Deep in the heart of Texas: Niners corral Cowboys, 23-17

San Francisco holds off late charge. Packers up next

Walking up to the Cowboys’ stadium on Sunday felt like some sort of pilgrimage. A weak winter sun lit up the shiny steel structure, a physical manifestation of the deep love affair between Texas and football.

The tribes had gathered from both sides, feasting on barbecue, taunting each other with good humor before heading into the massive shrine. All apologies to Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. But if football had a mecca, it would be right here in Arlington.

So, what better place to witness another classic playoff matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys? I’m sure Candlestick Park comes to mind for a few of you. But AT&T Stadium worked out just fine.

It was the eighth time the two powerhouse teams had met in the postseason, and this edition did not disappoint. Facing hostile fans and a talented opponent, the Niners found a way to hold off the charging Cowboys in the fourth quarter and eke out one of the hardest things in the game. A postseason road victory, 23-17.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan was a bit nostalgic after the game. He talked about how he had watched the 1994 NFC Championship Game this week, for inspiration. He said he’d been on the sidelines that day, as a kid, admiring the battle between Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders. Today, he can say he watched as a head coach. The winning head coach.

“To come out and finish that game, especially in that environment, was a hell of a job,” said Shanahan. “I think we’ve got guys that really like football. Guys that like to practice. Guys who like to play. … There’s only one way to play. It’s all just talk until you have the right people.”

The Niners now travel to Green Bay Sunday, continuing a tremendously challenging playoff run. From mecca to tundra. The two teams met on Sept. 26, with the Niners losing 30-28.

“They’ve had a helluva year,” said Shanahan, of the No. 1 seed Packers. “I’m glad we have the opportunity to go up against them again. … We’ll enjoy this plane ride and get back to work.”

For much of the Cowboys game, it was all San Francisco. The team marched down the field on its first possession, with rookie running back Elijah Mitchell drawing first blood from the four-yard line. The Niners defense held the Cowboys heralded offense, led by quarterback Dak Prescott, in check for most of the first half. Robbie Gould became the unexpected MVP of the early going, kicking three first-half field goals and giving the Niners a 16-7 halftime lead.

The second half proved more challenging. After a spectacular 26-yard touchdown run from the irrepressible Deebo Samuel, the Cowboys finally woke up and made it a game. It was no coincidence the Niners’ star defensive lineman Nick Bosa had not returned for the second half, out with a head injury. And it certainly didn’t help that middle linebacker Fred Warner went out with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter.

That helped open the door for Prescott and the ‘Boys. It was back and forth in the final stanza, with Dallas holding the momentum for much of it.

Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo didn’t help matters, throwing a costly interception in the second half. But, in the end, the Niners’ defense held, Prescott couldn’t get it done and San Francisco lived to play another day.

The game ended in bizarre fashion, with the Cowboys trying to get off one more snap from the Niners’ 24-yard line. Instead, the officials blew the whistle and the game was suddenly, controversially over. The folks in Dallas were not amused.

“I thought it was over because I saw it live,” said Shanahan of the confusing moment. “I was very confident it was done. …You’re just never fully sure.”

Samuel was more to the point: “It was kind of crazy at the end. But our defense is really good and they got the win.”

What did we learn from our trip to football’s modern-day mecca? First off, we now know the 49ers are for real. This team has come together late this season to play absolutely inspired football. It helped a lot that they got healthy at the right time, allowing Shanahan to use his full playbook. At times Sunday, his schemes made the Cowboys look they were guessing, often caught on the wrong foot.

Second, we get to see Garoppolo for another week, at least. Say what you will about his inconsistencies and inability to throw deep. Jimmy G has etched his name into Niner history as one of the San Francisco quarterbacks who beat the Cowboys in a game that really mattered. Legacy assured.

You could tell the thousands of Niner fans on hand appreciated the gutsy effort from Garoppolo, who’s still nursing a bum thumb. Jimmy fed off that vibe. “It was a different type of atmosphere,” said Garoppolo. “The energy and the passion. You could feel it in there. The red came out. It was a good day.”

One more thing. Injuries remain this team’s primary opponent, as it’s been all season. In my preseason preview, I said the Niners’ trainer may end up the team MVP. That still may come to pass.

Getting Bosa right. Finding a way to bring Warner back on the field. Those will be the keys to success.

Now on to Green Bay, where Aaron Rodgers and the Packers await. Rodgers has had yet another MVP-quality season, and we will revisit the tired and true storyline of how the Niners passed on the Cal quarterback in the draft way back when.

This will be no easy task. But let’s leave that analysis for another day.

The Niners went to Texas and pulled out a victory, deep in the heart of football.

asaracevic@sfexaminer.com

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