SANTA CLARA — When you’ve won 11 consecutive games and just scored a season-high 41 points, you’re not in fear of you’re next opponent.
“Whoever they put in front of us, it’s another step, another test,” left tackle Trent Williams said after Saturday’s wild-card win over the Seattle Seahawks.
The No. 2-seed 49ers (14-4) will host a divisional-round game Sunday at 3:30 p.m., against the winner of tonight’s game between the No. 5-seed Dallas Cowboys (12-5) and No. 4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-9).
It’ll be a rematch one way or another. The 49ers clobbered the Bucs 35-7 last month, when Brock Purdy became the first rookie quarterback to win his first start against Tom Brady. A year ago, the 49ers won at Dallas 23-17 in a wild-card playoff game.
Who to root for if you’re a 49ers’ fan? It may seem obvious (“Back for more already, Bucs?!”) or historical heartstrings could tug at you (“The Catch” and much more).
Let’s scout out what intriguing storylines await for each matchup:
49ERS VS. COWBOYS
This would be their ninth playoff meeting, and second in as many years.
The 49ers barely escaped Dallas last January en route to their next playoff win In Green Bay. It came down to the wire, with Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott scrambling 17 yards up the middle and sliding down at the 49ers’ 24-yard line. It ate up precious seconds, and an ensuing spike killed the final second, to which Cowboys’ fans threw trash on the field in their disgust.
Home playoff wins over Dallas carved the 49ers’ path to their first Super Bowl triumph in the 1981 season (see: “The Catch” by Dwight Clark for the go-ahead touchdown in the NFC Championship Game), as well as their most recent Super Bowl-winning season back in 1994 (see: Steve Young’s victory lap around Candlestick after dispatching the two-time reigning champs).
The Cowboys won the other five playoff matchups, but that won’t inspire you’re rooting interest tonight, so onward to look at the here and now.
Two of the NFL’s best defenders this season would share the field: the 49ers’ Nick Bosa and the Cowboys’ Micah Parsons, both of whom made AP First Team All-Pro last week. Bosa was forced out of last year’s playoff matchup by halftime with a concussion.
When it comes to other honors, 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey can take out frustrations over his Pro Bowl snub by outperforming the Cowboys’ Tony Pollard, who is one of the NFC’s three Pro Bowl backs.
No 49ers-Cowboys contest can by hyped without acknowledging the quarterbacks. Prescott’s counterpart this time around would be Purdy, who’s been amazingly efficient, mobile and cunning in seven wins since replacing the still-injured Jimmy Garoppolo.
49ERS VS. BUCS
Um, about that reception line of 49ers who gathered postgame Dec. 11 to shake Brady’s hand — and, in Dre Greenlaw’s case, get him to autograph footballs that he and Tashaun Gipson intercepted. Yeah, thanks for that. Now welcome back to play more ‘ball.
Could this truly be Brady’s grand finale, a year after he tested out retirement before returning to the Bucs?
Brady is a San Mateo native, and like any good Bay Area son, he despises the Cowboys. If he beats them tonight, he’ll own an 8-0 record against them.
The 49ers and Bucs have met only once in the playoffs: the 2002 season’s divisional round. That 31-6 loss at Tampa Bay marked the end of Steve Mariucci’s coaching tenure. It took nine seasons for the 49ers to return to the playoffs.
Last month, the 49ers raced to a 28-0 halftime lead against a Tampa Bay squad coming off a Monday night win. Brady was 34-of-55 for 253 yards, but he had passes intercepted by Gipson and Greenlaw on the Bucs’ first two series after halftime.
Purdy won over skeptics (16-of-21, 185 yards) but he also got hurt (ribs), as did Deebo Samuel (ankle, knee). Offensively, the 49ers had 404 yards, with 209 coming on 36 carries. Their touchdowns came from McCaffrey (27-yard catch, 38-yard run), Samuel (13-yard run), Purdy (2-yard run), and Brandon Aiyuk (32-yard run).
Look, if the Bucs make it back to Levi’s Stadium, this will speak not only to Brady’s seven-ring collection but the Bucs’ playoff persistence. Their 2020 team won three road games in the NFC playoffs before dethroning the Chiefs in the Super Bowl; last season, the Bucs downed the Eagles before falling 30-27 to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Rams.
Right tackle Tristan Wirfs is the only Bucs’ player to earn All-Pro honors (second-team). In comparison, the Cowboys saw Parsons and right guard Zack Martin make first-team All-Pro, and that duo was among their seven Pro Bowl selections (Pollard, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, cornerback Trevon Diggs, wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, return specialist KaVontae Turpin).