SANTA CLARA — While opening the 2023 NFL season with four consecutive wins, the 49ers have yet to face a serious, four-quarter challenge.
They're preparing for a battle Sunday night against the 3-1 Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium, that’s for sure.
“It’s a huge test,” 49ers All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner said this week. “To say that it isn’t would be naïve and downplaying the moment. I’m excited for that moment. I know our team is excited for it.”
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The 49ers have knocked the Cowboys out of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, and it's possible there could be a third-in-a-row meeting in January. But first, there’s this game, which could have NFC playoff seeding implications, in front of a national television audience.
Here are five 49ers players to watch Sunday night:
5. George Kittle
Kittle turned the tide of the playoff game against the Cowboys last January with a juggling 30-yard catch on a broken play. That helped catapult the 49ers to a touchdown that gave them a 16-9 lead early in the fourth quarter.
San Francisco 49ers
The tight end ended up catching five passes for 95 yards that day.
And there could be opportunities for Kittle to make more big plays in the middle of the field. Most of Dallas’ attention will go toward slowing down San Francisco’s top running back, Christian McCaffrey, as well as wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.
Kittle, a four-time Pro Bowl player, hasn't gone over the 100-yard mark since a six-catch, 120-yard, two-touchdown performance in Week 16 against the Washington Commanders last season. But this could set up to be a big game for him.
4. Isaiah Oliver
The 49ers' defense doesn't have many areas that opposing offenses can look to exploit. However, nickel back could be where teams such as the Cowboys could try to attack.
Dallas wide receiver CeeDee Lamb’s route-running ability and deep speed would appear to provide him with a big advantage if he’s working against Oliver out of the slot. Lamb has caught nine passes for 125 yards while lined up in the slot, and Oliver has given up 15 competitions on the 20 passes thrown his way.
Oliver has worked primarily at nickel back, but defensive coordinator Steve Wilks also has shuffled things around to move starting cornerback Deommodore Lenoir to cover the inside receiver.
“I think he's doing some great things,” Wilks said of Oliver. “He's great out in space, can make those hard tackles. I think he does a great job covering his slot and bringing pressure off the edge.”
When Lenoir moves into nickel back, the 49ers bring in Ambry Thomas to play cornerback. Thomas has surrendered 11 catches on 13 targets for 107 yards.
“When we bring [Lenoir] inside and put A.T. outside, I don't think we miss a beat,” Wilks said. “So, yes, I am pleased where we are right now at the nickel position.”
Lamb is the Cowboys’ most explosive offensive weapon, and coach Mike McCarthy will look to get the ball in his hands against favorable matchups.
3. Christian McCaffrey
How much McCaffrey is too much McCaffrey?
The Cowboys would like the 49ers to dial it back. But in a game that could end up being huge for playoff positioning, the 49ers likely will feature McCaffrey as much as ever.
McCaffrey had 27 touches in the 49ers’ Week 4 win over the Arizona Cardinals. He accounted for 106 rushing yards and 71 receiving yards with four touchdowns.
Dallas’ defense didn't see a whole lot of McCaffrey in the playoffs last season, as he was limited with a calf strain.
Any talk of finding extended rest time for McCaffrey will have to wait at least another week.
2. Javon Hargrave
The early returns indicate the 49ers made a wise decision when they signed defensive tackle Hargrave to a four-year, $84 million contract as a free agent. He ranks second on the 49ers with two sacks and 17 quarterback pressures.
And playing three seasons in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles provided him with plenty of knowledge on the Cowboys.
“They’re one of the more talented teams in the league, so there are certain things you can get away with in some games that you can’t get away with in this game,” Hargrave said. “We just have to be on point with everything we do.”
He sees the vast majority of his snaps at right defensive tackle, which would match him up against Dallas’ best offensive lineman: left guard Tyler Smith.
The winner of the Hargrave-Smith head-to-head matchup will help set the tone, as the Cowboys will want to show a commitment to running the ball to control the game and open up their passing attack.
1. Brock Purdy
Above all the other things he has done so well since entering the 49ers’ starting lineup in December, Purdy has been able to avoid critical mistakes.
The Cowboys generate pressure on the quarterback, and forcing takeaways figures greatly into their recipe for success. But Purdy has a streak of 211 consecutive pass attempts without throwing an interception.
When the teams met in the NFC divisional playoff round in January, Purdy had (for him) a pedestrian game, completing 19 of 29 passes for 214 yards with no interceptions. He said this week that it was his toughest game.
“They have a really good defense, and there were times when the pass rush or my rhythm, something just felt off in that game,” Purdy said.
The Cowboys rank No. 1 in the league with a takeaway-giveaway differential of plus-9. They have seven interceptions through four games.
The 49ers advanced to the NFC Championship Game with a 19-12 win because Dak Prescott threw two interceptions and Purdy took care of the football. And the Cowboys' best hope of coming into Levi’s Stadium and leaving with a victory will be if they can force Purdy into some uncharacteristic giveaways.
NBC Bay Area and NBC Sports Bay Area have 49ers fans covered with complete coverage of the big “Sunday Night Football” game against the Cowboys, live from Levi’s Stadium.
3 p.m.: NBC Bay Area News
4 p.m.: “49ers Pregame Live” on NBC Sports Bay Area; “Football Night in America” on NBC Bay Area
5:15 p.m.: 49ers vs. Cowboys on NBC Bay Area
Immediately after the game: “49ers Pregame Live” on NBC Sports Bay Area; Sports Sunday, presented by Xfinity, on NBC Bay Area