Throughout the NFL postseason I’ll break down key games and give out at least bet I like for the matchup.

Here’s a dive into the divisional round showdown between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers.

Cowboys vs 49ers Spread, current line:

Cowboys vs 49ers Best Bet Prediction:

It might be tough for the Cowboys to put points on the board in this matchup, so take the 49ers against the spread at -4 points.

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When the Cowboys are on Offense

The Cowboys hand the ball off to a running back on 42% of plays, the third-highest rate in the league per TruMedia. So the game plan is to lean on Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard with the run game, but that will be difficult against the 49ers defense. 

San Francisco’s run defense excels due to its ability to create early contact. Take a look at these numbers for running backs against the 49ers from TruMedia:

  • Average 0.9 yards before contact per attempt, third lowest rate
  • Gain three or more yards before contact on 18% of carries, third lowest rate
  • Hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 46% of carries, 11th highest rate

Neither Elliott nor Pollard excel when faced with early contact, though Elliott is better suited for some modest production against this type of defense. Take a look at their numbers on carries when contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage:

  • Elliott: 1.5 yards per attempt (16th out of 42 running backs)
  • Elliott: 28% of carries stopped for zero or negative yards (lowest rate in the league)
  • Pollard: 1.2 yards per attempt (30th)
  • Pollard: 44% of carries stopped for zero or negative yards (9th highest rate)

Based on those numbers, we shouldn’t expect much production from the run game, but Elliott may be in line for more touches if Dallas wants to avoid the negative plays Pollard is likely to produce against San Francisco. 

When the run game is shut down, Dallas tends to shift to more short pass attempts as an extension of the run game. 

With a healthy Dak Prescott, the Cowboys played five games in which their running backs were contacted at or behind the line of scrimmage on at least 50% of carries. We’ll use this set of games to represent games in which the Cowboys run game was shut down. 

In those games, 20% of Prescott’s passes did not cross the line of scrimmage 一 a significant leap from his 13% rate in all other games.

This strategy probably won’t help much against San Francisco based on these numbers from TruMedia:

  • Prescott averages 3.7 yards per attempt on throws not crossing the line of scrimmage (ranked 33rd out of 39)
  • 49ers allow 3.8 yards per attempt on throws not crossing the line of scrimmage (ranked ninth)

The 49ers’ coverage scheme also has the potential to cause issues for the Cowboys. 

Outside the red zone, San Francisco uses the combination of zone coverage with no blitz on 68% of plays, the league’s seventh-highest rate per TruMedia/PFF. 

With Prescott at quarterback, Dallas has generated -1 EPA or worse on 18% of plays against the zone-coverage/no-blitz combination, the league’s fifth-highest rate out of 39 qualified quarterbacks. 

If San Francisco is shutting down the run game and creating negative plays for Dallas’s passing attack, it could be a long day for the Cowboys’ offense. 

When the 49ers are on Offense

The 49ers’ passing game is designed to get the ball to its best playmakers in space. Kyle Shanahan’s ability to consistently make this strategy work is why, to a degree, it doesn’t matter who’s at quarterback. 

Based on route-adjusted data, which accounts for the average yards after catch gained on each route type, the 49ers generated 21.8% more yards after the catch than expected, per TruMedia/PFF, the league’s second-highest rate. 

Dallas has been a league-average defense when it comes to preventing yards after the catch 一 it ranks 16th, allowing 0.8% fewer yards after the catch than expected. 

The Cowboys could potentially cause problems for the 49ers’ passing game if they’re able to get pressure on Brock Purdy

Dallas led the league with a 43% pressure rate this year, and a 42% pressure rate on non-blitzes, per TruMedia. 

When Purdy is pressured, he generated -1 EPA or worse on 33% of his dropbacks versus pressure, which ranked 29th out of 39 quarterbacks. 

San Francisco has a solid offensive line, but the unit has only been around league average in terms of protecting Purdy based on these numbers:

  • 32% pressure rate, ranked 19th out of 39 quarterbacks
  • 29% pressure rate versus non-blitzes, ranked 20th
  • 39% pressure rate versus blitz, ranked 16th

In the run game, expect the 49ers to have success against a mediocre Dallas defense. 

San Francisco running backs gain three or more yards before contact on 28% of their carries, the league’s fifth-highest rate. That’s bad news for Dallas, which ranks 21st in the rate of preventing three or more yards before contact, per TruMedia. 

We should also expect some big plays for the 49ers’ ball carries based on this data:

  • 49ers running backs gain 10 or more yards on 13% of carries (ranked fourth)
  • Cowboys allow 10 or more yards to running backs on 11% of carries (ranked 23rd)

If Dallas can’t shut down the run game and can’t limit the 49ers’ yards-after-catch production, it’s tough to envision the Dallas defense slowing down this unit.

Final Thoughts on Cowboys vs 49ers Best Bets

Although Prescott and the Cowboys offense got back on track against the Buccaneers last week, the 49ers defense presents new challenges. 

Perhaps Dallas can win a low-scoring game if it’s able to get consistent pressure on Purdy, but otherwise, all signs point to an easy win for the 49ers 一 so lay the points and take San Francisco against the spread.

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