By Terrance Turner
Jan. 22, 2023
Today’s NFC Divisional game became a battle of the defenses. The Dallas Cowboys came to Santa Clara to face the 49ers. Both teams boast high-powered offenses, but what truly stood out were the defenses. Each team held the other to single digits in the first half. But the 49ers’ offense came alive late, charged by an improbable catch by tight end George Kittle and a late touchdown by running back Christian McCaffrey. Rookie quarterback Brock Purdy led the 49ers to victory — and the NFC Championship Game.
The 49ers struck first with a field goal. And the Cowboys got off to a rough start. According to Sports Illustrated, “Prescott’s pass intended for Michael Gallup was jumped by [49ers cornerback] Deommondore Lenoir, who returned it to the Dallas 21-yard-line.”
Dallas found the end zone first. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott threw a touchdown pass to tight end Dalton Schultz.
The team took a 6-0 lead. But kicker Brett Maher’s extra-point kick got blocked. (Commentator Greg Olsen didn’t think the kick would’ve gone through anyway.)
Maher continued his slump after missing FOUR extra-point attempts in last week’s game versus the Buccaneers. San Francisco’s kicker, however, was letter-perfect. Robbie Gould made two field goals for the ‘Niners in the first half, continuing his flawless playoff record. But Dallas wasn’t so lucky.
A disaster for Dallas: Tony Pollard suffered a high-ankle sprain and had to be carted off the field. And on the very next play, Prescott was intercepted by 49ers linebacker Fred Warner.
With time running out, Purdy managed to get within field goal range. Kicker Robbie Gould kicked a field goal from nearly 50 yards out to make it 9-6 at the half.
Coming out of halftime, the 49ers defense managed to stop the Cowboys on third down. Dallas had to punt. But instead of signaling for a fair catch, punt returner Ray-Ray McCloud decided to run with the ball. He fumbled it, and the Cowboys recovered. San Francisco was able to keep them out of the end zone, but Dallas settled for a field goal. And at last, Brett Maher delivered, kicking it through from 25 yards out.
With the game tied at 9, the 49ers got the ball back. And McCloud made up for his fumble by returning the ball 53 yards — a career long. The Cowboys defense forced a three-and-out, but at least McCloud redeemed himself.
San Francisco’s offense sprang to life after a daring catch by tight end George Kittle. Purdy threw him the ball; Kittle reached out his arm, nearly catching it with one hand. But the ball bounced off his face mask. Kittle stretched out both hands and somehow — unbelievably — made the catch.
A couple plays later, Kittle helped his team by drawing a penalty. A Dallas defender got flagged for holding Kittle on 3rd down. Then refs flagged the defense again — this time it was defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. That brought the 49ers to 1st and goal. 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk took them to the two-yard line. And that’s how the third quarter ended.
The 49ers began the fourth quarter right near the goal line. And after being stuffed by the Dallas defense all evening long, Christian McCaffrey ran nearly untouched into the end zone.
The Cowboys cut into the lead when Maher made a 43-yard field goal. That made it 16-12 with eleven minutes left in the fourth quarter.
The 49ers responded with a long, long drive consisting mostly of running plays. RB Elijah Mitchell fought through defenders to pick up a first down on one play, and he racked up substantial yardage throughout. But Purdy’s final third-down rush came up short. Gould kicked a 28-yard field goal to extend the lead.
Game of Inches
The Cowboys took over. But after two incomplete passes, Prescott got sacked on third down, ending the drive. After their punt, the 49ers got possession. Purdy completed a pass to Kittle for 16 yards, and later Elijah Mitchell raced ahead for 13 yards. But he stepped out of bounds, freezing the clock with 1:47 to go.
The drive stalled after that, and San Francisco punted. But San Francisco didn’t give the ball back to Dallas until there were 45 seconds left at the 6. Dallas never got close from there. Prescott heaved a 16-yard completion to Schultz with 10 seconds left. But video replay showed that Schultz only got one foot down in bounds while making the catch. Therefore, it’s an incomplete pass.
On 3rd and 10, with just six seconds left, the Cowboys broke out an unusual formation, with running back Ezekiel Elliott under center. The formation puzzled the commentators and drew scrutiny from fans:
Prescott launched a desperation throw to Kavontae Turpin. But Turpin was tackled short of the line, ending the game.
The San Francisco 49ers held on to win, 19-12. They are going to their third NFC Championship Game in four seasons.
FOX reporter Erin Andrews interviewed Kittle and Purdy after the game. “We’re just excited that we won,” Purdy said simply. Kittle was more effusive.
“Brock Purdy got us into the NFC Championship Game,” Kittle said, adding: “He’s awesome and confident in the huddle. He’s just doing a great job. And the best thing about him is: he just shows up every day.”
Andrews asked Kittle about his game-changing play. How did he catch that? “I was like, ‘You know what? How can I make this as dramatic as possible?'” Kittle responded.
The 49ers will play the Philadelphia Eagles in next week’s NFC Championship Game. If they win, they’re going to the Super Bowl. (And they could be headed for a rematch with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs beat Jacksonville yesterday to advance to the AFC Championship Game.)