If you are a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, you probably had this sinking feeling early in the second quarter of the game against the San Francisco 49ers. The offense had failed to capitalize on a good opening drive thanks to a false start penalty on Keith Smith and a rare Dan Bailey missed field goal attempt. Then the Dallas defense was unable to get off the field on two consecutive touchdown drives by the Niners, as they amassed 143 yards and converted all seven third downs they faced. After having to punt the ball back to San Francisco yet again, the Cowboys were faced with the very real possibility that things were going to get out of hand.
Then this occurred, and everything changed. Completely.
Dallas had pinned the 49ers at their own six-yard line, but they had quickly gotten a first down, and things looked grim. But then Tyrone Crawford came through with the Cowboys’ only sack of the game. That put San Francisco in second and 17, and the defense was able to hold, with Morris Claiborne having another impact play to stop a reception on third down well short of the sticks. The Cowboys would go on to score on consecutive drives to tie the game up before halftime, including another improbably masterful display by Dak Prescott in running the two minute offense for the tying score. And that is only part of the story of how things changed after that one huge defensive play.
the cowboys lost the time of possession battle in the 1st quarter.— Pat Doney (@PatDoneyNBC5) October 3, 2016
they won it by 13 minutes in the game.
the cowboys gave up 14 points in the first 16:05 of the game.— Pat Doney (@PatDoneyNBC5) October 3, 2016
they gave up 3 points the remaining 43:55. #math
Some like to call this a shift in momentum, although personally I like to think of that more as a convenient shorthand to describe events than an actual thing. However you feel personally about that (and please do not take this as a reason to have a debate on the subject, let’s celebrate just a bit together), there is no question that from the moment of the Crawford sack, things headed in a completely opposite direction for the Cowboys. Instead of spiraling out of control for an ugly loss, the Cowboys began moving the ball, scoring, and stopping the 49ers short. You don’t always see one such obvious moment in most NFL games, but this one is pretty easy to grasp.
There was a lot else that went into the victory. Prescott continues to exhibit a poise and presence on the field while protecting the ball that is simply amazing given his status as a rookie who has only played in four NFL games now. Ezekiel Elliott had his second big game in a row, running for 138 yards, adding 19 on his lone pass reception (a screen pass that really should be used more often), and scoring his third touchdown. And the defense only allowed one more third-down conversion for the rest of the game. They would out-gain San Francisco by more than 125 yards, get the only takeaway of the game, and also got a bit lucky in getting three first downs off of penalties. The loss of Navarro Bowman also likely had a lot to do with Elliott getting his biggest runs of the game after Bowman went out with injury.
But capitalizing on those breaks was largely possible only because Crawford got home that one time. Yes, the 49ers do not appear to be a very good team, but except for the one errant throw that Claiborne intercepted in the fourth quarter, Blaine Gabbert played well for the most part. Carlos Hyde averaged 4.9 yards a rush, and almost broke away for one long touchdown run. It was not an easy win for Dallas by any means. That single sack appears to have been the difference maker. It certainly changed the entire complexion of the game from that point. Had it not happened, there is an excellent chance we would not be celebrating a three game winning streak.
It did happen. And it was the key moment in the entire game.