SANTA CLARA – The 49ers booked a spot in the NFC Championship Game for the third time in four seasons Sunday, even if it took them a while to secure that reservation.
Christian McCaffrey scored a go-ahead 2-yard touchdown run to open the fourth quarter, and the 49ers held on to oust the Dallas Cowboys 19-12 in a tedious divisional-round playoff game before a spirited crowd of 71,888 at Levi’s Stadium.
The No. 2 seed 49ers will play for a Super Bowl berth next Sunday at the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles, who advanced with a 38-7 win Saturday over the New York Giants.
The Eagles (15-3) last appeared on that stage five seasons ago en route to the franchise’s first Super Bowl triumph. The 49ers (15-4) won the NFC crown three seasons ago at home against the Green Bay Packers, but then came last season’s loss in which they blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Rams.
Rookie Brock Purdy, in his seventh win since relieving an injured Jimmy Garoppolo, delivered clutch completions down the stretch. He finished 18-of-29 for 214 yards with no turnovers. Purdy is just the fifth rookie quarterback in NFL history to win a divisional-round game, and just the third rookie QB to produce a pair of playoff wins, having downed the Seattle Seahawks in last weekend’s wild-card round.
This 12th straight win wasn’t exactly secured with fourth-quarter domination. But the 49ers did enough when it counted most. They widened their lead to 19-14 with 3:04 remaining, when Robbie Gould made his fourth field goal in four tries to cap a 7-minute scoring drive.
The Cowboys (13-6) had time to answer, as was the case last year when they hosted the 49ers in the wild-card round and killed the final seconds without a scoring shot, in a 23-17 Niners win.
After each team traded possessions, the Cowboys’ last shot started at their 6-yard line with 45 seconds to go. Six snaps later from the 24-yard line, Dallas set up for a trick play full of laterals, the 49ers called timeout to review their strategy, and, soon enough, Dallas was done. Prescott, after taking a shotgun snap from running back Ezekiel Elliott, delivered an 8-yard completion to KaVontae Turpin — and Jimmie Ward decked him immediately to end the game.
Not until late in the third quarter Sunday did the 49ers truly make their move, sparked by George Kittle’s 30-yard, juggling catch to midfield. Back-to-back holding penalties by the Cowboys sent the 49ers to the 10-yard line, and after Kyle Juszczyk closed the quarter with an 8-yard run, McCaffrey opened the fourth with his 2-yard touchdown run up the middle, courtesy of great blocking, for a 16-9 lead.
Dallas responded with a 44-yard kick return by Turpin, but they could only pull within 16-12 on Brett Maher’s 43-yard field goal with 11:03 remaining.
Maher was set up as the Cowboys’ potential scapegoat, when a blocked point-after kick in the second quarter marked his sixth miss in seven attempts, including four shanks in Monday’s wild-card win and one miss in the regular-season finale.
Maher did pull the Cowboys even at 9-9 when he made a 25-yard field goal in the third quarter. The Cowboys were poised to take the lead, however, after they had recovered Ray-Ray McCloud’s fumbled punt return at the 21-yard line and then got to first-and-goal. It was McCloud’s third fumble this season but the first he’s lost. He fumbled 13 times in his four seasons prior to joining the 49ers this season.
McCloud, after fumbling away that punt return, ripped off a 53-yard kick return to the Cowboys’ 47-yard line that could have resparked the 49ers. Instead, they failed to get a first down and punted.
To summarize the 49ers’ 9-6 halftime lead, they had nine points because of their kicker, Gould, and the Cowboys had only six points because of their kicker, Maher, whose point-after kick got blocked by Samson Ebukam.
Gould’s 50-yard field goal as the half expired improved him to 28-of-28 on field-goal attempts in 15 playoff games. He made 26- and 47-yard attempts earlier in the half.
Deommodore Lenoir and Fred Warner intercepted first-half passes by Dak Prescott, who threw an NFL-high 15 in the regular season but none in a five-touchdown performance in Monday’s wild-card win at Tampa Bay.
Lenoir’s interception, on an underthrown pass to Michael Gallup, came on their second series, and the 49ers converted that into Gould’s first field goal.
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Warner’s interception came in the red zone off a deflection by Jimmie Ward on a pass intended to CeeDee Lamb, with 1:15 left until halftime. The 49ers’ offense lurched down the field as precious seconds expired, but Purdy threw the ball away to keep one second left for Gould’s 50-yard kick.
The Cowboys’ biggest development of the first half was neither Prescott’s generosity nor Maher’s misery, but rather the loss of Pro Bowl running back Tony Pollard to a lower-leg injury. Pollard’s left leg got trapped under Jimmie Ward’s tackle at the 18-yard line 1:24 before halftime. That followed Prescott’s 8-yard, fourth-and-four scramble, and the injury preceded Warner’s interception on the next snap.
Dallas took a 6-3 lead on Dalton Schultz’s 4-yard touchdown catch 9:25 before halftime. Maher’s ensuing missed PAT took the shine off a 14-play, 74-yard drive that included a pair of third-and fourth-and-short conversions.
Injury-wise, the 49ers’ only announced injury was to defensive lineman Charles Omenihu (oblique) in the second quarter, but he returned to the game. McCaffrey (right calf) and Jimmie Ward (left calf) also received treatment on the side.