ARLINGTON, Texas — As they have so often — and in a finish befitting their historic rivalry — the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys battled to the bitter end of Sunday’s nostalgic NFC wild-card meeting.
Ultimately, a strong Niners defensive effort combined with myriad Dallas mistakes allowed San Francisco to emerge with a 23-17 victory in the first postseason meeting between the teams since 1995, and the first-ever matchup between two franchises with at least five Super Bowl victories apiece.
In the process, the 49ers became the first underdogs (+3.5) and road team to win in this postseason. It’s a victory that comes 40 years and a week after “The Catch” in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, and one that will hold special meaning for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, whose father, Mike, was the Niners’ offensive coordinator for some of the famous meetings between these teams in the 1990s.
The Niners’ win moves them to 3-5 all time against Dallas in the playoffs and sets up an NFC divisional matchup against another historical rival, the Green Bay Packers, next weekend.
None of it would have been possible without a big assist from the Cowboys. Dallas, the No. 3 seed in the NFC, repeatedly made key mistakes throughout the game, including a Dak Prescott interception that turned into a 49ers touchdown.
The Cowboys racked up 14 penalties — tied for the most in a playoff game in franchise history — for 84 yards. Many of those came in key moments, including third downs, to keep San Francisco drives alive.
The Niners made some of their own miscues in the fourth quarter, including an interception from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to set up a Dallas touchdown.
As only a San Francisco-Dallas playoff game could provide, all of that led to significant drama in the closing moments. The Niners’ 23-7 lead evaporated as Dallas trimmed it to 23-17. The 49ers gave the ball back to the Cowboys with a late punt after a delay of game penalty moved the Niners from fourth-and-1 to fourth-and-6.
The Cowboys quickly got in San Francisco territory with a 38-yard pass to tight end Dalton Schultz. But the 49ers defense, as it had all game, delivered when it needed to most, even without linebacker Fred Warner (ankle) and defensive end Nick Bosa (concussion), both of whom departed during the game and did not return. The 49ers defense played just 23 snaps all regular season with Bosa and Warner both off the field.
Garoppolo finished 16-of-25 for 172 yards with no touchdowns and the interception for a passer rating of 67.4. Prescott was 23-of-42 for 254 yards with a touchdown and an interception for a passer rating of 65.7.
The Niners and Cowboys entered Sunday’s meeting with a combined 67 playoff wins, tied for the most ever entering a playoff matchup. Dallas had won its last three wild-card games, all at home, before Sunday’s defeat. The 49ers improved to 4-1 in road playoff games since 2012 after going 2-9 in franchise history prior to that.
Traditionally, the winner of a 49ers-Cowboys playoff game has gone on to postseason success. The winner of five of the previous seven postseason meetings, including each of the past four, has gone on to win the Super Bowl.