SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP)The questions about getting past the San Francisco 49ers hurdle were directed at the Dallas Cowboys as soon as their latest victory was complete.
Quarterback Dak Prescott bristled at the premise, but the only way for the Cowboys to change that story will be to start beating the team that knocked them out of the postseason the past two years.
Dallas gets another shot at doing that Sunday night when the Cowboys (3-1) visit the 49ers (4-0) in a game with much less meaning than the losses the past two Januarys, but could impact where a rematch is played this season if the teams meet again in the playoffs.
“This is not all about what happened last year,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. “This is not walking down the street and get in a fight with a guy and then every time you turn the corner you’re looking for him. This is about winning the game. This is about winning the next game. But we know who we’re playing.”
That’s because of what happened the past two seasons. The Cowboys lost 19-12 at the Niners in the divisional round last season, following a 23-17 loss at home in the wild-card round the previous season.
Prescott and the offense struggled in both contests and the Cowboys made too many mistakes on both sides of the ball to prevail.
Winning on Sunday won’t lessen the blow from those losses, but will serve as a sign that there has been improvement in Dallas. The Cowboys have won three games by at least 20 points already this season, but did have a slip-up in a loss at Arizona in Week 3.
“You just use it as a game like this is where we were at last year, this is where we’re at now,” star edge rusher Micah Parsons said. “I’m all about now and how can we define ourselves now and how can we say this is who we are and get a statement win and come back here and show how good we really are?”
The playoff meetings the past two seasons have revived a rivalry that was the most important in the NFL in the 1990s when the teams met in three straight NFC title games with the winner capturing the Super Bowl each time.
Neither franchise has won it all since the 1990s with both still seeking a sixth title. This is the first time since 1994 that they meet in the regular season with both teams multiple games over .500.
“It’s a huge test,” Niners linebacker Fred Warner said. “To say that it isn’t would be naïve and downplaying the moment.”
San Francisco quarterback Brock Purdy was nearly perfect last week, setting a franchise record for completion percentage by completing 20 of 21 passes in a win over Arizona. Purdy improved to 9-0 as a starter in the regular season and has won all 12 games when he has played at least three quarters. The Cowboys provided his biggest challenge as he threw for only 214 yards with no TDs in the game.
Purdy has overcome every challenge he has faced. But he hasn’t had to lead a team from behind in the clutch. Since taking over for Jimmy Garoppolo in Week 13 last season, Purdy has completed only one pass when trailing in the fourth quarter. That was a 1-yard pass to George Kittle in the NFC title game loss at Philadelphia when Purdy had a torn ligament in his elbow.
SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE
The Cowboys are tied for second in the NFL with 11 takeaways, and both teams are among three that have committed a league-low one turnover through four games. Purdy hasn’t thrown an interception, and Prescott has the only Dallas giveaway with a pick a season after tying for the NFL lead with 15 despite missing five games.
“I don’t think he’s played perfect,” Parsons said of Purdy, “but I think he’s played really good and I think there’s opportunities there. People just haven’t capitalized on them.”
The Cowboys held Christian McCaffrey to 57 yards from scrimmage in the playoff meeting last season, but repeating that will be tough to do. McCaffrey has 600 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns in four games, marks previously reached only by Hall of Famers Jim Brown (1958 and ’63) and Emmitt Smith (1995).
He scored a TD in the playoff win against Dallas and has at least one in a franchise-record 13 straight games in the regular season and playoffs.
“He’s just a complete running back,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do. He can run between the tackles, he can run outside, he can run routes, he can pick up blitz protections. He’s just such a complete football player.”
Dallas running back Tony Pollard is returning to the stadium where he broke his leg in the second quarter of last season’s divisional loss. At that point, Pollard had replaced two-time rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott as the most explosive playmaker in Dallas’ backfield.
Now Pollard is the lead back after Elliott was released in the offseason in a cost-cutting move. Pollard is second to Christian McCaffrey in touches in the NFL through four games with 88 (his San Francisco counterpart has 98). The fifth-year back, playing on the $10.1 million franchise tag, is the only Dallas offensive player with two touchdowns.
“Last game, I was hurt and couldn’t finish the game,” Pollard said. “So yeah, this will be a big one for me.”
AP Pro Football Writer Schuyler Dixon in Frisco, Texas, contributed to this report
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