The final game of the second round of the NFL playoffs makes me feel like the 90s are alive and well again, because we have the Dallas Cowboys up against the San Francisco 49ers.
The Cowboys absolutely dismantled the Bucs in round one and Dak Prescott played a near perfect game of football, with 305 yards passing and 4 TDs. For San Francisco, "Mr. Irrelevant" has become "Mr. Undefeated" because Brock Purdy, the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, has yet to lose a football game. After a slow start against their division rivals, the 49ers were able to beat Seattle going away, 41-23.
This sets us up for one of the more intriguing matchups of the playoffs, with two teams that mirror themselves in many ways. Both rely on strong defenses and dynamic running games, and are led by All-World edge rushers who feast on quarterbacks. Right now sportsbooks have San Francisco as 4-point home favorites and a total of 46.5 points for Sunday Night's game. We're going to start this preview with the question everyone in the NFL world is asking...
Eventually Brock Purdy has to Start Playing like a Rookie Quarterback, Right?
This paragraph could honestly be what the entire game hinges on. The reality is Brock Purdy, who started the season as the 49ers third string quarterback, has been an absolute find. So much so that there are rumors that San Francisco has already decided to move forward with him as the signal caller of the future, though I remain skeptical of that.
The true reality is that Purdy is surrounded by an unbelievable roster and one of the best play callers and offensive minds in the game. This isn't meant to take away from what he has done on the field, but it is meant to explain how he can be so successful operating in these high pressure moments.
The 49ers haven't lost a game since they fell to the Chiefs in late October in Christian McCaffrey's first game with the team. In the 12 games McCaffrey has played with San Francisco he has 11 touchdowns. I'm sure having him in the backfield is the ultimate comfort for Purdy under center.
It's not like Purdy is just getting by either, in the 49ers last four games they have scored at least 37 points. In those games Purdy has thrown 10 touchdown passes compared to just 2 interceptions. Purdy's ability to distribute the ball to a roster full of explosive players, while limiting mistakes, has been everything coach Kyle Shanahan could dream of.
So how does Dallas attempt to stop him? The same way you attempt to stop so many young quarterbacks in the NFL... by creating constant pressure and limiting their ability to rely on their running game. By mixing up your defensive coverages and making Purdy make complicated decisions in a busy pocket. The mission is simple, but executing it could prove to be so much harder. We haven't seen a team do it with success yet, but that is the recipe to make Brock Purdy start playing like a rookie.
Has Dak Finally Proven to the Haters that He Can Lead Dallas to the Super Bowl?
Yes and no. You can't deny Dak's performance on the road against Tom Brady and the Bucs, but there are still plenty of people who will point to Tampa Bay's under .500 record and say Dak can't do it against the elite teams in the league. It's not a rational criticism, but being rational was never a prerequisite to being a Cowboys fan right?
Now Dak has another opportunity to prove his haters wrong on the road against the league's highest rated defense. While if you ask me, there is not a question that he is good enough to win a Super Bowl, the real question is will he play to the best of his abilities.
Are we going to see the Dak Prescott from last week who completed 75 percent of his passes, while challenging the Bucs at every level of the secondary and adding a score with his legs, or will we see the Dak Prescott who had the second most interceptions in the league and fails to make the easy and correct play in the big moment?
I think so much of that depends on the Cowboys ability to run the ball (a tough task against San Francisco) and the game plan put together by offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
Let's Talk Defenses. Does One Unit Have an Edge Over the Other in this Game?
For all the talk about the quarterbacks, it's the defenses that both of these teams are riding into the playoffs. We are talking about the two defenses in the NFL that have caused the most turnovers, and thus have the two best turnover differentials in the league. Nick Bosa leads the NFL with 18.5 sacks, while Micah Parsons and his 14.5 sacks and has been a problem for offensive lines all year.
The Cowboys have had a dominant pass defense the entire season and we saw that on full display last week against Tampa Bay, while San Francisco has done its best work by eliminating its opponents ability to run the football.
From a matchup standpoint, stopping the Cowboys run does in fact seem more critical than stopping the 49ers through the air, so we have to give a small nod to the San Francisco defense. But the 49ers have also performed below their standard a few times in the last month, when they allowed 34 points to Jarred Stidham and the Raiders and also during the first half last week when they gave up 17 points to Seattle.
The Dallas defense seems to be playing some of its best football of the season after back-to-back weeks giving up 34 points to the Jaguars and Eagles in mid-December. You could make an argument that Cowboys Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn called one of the best games of his career in the Super Wild Card round.
Overall, I give the defenses a solid edge against the offenses in this game, something that might be flying slightly under the radar with such talk about the quarterbacks. Maybe there is a betting edge we can find with the total at 46.5.
Are There Any Sharp Money Indicators Ahead of Sunday Night's Game?
The answer is yes, and for a spread and point total that has moved so little, I think it is really important to see the massive disparity between public and sharp betting on this game.
The public is on the 49ers to cover, with 56 percent of the bets on San Francisco. The sharps however, are squarely on Dallas to keep this game within a field goal, because 76 percent of the money is coming in on the Cowboys. This 20 percent gap is massive in a playoff game, and when you consider that Dallas has the largest fan base in football and more small money bets are coming in on San Francisco, it really tells you that the sharp money lean toward Dallas might actually be larger than the 20 percent indicated.
The same can be said for how bettors are approaching the game's point total. Clearly the public is influenced by the recent performances by Brock Purdy and by Dak Prescott's amazing game against the Bucs last week, because 84 percent of the bets are on the over. Sharp money is less influenced by recency bias and sees a high point total between two of the better defenses in the league. 86 percent of the money is on the under. This gap of 70 percent between the popular bets and the amount wagered is incredible and tells you that the professionals think they can exploit a line they believe is set too high at 46.5 points.
So Bet Against the Public and with the Sharps, Right?
There is a reason that casual sports bettors lose and professionals win. When you see disparities like this, it's always a good idea to fade the public and side with the pros.
I already liked Dallas and the under, but after seeing the betting research, I now LOVE it.
I will be betting a medium wager on Dallas to cover +4. I will be putting an equally sized wager on the point total to go under 46.5. However, because these playoff lines are so difficult to win, and the variance is so high in the NFL, I think that I have been favoring some teasers in these playoff games to mitigate those factors.
My absolute favorite bet of this game is a 7 point teaser that has the Cowboys +11 and under a point total of 53.5. We are betting on the side of the sharps, and expanding our window for victory. What's not to love?
Dallas has lost only two games by more than 11 points all season long, one was all the way back in Week 1 and the other was a meaningless contest the last regular season game of the year. This is where my biggest bet of the day will go. It's the playoffs, and I'm happy to lean on the two defenses that caused the most turnovers all year and I am happy to bet on a close game between two good teams.
If we are being totally honest and in the tree of trust, I actually think Dallas pulls off the upset on Sunday 23-20.
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