49ers beat Cowboys in defensive struggle to reach NFC title game

AP photo by Godofredo A. Vásquez / San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa, right, pressures Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott during Sunday's game in Santa Clara, Calif. The 49ers won 19-12 to reach the NFC championship game.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Brock Purdy rolled to his left and saw his first few options covered. At the last second, George Kittle broke free running deep, the rookie quarterback threw across his body, and the 6-foot-4, 250-pound tight end made a juggling catch that sparked the San Francisco 49ers' only touchdown drive of the day.

Thanks to a suffocating defensive performance, that one big play proved to be enough to send the 49ers to their second straight NFC title game and third in four years.

Christian McCaffrey capped that drive with a go-ahead 2-yard run, and the defense buckled down from there, sealing a 19-12 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round Sunday.

"Man, we're just excited that we won," Purdy said. "Everyone did their part. It's playoff football, it's never easy, but we're moving on."

The 49ers used back-to-back long scoring drives in the second half to wear down the Cowboys and win their 12th straight game, following their 13-4 regular season with a wild-card playoff victory against the Seattle Seahawks before defeating Dallas.

Second-seeded San Francisco will travel to play the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday after losing last year's NFC title game to the Los Angeles Rams, who went on to win the Super Bowl. The 49ers will be making a record-extending 18th appearance in the NFC title game.

That's four more than the Cowboys, who lost for the record seventh straight time in the divisional round and have failed to make it to the NFC title game since winning their fifth Super Bowl title to cap the 1995 season. Dallas went 12-5 in the recently completed regular season, and although the Cowboys lost two of the final four games on their schedule, quarterback Dak Prescott seemed to be in fine form by throwing four touchdown passes during last week's wild-card win against the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Against the 49ers, Prescott threw two interceptions and Dallas kicker Brett Maher missed his fifth PAT of the postseason when his attempt was blocked. He later made two field goals.

"Just disappointment," Prescott said. "Defense gave us an opportunity to win this game. They played hard against a really, really good offense, a really good team. For us to only put up the points that we did, that's unacceptable. It starts with me. I've got to be better. There's no other way to sugarcoat it."

The key play came on the second snap of the drive late in the third quarter with the game tied at 9. Purdy ran a bootleg that Dallas covered perfectly, but he waited long enough for Kittle to improvise and turn upfield. Purdy then delivered a strike.

"We needed something," Purdy said. "We needed a spark to get the ball rolling."

Kittle bobbled the ball a few times before finally corralling it for a 30-yard gain, giving credit to Purdy for delivering it.

"I'm not even in the read, so I just kind of saw a space and he hadn't thrown it yet, so I was just going up the field," Kittle said. "He gave me a catchable ball, and I was just trying to be dramatic. Just for TV."

McCaffrey capped the 91-yard drive with his touchdown run.

The Cowboys still had a shot late when they took over at their own 18 with 2:59 remaining, trailing 19-12 after Robbie Gould's fourth field goal of the game capped a nearly eight-minute drive for San Francisco.

Prescott, though, threw two straight incompletions and was sacked on third down. Coach Mike McCarthy opted to punt on fourth-and-10 with all three timeouts left.

Purdy started the next drive with a 16-yard completion to Kittle, and San Francisco didn't give the ball back to Dallas until there were 45 seconds left. The Cowboys took over at their 6 and never got close from there.

"I like to be in those positions," Prescott said. "We just weren't able to get anything going."

Purdy, the last pick in the draft last April, improved to 7-0 as a starter since replacing an injured Jimmy Garoppolo early in Week 13 of the regular season.

He was 18-of-28 passing for 215 yards with no turnovers against the Cowboys, joining Joe Flacco (2008) and Mark Sanchez (2009) as the only rookie quarterbacks to win two playoff starts.

"I'm not shocked anymore," McCaffrey said. "It's just who he is now."

The NFL's top two scoring teams over the past 13 weeks had trouble getting going as the defenses led by All-Pro first-team selections Nick Bosa of San Francisco and Micah Parsons of Dallas controlled the play.

The 49ers picked off Prescott twice in the first half, turned those into field goals by Gould and led 9-6 at the break.

The Cowboys scored the only touchdown of the first half when Prescott connected with tight end Dalton Schultz for the third time this postseason, but Maher's low kick on the PAT was blocked by Samson Ebukam.

Maher got some redemption when he made a 25-yard field goal that tied the game at 9 early in the third quarter after Ray-Ray McCloud fumbled a punt return at the San Francisco 21.

The Cowboys' decision to stick with Maher after his four missed PAT against the Bucs last week looked questionable when he missed the early extra point. Maher's five missed PATs are the second most by any NFL kicker in the playoffs. Roy Gerela missed six tries in 43 attempts in the 1970s for the Houston Oilers and Pittsburgh Steelers.

There was a pregame dustup when Maher was warming up. Trent Williams and other 49ers tried to interfere with his attempts from San Francisco's side of the field, leading to a brief argument.

"That felt like legit playoff football," Bosa said. "That's a really good team."