Niners outsmart Cowboys in Divisional Round duel

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This game came down to one team that didn’t play great offensively playing smart when it counted, and the other team doing the opposite. For that reason, the right team won. Sometimes it’s not the little things—it’s the tiny things. Did you notice the Niners, trying to protect a 16-12 lead with 11 minutes to play, whittled the next eight minutes off the clock and kicked an insurance field goal, and did so in part thanks to Brock Purdy snapping the ball consistently with one or zero seconds left on the play clock? In a 13-play drive, those critical seconds add up.

Dallas next touched the ball with 2:59 left. First down: Dak Prescott threw what should have been a pick-six that Dre Greenlaw dropped. Second down: Prescott missed Michael Gallup on a deep shot down the right side. Third down: Prescott sacked. That’s 48 seconds of Jerry Jones’ life he’ll never get back.

Overall, I left unimpressed with Dallas. I loved the defense. Demarcus Lawrence had one of his best games ever, all things considered, and the Niners struggled even doing the basics on offense. Now, I realize the San Francisco defense is the game’s best, and it often looks like even good teams are running in mud against the Niners. But Prescott was not a big-time player Sunday. If Greenlaw catches the pick-six with three minutes to go, the final is 26-12 and sabers would be rattling about the turnover-prone Prescott’s future. And the little things the Cowboys just didn’t handle right like returner KaVontae Turpin making a fair catch at his own six-yard line, with space around him, down seven with 45 seconds left. What is he doing fair-catching the ball in that situation? Dude, the touchdowns aren’t going to score themselves. Then, the bizarre final play of the game, with Ezekiel Elliott playing center, snapping the ball to Prescott, and getting obliterated by Niners linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair. “What the heck was that?” Greenlaw said later. Some of what Dallas did just wasn’t football-smart.

Now to the Niners. You could say they survived, and you could say Purdy got exposed a bit. Both are true. But this sport, often, is about not playing your best and finding ways to win. Purdy found a way by not turning it over—a habit that is going to earn him a very long life in this game, if not a starring role—and by accurately hitting George Kittle and Deebo Samuel. Purdy had but seven possessions in the last 50 minutes of the game, but he moved the chains well enough to put points up on five of those seven drives.

Purdy was helped by the usual stinging Niners defense. Fitting that the game ended by Jimmie Ward knocking Turpin into next week a second after Turpin caught a desperation throw from Prescott. “Jimmie’s one of us,” Warner said. “He’s one of the best at imposing his will on the ballcarrier, and that’s what everyone on our defense is about. That’s the perfect play to show it.”

So now Purdy is 8-0 as an NFL starter—if you count the win over Miami Dec. 4 when Jimmy Garoppolo broke his foot four minutes in and Purdy got the 56-minute save. In those eight games, he has three interceptions and zero fumbles.

It doesn’t blow him away that he’s playing for a shot at the Super Bowl next Sunday in Philadelphia. It should, probably, but in any business, the only way to succeed is to keep the main thing the main thing; he wouldn’t be playing—in fact, he wouldn’t be in pro football as a smallish 6-footer with an average arm—if he got involved with the crazy stuff that surrounds the NFL. He explained after the game that it’s not hard to just play without getting into the hype.

“When I first got in against Miami,” he told me post-game, “it was like, ‘Man, I’m playing in the NFL. I’m showing the guys I can play.’ But that goes away. You have to do the job. At this point, it’s playoff football and all I can think about is what I have to do for my team. I don’t make it more than what it is. But yeah, to say that we’re going to the NFC Championship Game, obviously I’m very thankful and blessed to even be in this position.”

Purdy and I talked after Sunday’s game in Santa Clara.
Purdy and I talked after Sunday’s game in Santa Clara.

Playing at Iowa State, he said, “taught me how to be real about myself. I learned so much just with winning and being successful and then also losing some big games. I learned how to overcome some things, believe in myself, but also not be too high when things are great, or just because you’ve lost a couple games doesn’t mean you’re horrible. Honestly it was a blessing in disguise because when I came here for the NFL, I was already used to the sport being hard, and being coached hard, and it was always, ‘How can I get better?’ I think it’s allowed me to have some success.”

In 2018, Purdy was a lightly recruited freshman from Arizona. Injuries and ineffectiveness by upperclassmen opened a spot for him, and Purdy got his first five starts as an 18-year-old true frosh. Often outmanned, much of Iowa State’s success hinged on the quarterback—such as in 2019 at Oklahoma. Purdy was matched against Jalen Hurts at quarterback and Purdy threw five touchdown passes. But his failed two-point conversion pass let the Sooners escape, 42-41.

“Not only did Brock have to have the maturity to come here, but then he has success right away and they put him on a pedestal,” Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said last week. “They crown him king right away. You gotta deal with the pressure, no different than an NFL quarterback. They’re expecting him to play elite all the time when we don’t have elite players always around him. We had some really good players around him but not like what he’s got right now. Learning how to fail was huge. It’s something we talked about a lot, quite honestly, in our program. Between 18 and 22 years old, you learn how to handle success and [you] most importantly learn how to handle failure—especially failure when you feel like it’s all on your shoulders 24/7. There was no McCaffrey here, no Deebo, no Aiyuk, no elite defense.

“In our program, he was trusted, he was an elite competitor, and he was tough. When you have those three qualities, there’s not many in our society that have all three of them. I think you’re seeing all of them come to fruition right now at the highest level.”

Purdy will be tested, again, Sunday in Philadelphia.

“I’ve heard they got a great fan base,” Purdy said, just before leaving the stadium Sunday night. “I hear they bring it for the whole game, for four quarters.”

You heard right, kid.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Niners outsmart Cowboys in Divisional Round duel originally appeared on