FOX Sports Insider
Being “good” doesn’t beat the San Francisco 49ers right now. Being consistent doesn’t improve your chances much, either. Steady and precise? Nope, not enough. Methodical and determined? Uh-uh.
What then, can Dak Prescott, Mike McCarthy, Micah Parsons, CeeDee Lamb, Tony Pollard, Jerry Jones, Rowdy the mascot and the rest of Cowboy Nation hope for on Sunday, as Dallas treks to the Bay Area for a mouthwatering NFC Divisional Round tussle (6:30 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app)?
Maybe, just maybe, the clue lies in being exactly who they are.
The Cowboys are one collective oddball of a team. You never quite know what’s coming. It could be spectacular. It could be awful. It’s virtually never gray, vanilla and down the middle. And it normally finds a way to be the opposite of what you’d expect.
That fateful word, “inconsistency,” tossed around like a cursed hot potato during the regular season, might actually be the thing that works in the Cowboys’ favor this weekend, when the No. 5 seed comes up against the juggernaut that San Francisco has turned into.
“I don’t want to go out there and out-compete the 49ers,” defensive star Parsons told reporters. “They’re going to beat my a– if I play their game. I’m going to play my game. I’m going to bring my strengths and what I bring to the table. They’ll bring their strengths. So let’s just battle it out.”
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The most generous interpretation of inconsistent is that it also means unpredictable and being predictable is a path to abject misery against the 49ers. Kyle Shanahan’s team are masters of preparation and have been ready for every weapon aimed at hurting them and every potential pitfall seeking to trip them up.
Shanahan’s preparatory game plan in hand, they’ve been able to rely upon their overwhelming firepower to execute it. Week after week, for the past three months, ever since a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in October, and there haven’t been many close shaves along the way.
Since Christian McCaffrey came on board to complete the offensive puzzle, the 49ers have packed a manpower edge every time they’ve taken the field. McCaffrey’s trade from the Carolina Panthers is shaping up as the most pivotal transaction of the season, and him combined with Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk forms a devastating array of options. The defense, meanwhile, has been resolute as ever.
That’s what the Cowboys are facing as they try to make it to the NFC Championship for the first time since 1995. If you look at what McCarthy’s men did in collapsing against Jacksonville, or flailing against Washington, or — parental advisory warning because this was a complete horror show — the narrow win over the Houston Texans, then nothing about Sunday seems like an even fight.
Overall, the 49ers are stronger, but this is elimination football and the key factor isn’t where the Cowboys’ floor sits but how high their ceiling rises. A substandard performance isn’t going to cut it, we know that already.
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But Dallas does have an extra gear, at a level few teams can match. We don’t always see it, in fact, for followers of the team, it is viewed far too infrequently. However, when Prescott is at his best, when the play-calling meshes as it is supposed to, when the defense gets in big-play mode and makes calculated gambles, there are undoubtedly times when the Cowboys look as good as anyone in the league.
When things go like they did against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a fierce and ferocious beat-down to close out the wild card round, it was the latest taste of what the Cowboys can do, especially when Prescott is firing and the vibe is right.
“He is a rollercoaster,” Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe said of Prescott on FS1’s “Undisputed.” “I know what he is. He is inconsistent. That was one of the great offensive performances that we’ve seen by anybody in history. What he did Monday night should not be pooh-poohed. He did that. I won’t deny him, but y’all want to make me forget everything I’ve seen from this man over seven years.”
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David Helman explains he is very confident that Prescott can carry the Cowboys on a deep playoff run.
That’s the point many are making. It is no secret that Prescott and the Cowboys defense “can” shine bright enough to give their Sunday opponent serious trouble. It is whether they will. After so many disappointments, faded promises and postseason heartaches, there is perhaps a shortage of believers that they can turn in consecutive blockbuster performances.
The story the Cowboys locker room is selling is that this is a different group, one ready to seize the moment and with a sense of timing and purpose around them, a feeling that they’ve been saving the best for this.
There is no shortage of pumped-up motivation, a good example of it being linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, returning from injury, striding around the group before the Tampa Bay game, roaring at his teammates “be elite.”
It was all he said. Over and over.
They were then. They aren’t always. They need to be now.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.
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