Each NFL game is made up of about 125 to 135 plays, usually the ones that get all of the attention are the headline-grabbing touchdowns or game-deciding plays in the last few minutes, but what about all of the crucial plays that led up to those moments? What about the overlooked plays that had a significant bearing on the direction of the game but are usually forgotten in favor of flashy highlights? Here is a look at five plays that may get lost in the wash, but ultimately were critical in shaping the Cowboys 24-17 victory over the 49ers.
Play: Incomplete Pass to Quinton Patton
Situation: Second and 12 from the Cowboys 49
Score: Tied 0-0
Time: 8:24 remaining in the first quarter
Impact: Usually if you can jump on a poor quarterback early and shake their confidence they will struggle throughout the game. Instead of doing that to a below average at best quarterback in Blaine Gabbert, the Cowboys defense did the opposite, as they started slow and allowed Gabbert to gain confidence. On this play Gabbert made an errant throw that Anthony Brown did a great job to undercut, getting both of his hands on the ball, but he couldn’t finish the play with the pick. Not only would an interception here have prevented the touchdown the 49ers scored only four plays later, it may have shaken Gabbert’s confidence and sent him into a downward spiral that could’ve lasted for a quarter, a half, or even the whole game. Instead Gabbert led his team down the field for another touchdown on the very next drive, building a 14-0 lead and putting the Cowboys in a hole that they would spend the rest of the game digging out of. The Dallas defense would eventually right itself and Gabbert reverted back to his usual level of play, throwing for only 87 yards over the last three quarters after throwing for 109 in the first quarter, but the damage had been done.
Play: Dak Prescott Sack
Situation: Third and six from the Cowboys 49
Score: 49ers lead 14-0
Time: 4:50 remaining in the second quarter
Impact: With the Cowboys offense finally building a bit of momentum the team was faced with a third and medium from midfield late in the second quarter. When Prescott was quickly pressured and sacked it looked another drive had stalled with the 49ers offense set to get the ball back. Instead, as Prescott was being twisted and turned every which way Jaquiski Tartt decided to take a jab after the referees had blown the play dead. It wasn’t much of a hit but it was enough to warrant a flag and a 15-yard penalty that extended the drive. Three plays later the Cowboys scored their first touchdown of the game, a 20-yard pass to Terrance Williams, and had all the momentum. The Cowboys offense had their way the rest of the day, scoring touchdowns on two of their next three drives.
Play: Incomplete Pass to Jeremy Kerley
Situation: Third and three from 49ers 32
Score: 49ers lead 14-7
Time: 2:00 remaining in the second quarter
Impact: After cutting the lead to 14-7, and with all three timeouts remaining, the Cowboys were looking to get a quick stop so that the offense could hopefully cut into the lead even further. Rookie Anthony Brown may have gotten away with a bit of holding as he tugged Kerley’s jersey, but you see contact like that without a flag in every game, every week. This was the first three and out of the day for the Cowboys defense and it came at an opportune time as it gave the offense the ball back in great field position, following a shanked punt, with plenty of time to move down the field for the tying touchdown.
Play: Brice Butler 14 Yard Reception
Situation: Third and five from the 49ers 44
Score: 49ers lead 17-14
Time: 3:34 remaining in the third quarter
Impact: With the fourth quarter quickly approaching the Cowboys faced a third down in 49er territory, but they were still a good 8-10 yards outside of field goal range. The offense had been in rhythm since scoring back to back touchdowns to end the first half but they still trailed as the Niners regained the lead on the first drive of the second half. Prescott did a fantastic job here of climbing the pocket and finding Butler with a precise throw to convert a huge first down. Just four plays later Ezekiel Elliott plunged into the end zone and the Cowboys had a lead they would not relinquish.
Play: Ezekiel Elliott Rush for 3 Yard Loss
Situation: Second and goal from the 49ers one
Score: Cowboys lead 21-17
Time: 5:04 remaining in the fourth quarter
Impact: With the Cowboys marching for a game-sealing touchdown the 49ers defense bowed their back and finally stopped the Cowboys running game that had been gashing them the entire second half. First down was a predictable Elliott run up the middle, which gained a yard, followed by another Elliott run on second down that pushed the Cowboys all the way back to the four yard line. Should they have gone play-action with the 49ers selling out to stop the run? Perhaps, but you can’t blame the play-calling when the running game had been shredding the defense all half. The next play was a third down from the four, which more or less ruled out a running play, and the result was a dropped touchdown by Brice Butler. The Cowboys kicked a field goal, extending their lead to seven and eventually holding on thanks to a late defensive stop, but they could have ended the game right here with a touchdown.