It wasn’t a clinical performance by any stretch of the imagination, but the 49ers, after weeks of bullying teams on offense, leaned once again on their sterling defense.
With a 19-12 win over the Dallas Cowboys, the 49ers punched a ticket to Philadelphia for a second straight NFC Championship appearance. It’s their sixth NFC Championship in the last 12 years.
Whatever expectations there were for offensive production on Sunday night, they were rendered wayward.
This was a disjointed, physical mess of a game, with San Francisco’s offense looking completely out of sorts. It was a combination of botched play-calls, an inability to contain the Dallas front, and questionable coaching decisions on Kyle Shanahan’s part.
But the Cowboys fared no better. The 49ers defense was as staunch as it has been since before the Raiders game, collecting two egregious interceptions from Dak Prescott. Fred Warner was astoundingly good.
With a shaky performance from Brock Purdy, who was clearly affected by a sustained Dallas pass rush, San Francisco mustered just three first-half field goals.
They barely got the last one after some suspect time management from Kyle Shanahan, who waited a while to use his second timeout. With seven seconds left and in field goal range, Purdy almost failed to throw the ball away.
Robbie Gould was left with the second needed to go into the half with a 9-6 49ers lead. He remains perfect in the playoffs after a four field goal, one extra point performance.
The output from Dallas cratered offensively once Tony Pollard — the heart and soul of their offense — was carted off with what looked to be a pretty gruesome left ankle injury.
It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the offense ended a drive in the end zone.
That, in large part, can be credited to George Kittle securing one of the most ridiculous catches you’ll ever witness.
The drive opened with a free five yards courtesy of Demarcus Lawrence jumping offsides, followed by a seven-yard carry from McCaffrey. It would not be the last freebie from Dallas on that drive.
Nonsense, in the most entertaining way possible, followed. Brock Purdy ran a play action to his left, then surveyed the field to find Kittle, covered by defensive tackle Neville Gallimore, running free.
Purdy’s ball was on a line, and at the absolute limit of Kittle’s reach. Somehow, he came down with it:
That felt like a turning point.
The 49ers started, finally, to have success on the ground, running it five-straight times. An incompletion led to a third-and-8, and what initially looked like another stalled drive and a Lawrence sack on Purdy.
But near the goal line, Kittle sat posing and cackling, with the knowledge that he’d been held by safety Donovan Wilson. In bizarre fashion, another defensive hold followed, this time on the defensive line, from Jonathan Hankins.
After an eight-yard dive from Kyle Juszczyk, McCaffrey walked into the end zone to provide a 16-9 lead.
Dallas responded with a 43-yard field goal from the heavily scrutinized Brett Maher. With Tony Pollard out of the game, their offense started to consist almost entirely of CeeDee Lamb targets; for the most part, unless he was covered by Warner, it was effective.
At that point, with the run game finally showing the ability to get more than 2- or 3-yard runs, Shanahan put the ball largely in the hands of McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell. They ran seven times and closed in on the end zone, but a failed second and 10 pass and a Purdy scramble forced them into a Robbie Gould field goal.
The drive, while failing to net a touchdown, took eight minutes off the clock in the fourth quarter.
When Dallas got the ball back, their effort was hapless. Prescott nearly threw a game-ending pick-six to Dre Greenlaw by staring down Dalton Schultz. It was among his many horrible decisions, all showing a predilection towards predictability.
Prescott then threw a horrible deep ball to Michael Gallup, which was broken up by Charvarius Ward, and took a sack on third down from Samson Ebukam.
With the two-minute warning and three timeouts at their disposal, the Cowboys elected to punt from deep in their own territory, betting on a defensive stop.
San Francisco’s response? An immediate first down over the middle to Kittle, who finished with a team-high five catches for 95 yards on the day.
One more first down was required to stamp a ticket to the NFC Championship. At least, in theory.
Elijah Mitchell ran for 13 yards, but his momentum carried him out of bounds. Dallas got the ball back with 51 seconds left.
But with returner KaVontae Turpin fair catching the ball at the 6-yard line, it was all but over. And it should have been on the first play, with Arik Armstead inexplicably shoving Dak Prescott instead of sacking him for a safety.
It didn’t matter. Dallas failed to get to get the ball near midfield, lining up for a hook-and-ladder on the final play of regulation.
The conclusion was one that sent the press box into stitches. After plenty of pomp and circumstance and with Zeke Elliott snapping the ball, Prescott threw it to Turpin, who was crushed, immediately and hilariously, by Jimmie Ward.
It was a funny punctuation that means the 49ers are one win away (again) from the Super Bowl.