Five 49ers to watch vs. Cowboys in titanic playoff showdown


SANTA CLARA — The 49ers enter the NFC Divisional Playoff on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys on an 11-game win streak, but players on both sides of the ball believe they have yet to put it all together.

And that’s the way 49ers’ defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans sees it, too.

“We're always trying to get better and that's one thing that's really cool about our defense,” Ryans said. “Nobody's just resting on what they've done. Nobody’s just satisfied with what we've done.”

The 49ers have plenty of work ahead of them to complete their goals for the season. The next step is their playoff game at Levi’s Stadium.

The 49ers might have to put together their best performance of the season to advance to the NFC Championship Game, and these five players must come through with big days:

5. NB Jimmie Ward

Ward lost his starting free safety job to veteran Tashaun Gipson, but he still has a big role as the 49ers' nickel back, and his matchup on Sunday will be against Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb, who does most of his damage out of the slot.

Lamb is quarterback Dak Prescott’s favorite target, having caught 107 passes for 1,359 yards and nine touchdowns.

Ward will try to be physical with Lamb at the line of scrimmage and throw off his timing with Prescott.

4. TE George Kittle

The 49ers have plenty of playmakers, so which one will play the biggest role?

There is no wrong answer among Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey and Brandon Aiyuk.

Kittle plays an important role as a blocker in the run game, but his ability to exploit some coverage mismatches in the middle of the field could lead to him having a big day against the Cowboys.

Quarterback Brock Purdy will also want to get the ball out quickly to avoid pressure from the Cowboys’ pass rush. Kittle is an available target and has a chance to make some big plays with yards after the catch.

3. LB Dre Greenlaw

The 49ers’ linebackers will be tested, too.

Greenlaw and Fred Warner will be in for an all-day battle against the Cowboys’ pair of running backs, Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott.

Pollard is expected to get most of the carries as he is Dallas’ top threat at running back. Elliott is a powerful runner who does not pose as much danger.

Greenlaw will also have a big responsibility in the passing game, as he will match up on occasion against Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz, who had 57 receptions for 577 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season.

2. RT Mike McGlinchey

The Cowboys’ top defensive player, Micah Parsons, will line up all over the place. It is likely after he tests 49ers’ left tackle Trent Williams that he will prefer to go to the other side.

McGlinchey is playing at the top of his game, but he has not faced anyone quite like Parsons, who registered 13.5 sacks this season.

McGlinchey is a key to the 49ers’ running game. If he can handle his duties in pass protection, the 49ers’ offense should thrive.

If not, it could be a long day.

1. QB Brock Purdy

The Cowboys get after the quarterback, and they’re the best in the NFL at forcing takeaways.

Purdy must continue to avoid giveaways — something he has done very well since taking over for Jimmy Garoppolo in the team’s Week 13 game against the Miami Dolphins.

Purdy had a great cast of playmakers on offense, but he is not just along for the ride. He has to be crisp with his decision-making and exploit the aggressiveness of the Cowboys’ defense when he is presented with opportunities.

Purdy has to know when to try to use his legs to escape pressure and when to cut his losses and simply get rid of the ball.

RELATED: Why Kittle sees Purdy's resiliency as product of college play

Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will try to confuse Purdy with a number of different defensive looks, but if Purdy is seeing it clearly and delivering the ball accurately and on time, the 49ers will live to play at least another game.

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