By Arnie Leshin
One big play engineered by the new man calling signals and a suffocating defensive performance sent the 2nd-seeded San Francisco 49ers into their second straight National Conference championship and the Dallas Cowboys into another downfall.
Played at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, it was another inspiring effort from Brock Purdy, San Fran’s unbeaten rookie quarterback.
“Man,” said Purdy after the 19-12 triumph, “We’re just excited that we won. Everybody did their part. It’s playoff football, it’s never easy, but we’re moving on.”
The 4th-seeded Cowboys, full of hope after eliminating 45-year-old QB Tom Brady and the 3rd-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers in last week’s divisional wild card road game, couldn’t put together the right pieces this time and failed to advance for the seventh straight time in divisional play.
It was a close contest for one half, with Dallas trailing by a field goal, but quarterback Dak Prescott returned to his usual interception times, getting picked off twice, and once again placekicker Brett Maher missed an extra-point kick after failing on four in the row against the Bucs.
Meanwhile, Purdy moved the ball well, tossed a touchdown pass in the second quarter, and after the Cowboys took the lead on a field goal, late in the third quarter, threw across his body on third down and George Kittle made a juggling catch that sparked this key 49ers’ touchdown drive.
The gifted offensive star from Stanford, Christian McCaffrey, picked up by San Francisco earlier in the season, capped this drive with a go-ahead 2-yard run and the defense buckled down from there. The advantage shifted to the home team.
Now 15-4 and heading cross country for the Sunday afternoon, kickoff time 1 p.m.on FOX match-up versus the No.1-seeded Philadelphia Eagles, which is at 14-3 and had a bye last week.
In the second game of the doubleheader, it’s the AFC final that has the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs facing the No. 3-seeded Cincinnati Bengals in a scheduled 4:20start on CBS, the second straight time the two met in the conference final.
The winner of the two in 2021 was Cincinnati, which lost to the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl, but the Chiefs won the next three times when they played.
KC went from a bye to a win over the 4th-seeded Jacksonville Jaguars and is 15-3, and visiting Cinci dominated the 2nd-seeded Bills under miserable weather conditions in Buffalo to advance to 15-3.
So now it’s young Purdy a game away from a Super Bowl while Dallas goes home again after a record seventh consecutive loss in the divisional round since winning their fifth Super Bowl following the 1995 campaign.
“Just disappointed,” said Prescott. “Defense gave us an opportunity to win this game. They played hard against a really, really good offense, a really good team. For us to only put up the points that we did, that’s unacceptable.”
As for the big play from the Purdy fancy pass to the stellar Kittle grab, the imaginative Purdy ran a bootleg that Dallas covered perfectly.
But after the Kittle catch that produced a Purdy strike, it became a 30-yard gain that led to the important touchdown, with McCaffery capping the 91-yard drive into the end zone.
Purdy, the last pick in the college draft last April, replaced injured starter Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 13. In this tilt, he went 18 for 28 for 215 yards with no turnovers.
“I’m not shocked anymore,” McCaffery said, “it’s just who he is now.”
As for the only other touchdown of the first half, Prescott connected with tight end Dalton Schultz for the third time this postseason, but Maher’s low PAT try was blocked.