch.
San Francisco, on the other hand, was able to finish off its season-opening foe in the rebuilding club's first official effort under new head coach Jim Harbaugh. The closer turned out to be return specialist Ted Ginn Jr., who etched his name in the NFL record books with a pair of dazzling touchdowns within a 59-second span that put the final touches on the 49ers' 33-17 home triumph over defending NFC West champion Seattle.
The Seahawks fought back from a 16-point halftime deficit to pull within 19-17 on a long touchdown pass from quarterback Tarvaris Jackson to rookie Doug Baldwin with just under four minutes to go, but Ginn would quickly swing the momentum back in the 49ers' favor by running the ensuing kickoff back 102 yards for a crucial score.
The standout returner later squashed any remaining Seattle comeback hopes by taking back a punt 55 yards to paydirt with 2:46 remaining, becoming the first player ever on Opening Weekend to score on a kickoff and punt in the same game.
The victory was the third in a row for San Francisco at Candlestick Park dating back to last season, and ensured a better start to the 2011 campaign than the team had a year ago. Entering 2010 as a popular favorite to capture the NFC West, the Niners lost their first five games and couldn't get out of their early hole, which eventually led to the dismissal of head coach Mike Singletary.
Dallas also had high expectations dashed by a poor showing out of the gates last season, as the expected Super Bowl contenders lost seven of their first eight bouts en route to a disappointing 6-10 record.
The 49ers have a 14-10-1 lead in the overall regular-season series between these teams, but have lost in each of their last two battles with the Cowboys. Dallas rolled to a 35-22 home victory over San Francisco back in 2008, and outlasted the Niners by a 34-31 count in a 2005 trip to Candlestick Park. San Francisco last downed Dallas on Dec. 8, 2002, a 31-27 win at Cowboys Stadium.
Dallas and San Francisco have also played some memorable postseason games against one another over the years, with the Cowboys prevailing in five of their seven lifetime playoff bouts versus the Niners. The franchises have met six times for the NFC Championship, with the Cowboys claiming the conference crown after dispatching San Francisco in the 1970, 1971, 1992 and 1993 seasons and the 49ers bettering Dallas in the 1981 and 1994 NFC title games. The 1981 win was perhaps the most fabled of the matchups, as it produced the famous last-second touchdown pass from Joe Montana to wide receiver Dwight Clark. The other playoff encounter between the clubs was a win for Dallas in a 1972 NFC Divisional Playoff.
Both Harbaugh and Dallas' Jason Garrett will be facing one another, as well as their opponent's respective team, for the first time in the head coaching ranks.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Romo's two game-changing miscues overshadowed an otherwise excellent outing for the highly-scrutinized quarterback against the Jets, as he hit on 23-of-36 attempts for 342 yards and capped two long drives with touchdown passes, while deftly spreading the ball around to his deep cast of receivers. Eight different Dallas players caught passes in Garrett's diverse aerial attack last Sunday, though the majority of the targets came in the direction of the team's terrific trio of wide receivers Miles Austin (5 receptions, 90 yards, 1 TD) and Dez Bryant (3 receptions, 71 yards, 1 TD) and ever-reliable tight end Jason Witten (6 receptions, 110 yards). The exceptionally-talented Bryant was particularly hard for the Jets to stop until he sustained a bruised quadriceps in the first quarter, and although the team expects the 2010 first-round pick to participate in Sunday's tilt, he likely won't be 100 percent. The Cowboys weren't able to run the ball effectively against the Jets' stern defense last week, with top back Felix Jones managing a pedestrian 44 yards on 17 attempts, and will now be facing a San Francisco stop unit that held Seattle to a mere 64 yards on the ground in the opener.
Though the Seahawks don't possess nearly the offensive firepower that the San Francisco defense will face this weekend, the group's overall performance under new coordinator Vic Fangio was still noteworthy. The Niners yielded just 219 total yards on the day and got after Jackson relentlessly, with Pro Bowl lineman Justin Smith (4 tackles) and outside linebacker Parys Haralson (4 tackles) each sacking the Seattle triggerman twice and end Ray McDonald (6 tackles) recording the other of the team's five quarterback takedowns. The run defense was stout as well, with the inside linebacker combo of superstar Patrick Willis (5 tackles) and youngster Navarro Bowman (6 tackles) leading the way for a front seven that limited the Seahawks to 2.9 yards per rush attempt. A secondary that could get safety Dashon Goldson back from a knee injury that kept him out of last week's win will surely be tested by Dallas' stellar cast of pass catchers, meaning cornerbacks Carlos Rogers (4 tackles, 1 PD) and Tarell Brown (5 tackles, 1 PD) and strong safety Donte Whitner (5 tackles, 1 PD) will all have to be on their toes.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
While San Francisco's defense was able to flex its muscle from the get-go, there still appears to be much work that needs to be done on the other side of the ball. The 49ers mustered a meager 209 total yards in the opener and particularly struggled in the red zone, with four of their five possessions inside the Seattle 20-yard line ending up in David Akers' field goals. Harbaugh employed a rather conservative approach last week, with quarterback Alex Smith (124 passing yards) attempting just 20 passes and checking down most of his throws while the team relied heavily on the talents of workhorse running back Frank Gore. The Seahawks quickly caught on, however, and Gore managed just 59 yards on 22 carries as the focus of the opposing defense. San Francisco may have to air it out a little more to keep pace with the more-potent Cowboys, so expect Smith to take more shots downfield in the direction of his two most accomplished receivers, ultra-athletic tight end Vernon Davis (5 receptions, 47 yards) and free-agent addition Braylon Edwards (3 receptions, 27 yards). The latter is now the clear-cut headliner of a wideout group that's been affected by the constant injury problems of 2009 first-round draft choice Michael Crabtree, who continues to be slowed by a nagging foot problem and saw only sporadic action against the Seahawks.
Establishing the run may be a difficult task for San Francisco this week, as the Cowboys were able to stone the Jets' usually-strong ground game last Sunday. Dallas yielded a scant 45 rushing yards on 16 attempts for the night, with second-year linebacker Sean Lee spearheading the charge with an exceptional 11-tackle outburst. Lee also came up with a key second-half interception of New York quarterback Mark Sanchez that led to a Cowboys' touchdown, while sack master DeMarcus Ware (4 tackles) once again ignited the team's pass rush by taking Sanchez to the turf two times. Dallas generated four sacks overall in the loss, but a depleted secondary was still lit up for 315 net passing yards and a pair of touchdowns. The Cowboys will be going into Sunday's clash short-handed in the backfield as well, with cornerbacks Terence Newman (groin) and Orlando Scandrick (ankle) almost certain to sit out and top cover man Mike Jenkins (3 tackles, 1 PD) fighting through a shoulder sprain. Dallas signed journeyman Frank Walker on Tuesday to add some much-needed depth, with converted safety Alan Ball (4 tackles, 1 PD) slated to start opposite Jenkins this week.
KEYS TO THE GAME
A short memory. The Cowboys can't come into Candlestick Park still dwelling on last week's missed opportunity, because an unfocused effort on the road doesn't often lead to success. Dallas is clearly the more talented and experienced of these two teams, but a dull performance would negate any of those other advantages.
Cowboys' offensive line vs. 49ers' front seven. A revamped Dallas front wall that now contains two rookies (right tackle Tyron Smith, left guard Bill Nagy) and a first-year starter at center (Phil Costa) lost its share of battles against the Jets, with the crew surrendering four sacks and failing to open holes for Jones. They'll need to do better against a tough San Francisco front that had its way with Seattle at the point of attack for much of last week's win.
Special teams. San Francisco obviously shined in this aspect with Ginn's sensational showing in Week 1, while a breakdown in punt protection helped lead to Dallas' late collapse in its opener. In a contest that could be close, special teams could very well be a factor in the final outcome here as well.
This is a dangerous game for the fragile Cowboys, especially with San Francisco at home and riding a surge of confidence from both last week's win and the new attitude Harbaugh has instilled. Still, the 49ers remain a major work in progress on the offensive end, and although Dallas is awfully banged up in the secondary, the defense is certainly good enough to keep Gore under wraps and take its opponent out of its comfort zone. The Cowboys also have too many weapons to be completely held in check, and San Francisco's simply not built to win if the game turns out to be something of a shootout.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 27, 49ers 20