Can the San Francisco 49ers get back on track and finish the 2020 season strong? That's the plan for Kyle Shanahan and Co. as the team heads to the "Lone Star State" to take on Andy Dalton and the Dallas Cowboys. As the 49ers aim to ruin the 4-9 Cowboys chances of keeping their playoff hopes alive, here are five things to watch for in the Week 15 showdown.
1. Renewed Rivalry
The rivalry between San Francisco and Dallas dates back to the 1970's and intensified during the early 1990s as the two franchises faced one another in three consecutive NFC Championship games (1992-94). Those rosters comprised of some of the league's most esteemed playmakers including, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders.
The teams have met 37 times with Dallas leading the series 18-17-1. Sunday marks the first meeting between the two clubs since 2017. The 49ers and Cowboys have dealt with significant injuries to key players, which has led to substandard seasons for both clubs. But still, the matchup between the two continues to make for one of the most exciting inter-divisional rivalries to watch.
2. Limiting Zeke
Dallas' run game has looked like a shell of its former self in 2020 as their ground game sits 18th in the league, averaging under 111 yards per game. Lead back Ezekiel Elliott is currently averaging a career-low 3.9 yards per carry and 64 yards per game. Through 13 games, the star running back has topped 100 yards just once. The running back is currently working through a calf injury, however, he has no plans to let that keep him out of Sunday's contest.
Meanwhile, San Francisco's defense is holding running backs to under four yards per carry (fifth) and under 106 yards per game, the ninth best mark in the league. They'll look to carry over that production in Week 15, as they've limited opposing offenses to under 100 yards in back-to-back outings. Despite the dip in production, the 49ers can't afford to overlook Elliott's speed, power and toughness in the Week 15 matchup.
3. 49ers Run Game vs. Dallas' Defense
It's not only the Cowboys run game that has looked different this year. The same goes for San Francisco, as its rushing offense has topped 100 yards just twice over their past six contests. While the 49ers have had all of their backs available over the last two weeks, Raheem Mostert acknowledged that his ankle is not 100 percent, and likely won't be until after the season. The ball carrier appeared to have aggravated his ankle injury in Week 14, which has led the team to sideline Mostert for precautionary measures.
The 49ers are facing a Cowboys defense that is allowing 5.1 yards per carry and 162.7 yards per game, both the worst mark in the NFL. If Mostert is unable to go, Tevin Coleman, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Jerick McKinnon are likely to split the workload in what appears to be a favorable matchup for San Francisco's ground game.
4. Flipping the Turnover Margin
Again, ball protection continues to plague the 49ers season. San Francisco turned the ball over three times in the Week 14 loss to Washington, giving up a total of 17 points in the process. The 49ers have now committed two-or-more turnovers in seven-straight games, recording a staggering 18 giveaways during that span. The 49ers have the second-most turnovers lost (25) only behind the Denver Broncos (29).
Kyle Shanahan has stressed the importance of winning the turnover battle and has opted to move forward with Nick Mullens under center despite his recent struggles. Mullens has thrown at least one interception in seven of his nine games this season and lost three fumbles.
Meanwhile, San Francisco's defense can continue to help flip the margin against a Dallas team that sits just behind the 49ers with 24 turnovers lost this season. The 49ers have forced at least one turnover in their past four contests and aim to continue the trend on Sunday.
5. Aiyuk's Road to 1,000
Brandon Aiyuk has been a bright spot in the 49ers roller coaster season. Against the Washington Football Team, the rookie finished with career-highs in receptions (10) and receiving yards (119), marking his second-career game with 100-or-more receiving yards. Over the last eight weeks, Aiyuk's 85.7 receiving grade ranks fourth among wide receivers, according to Pro Football Focus.
Appearing in just 10 games this season, Aiyuk currently leads the 49ers in targets (81), receptions (50), yards (660) and total touchdowns (6). With 660 receiving yards on the season, Aiyuk ranks fifth in franchise history for the most receiving yards by a rookie and is closing in on the longstanding record of a 49ers great.
Aiyuk is 267 yards shy from breaking Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards for a 49ers rookie. Rice appeared in all 16 games during his 1985 rookie season and registered 927 yards receiving on 43 receptions.
Currently, Aiyuk is averaging 66 yards per game. He would need to average 89 yards over the 49ers final three contests of the season to surpass Rice's record.
"If he breaks my record, I'll be the first one to congratulate him," Rice said this week on 95.7 the Game.
Aiyuk has the opportunity to take his numbers a step further. With 340 yards (113 per game), Aiyuk can join Minnesota Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson as two rookies to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in their first NFL season.