SANTA CLARA, Calif. —
The San Francisco 49ers are heading back to a familiar place after taking the most unorthodox of paths to get there.
With a 19-12 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, the 49ers are returning to the NFC Championship Game for the third time in four seasons, but this time with a quarterback who started the season as the third-stringer.
“It’s pretty cool to see the clock hit zero and then you see Niners over the Cowboys,” said rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, 23, whose team will play at Philadelphia on Sunday with a spot in the Super Bowl at stake. “That’s pretty sweet in the playoffs.”
As for the Cowboys?
“We’re sick,” owner Jerry Jones told reporters. “Just sick. Sick… Sickening… We’ve got a locker room full of sick players.”
It marked the 12th consecutive victory for San Francisco, counting the playoffs, the club’s longest winning streak since 1984.
“You work so hard to get to these points, these situations, and all we could think about was winning that game,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Once we did, it’s fun for a little bit, but once you get in the locker room it’s, ‘All right, let’s move on to the next one.’”
Purdy, the last player selected in the 2022 draft, was the last quarterback standing Sunday after a performance that was more solid than spectacular. No touchdowns, but no turnovers, either.
“He made a number of plays today,” Shanahan said. “By no means was anything perfect for the whole offense, and for the whole team, but that felt like playoff football in that game.”
Maybe that was the problem for the Cowboys, seeing as they haven’t won a divisional playoff game since 1995, when they last won the Super Bowl.
San Francisco lost a fumble deep in its territory on a punt return but limited the Cowboys to a field goal on that mistake. But Dallas didn’t force the rookie quarterback into a turnover.
“We thought we were going to be able to get our hands on the ball just because of the way we play on defense,” Dallas coach Mike McCarthy said. “Our takeaways for the season speak for themselves. We had some chances tonight. We came up a few plays short in the big-play area.”
Dallas’ Brett Maher, who made NFL history a week earlier by missing four consecutive extra-point kicks, continued to spiral as his PAT attempt in the second quarter was blocked. He made two field goals in the second half, however.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who was coming off a stellar performance in a wild-card win at Tampa Bay, was reacquainted with the interception issues that dogged him during the regular season. He saw two of his passes picked off in the first half, and just missed seeing another swiped near the end of the game.
Despite missing five games, Prescott was tied for the league lead in interceptions — along with Houston’s Davis Mills — with 15.
“I’ve got to get an offseason and take a look at all of them…” Prescott said. “The number that it’s gotten to is ridiculous. I can promise that the number will never be this again.”
Prescott had his team’s longest run on an 11-yard scramble, and the offense lost running back Tony Pollard to an ankle injury in the second quarter.
Points were at a premium in this game, with each team scoring just one touchdown, and the kickers accounting for the rest. San Francisco’s Robbie Gould, his team’s oldest player at 40, contributed four field goals.
Facing a stifling Cowboys defense, the 49ers picked up just one first down running the ball in the first half, but persisted with the ground game and got six more first downs that way in the second half.
That included a spirit-sapping scoring drive that closed out the third quarter that included seven first downs and kept the Cowboys offense on the sideline for six minutes. On the opening play of the fourth quarter, Christian McCaffrey scored on a two-yard touchdown run that put the 49ers up, 16-9, all the lead they would need.
“We wore them down a little bit,” Shanahan said.
Early in that touchdown drive came the signature play for the 49ers. It was a 30-yard reception by tight end George Kittle, who stretched with his right hand to tip the ball back to himself. The football caromed off his facemask and back into his hands.
Kittle wasn’t one of the first three options on the play.
“He gave me a catchable ball, and I was just trying to be dramatic,” the tight end said with a smile. “Just for TV, get the ratings up. That’s what we’re here for.”
The 49ers won divisional games at Green Bay in 2021 and at home against Minnesota in 2019, and last season knocked off the Cowboys in the wild-card round.
San Francisco has had a lot of convincing victories this season, but defensive end Nick Bosa said Sunday was good preparation for what’s to come.
“Playoff football is always going to be that way,” he said. “We’re all going to be better after this one.”