49ers as Ivan Drago? Michael Irvin explains how Cowboys must beat NFC heavyweights in NFL playoffs
Don’t take this personally, fans of the San Francisco 49ers, but your team has just been cast as the bioengineered behemoth from the Soviet Bloc who’s intent on taking down, well, America’s Team.
That’s essentially how Pro Football Hall of Famer and Dallas Cowboys legend Michael Irvin views Sunday’s divisional round matchup with the Niners, who are riding a league-best 11-game winning streak (including their wild-card waxing of the Seattle Seahawks) – as a microcosm of “Rocky IV,” when our hero must overcome deadly Russian heavyweight Ivan Drago.
So how do the Cowboys contend with a club that’s won by an average of 16.3 points during its hot streak, seemingly has All-Pro caliber players at every level on the field plus a rookie quarterback – Brock Purdy – playing like, well, Tom Brady before he was Tom Brady?
“You gotta hit ’em where it hurts,” Irvin pronounced to USA TODAY Sports. “They look like the perfectly oiled machine, they’re running so well on all cylinders. And I likened it to the last time I was watching ‘Rocky,’ and he was fighting Drago. … He was a beast. And then one time, Rocky caught him and, ‘You cut him! He’s human! He bleeds! Now you can go finish ’em!’
“The Cowboys, they’ve gotta cut ’em. They gotta show the San Francisco 49ers, ‘You’re human! You bleed!’ Now we’ve got to go finish you off.”
Metaphors don’t get much better … even if Irvin didn’t explicitly warn that the Cowboys could end up like Rocky’s buddy, Apollo Creed – on the mat, permanently, if Drago forces the action.
But Irvin also makes his living these days as a football analyst, so a pivot from fictional boxing is just a jab away. So, Playmaker, how best to bleed what’s been the league’s stingiest defense – and NFC’s best against the run – featuring potential Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa, this season?
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“How do you cut them?” Irvin, back to pugilism for a second, asks rhetorically.
“I’ve always said you attack a man’s weakness if you want to beat him, you attack his strength when you want to break him. You run right at them. You run that football like you ran last week.
“Or you make sure we make Purdy make some bad decisions. He’s been perfect in his decisions. They’ve allowed him a comfort zone, but we’ve gotta get him out of that comfort zone and see what he plays like after a few turnovers. … You gotta prove that he’s human, and then take the game.”
To that end, Dallas has perhaps the league’s best dual running back threat with established star Ezekiel Elliott and first-time Pro Bowler Tony Pollard. They combined for 32 touches and 125 total yards in Monday’s beatdown of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round.
The Cowboys can also employ quick-hitting passes to a talented group of tight ends and pressure-relieving veteran wideout T.Y. Hilton, whom Irving says has had a significant impact in his month with the team.
And a Micah Parsons-led defense can certainly hit Purdy with a few uppercuts and hope a guy with two turnovers in six NFL starts becomes unglued.
But let’s get back to “Rocky.” It’s a shame the Cowboys, who are already crisscrossing the country on a short week while the Niners get two extra days of rest and preparation, won’t have time to prepare for this game in distraction-free Siberia. After all, Dallas, for all its popularity and star power over recent decades, hasn’t worn the belt – or even reached the NFC title game – in 27 years, back when Irvin, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Deion Sanders were riding herd.
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Similar to the fictional boxer, Irvin admits this isn’t the most talented squad he’s ever seen. But they have shown toughness and even selflessness, Hilton thriving in what’s a reduced role for him, veteran left tackle Tyron Smith moving to the right side in a bid to perpetuate offensive line chemistry after he missed most of the season following hamstring surgery, and Pollard and Elliott willingly splitting touches and snaps out of the backfield.
Irvin also points out that quarterback Dak Prescott, arguably coming off the best game of his career, is the most accomplished quarterback left on the NFC side of the bracket.
“Greatness is measured not only by what talent and what gifts you think you have, but also what you can accomplish in the moment when it’s your time,” said Irvin. “I think there’s an opportunity when you look at the landscape of the NFC for the Dallas Cowboys.
“Is it the most physically gifted team? I wouldn’t say that. But is there a helluva opportunity? You better believe that.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dallas Cowboys as “Rocky?” Michael Irvin explains how to beat 49ers