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 40-10 victory over the 49ers.
Play: Offsetting Penalties Negate Dak Prescott Sack
Situation: First and 10 at the 49ers 25
Score: Cowboys lead 7-0
Time: 8:03 remaining in the first quarter
Impact: The Cowboys offense was rolling yet again, set up just outside of the red zone when Prescott held the ball for way too long on first down and eventually ended up getting called for intentional grounding. It seemed as if the Cowboys would be facing a 2nd and 20+ at about the 49ers 40, but the referees spotted Rashard Robinson for illegal contact, negating the intentional grounding penalty and allowing the Cowboys to replay the down. On the very next play Ezekiel Elliott broke off a 25-yard touchdown run, his second of the day, and the Cowboys would lead by double digits for the rest of the day.
Play: Incomplete Pass to George Kittle
Situation: Third and 8 at the Cowboys 24
Score: Cowboys lead 14-0
Time: 4:40 remaining in the first quarter
Impact: After Dallas took a 14-0 lead the 49ers mounted an impressive drive of their own, driving to the edge of the red zone. On third down C.J. Beathard took a shot downfield to Kittle, a teammate of his at Iowa, but Byron Jones was there with sticky man coverage out of the slot. The 49ers would settle for a field goal but the game already had the feel of a contest where San Francisco would have to convert every red zone chance they got into seven if they wanted to keep up with the Cowboys offense. They couldn’t do that here and the rout would soon be on.
Play: Dez Bryant 5-Yard Reception
Situation: Third and 4 at the Cowboys 44
Score: Cowboys lead 14-3
Time: 12:58 remaining in the second quarter
Impact: The 49ers defense seemed to be stiffening a bit as they stopped the previous Cowboys drive after just five plays. The crowd was starting to get into it and the 49ers were hoping to build a little momentum with a second consecutive stop. Instead Prescott found Bryant in very tight quarters on a quick slant to convert the first down by the nose of the ball. Just five plays later Prescott would find Jason Witten for an impressive 18-yard, one-handed touchdown.
Play: Carlos Hyde -1-Yard Rush
Situation: Third and 3 at the Cowboys 27
Score: Cowboys lead 20-3
Time: 12:00 remaining in the third quarter
Impact: It was clear at the end of the first half and beginning of the second that the 49ers offense was starting to build a little momentum and get into a groove. At the end of the first half they drove inside the Cowboys 10, although that drive was stopped short thanks to a Demarcus Lawrence strip sack, and on the opening drive of the second half they quickly drove down to just outside the red zone. Carlos Hyde and the running game was starting to get on track and after a couple of horrendous second half performances from the defense in the previous two games most Cowboys fans were probably starting to wonder if they would see a repeat. On third down the 49ers again ran the ball, surely feeling confident after Hyde had broken off runs of 7 and 9 earlier in the drive, but this time Sean Lee knifed through and met Hyde in the backfield for a loss. It was the type of play that we have grown accustomed to seeing from Lee, but that had been missing over the last few weeks. The 49ers would go for it on fourth down but failed to convert through the air. Any hope of a comeback would be dashed for good after the Cowboys took over on the very next play, as Elliott took a screen 72 yards for a touchdown that ended the game for good.
Play: Extra Point Converted by Jeff Heath
Situation: Point After Touchdown
Score: Cowboys lead 26-3
Time: 10:58 remaining in the third quarter
Impact: Why not? The Elliott touchdown effectively ended the game as soon as the second half began. Troy Aikman and Thom Brennaman spent the better part of the fourth quarter telling Jimmy Johnson stories from the 90’s and discussing the World Series, so that tells you how much drama there was in the game at that point. We’ll probably never see Heath attempt a field goal or extra point again (we hope), and to be fair this conversion did push the lead to 24, which meant the 49ers could only tie the game, and not win it, with three touchdowns and three 2-point conversions. Jeff Heath, we salute you.