NFL playoff losses always sting. Unlike the other three major North American professional sports league like the NBA, MLB and NHL, one playoff loss in the professional football postseason means a team’s season is over just like that. In the case of the Dallas Cowboys, the San Francisco 49ers have been the team to slam the door shut on their path to the Super Bowl in each of the last two years. First, there was the 23-17 defeat in the 2021 NFC wild card round at AT&T Stadium. Last season, it was a 19-12 slip-up in Santa Clara, California, at Levi’s Stadium. Dallas now has an opportunity to avenge the losses on “Sunday Night Football” in Week 5 as they return to the Bay Area to face their playoff nemesis. In their most recent showdown, a game in which both teams only scored one touchdown, a big play here or there could have made a significant difference in the outcome.
That’s why Cowboys Pro Bowl running back Tony Pollard, who suffered a fractured fibula just before halftime, feels like he let the team down. With the game tied 6-6 and under two minutes left in the first half, Pollard caught a checkdown from quarterback Dak Prescott for 8 yards down to the San Francisco 18, just inside the red zone. He was tackled by then-49ers safety Jimmy Ward and after Ward came off of him, Pollard could only crawl. Instant replay revealed Ward had landed on the back of the running back’s left foot/ankle area, and the forced applied on that impact resulted in a devastating injury. The play after Pollard’s injury resulted in a Prescott interception as he tried to squeeze a pass to top receiver CeeDee Lamb. His pass was tipped by Ward and then picked off by 49ers All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner.
“It was frustrating, especially when I got hurt,” Pollard said. “We were in the red zone about to score, driving the ball. We had a good drive going and then that kind of killed the momentum. I felt like I kind of let my team down so it hurt. Yeah, it hurt. Once you’re so invested, you have so much invested into the season, you have goals and you know what you want to be, but it hurts once you get cut short like that. Most of all just frustrated I couldn’t help the team and be out there to help us try to get a win.”
Pollard averaged 5.9 yards per scrimmage touch, which led the NFL in 2022. This season, his 311 rushing yards rank fifth in the NFL while his 18 rushing first downs are tied for the third-most in the NFL along with Falcons rookie rusher Bijan Robinson. Pollard’s five rushing touchdowns of 40 or more rushing yards since 2020 are tied for the most in the league along with Titans All-Pro running back Derrick Henry and Colts Pro Bowl running back Jonathan Taylor, meaning Pollard is liable to take one to the house at any time. That ability could make a difference this time around.
“Yeah, Tony is special, and just watching that game last year, obviously, when he went out, I don’t want to say things changed for our offense but not having that explosive weapon could have helped, could have damn sure helped,” Prescott said Thursday. “When you’ve got a guy like that who’s one broken tackle, two broken tackles from 30 yards, 50 yards, a big touchdown or a long run you know what I mean? That’s huge.”
“His injury obviously was very unfortunate, and he is obviously a big part of the game plan,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. “This is a different year. We’re doing a lot of things differently. Tony is our lead back. He’ll be a big part of the game plan this week.”
Because of the injury, Pollard only has 10 carries across the two postseason matchups against the 49ers. He is now champing at the bit to go up against San Francisco’s imposing 49ers defensive front seven that includes Warner, 2022 NFL Defensive Player Nick Bosa and the stout Arik Armstead. There aren’t many way to replicate that ferocity in practice for most teams, but Pollard going up against All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons and Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence every day certainly helps.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge, these first four games we’ve been going against some pretty good, stout defensive lines [the Giants, Jets and Patriots] so far,” Pollard said. “Going against that defense every day in practice, one of the best defenses in the league, you can only get better. It’s just iron sharpening iron.”
If Pollard can get past the line of scrimmage, Warner will be waiting for him.
“He is one of the best linebackers in the league,” Pollard said. “His speed, his IQ for the game, the way he is always able to be in the right positions. He’s a sure tackler. He is a guy that we have to be aware of on the field. He hits different. He is a hard hitter.”
Prescott said the Cowboys think about the disappointment of coming up just short against Warner and the rest of the 49ers “every day.” Now, Dallas has the chance to partially wipe away that feeling Sunday night.
“We definitely have it in the back of our minds, that disappointment, that feeling,” Pollard said. “At this point, we’re just using that as motivation, leaving the past in the past, and we’re ready for this year. I look forward to those big games, you’re on the big stage. Everybody is looking. We’re ready for that moment.”
The ultimate Cowboys revenge can only come by them knocking the 49ers out of the postseason in January, but here in Week 5, Pollard and his teammates are ready to start chipping away at their disappointment on Sunday night.