Well, the Cowboys have officially done it. They’ve won back-to-back games for the first time all year long. Not only was this an important milestone for a team that’s been beaten down by injuries all season, but it also helped the Cowboys get right back into the NFC East divisional race with two more games on the schedule.
Hosting the 49ers, who have also dealt with their fair share of debilitating injuries, Dallas got a big game from both their defense and special teams. Tony Pollard also stepped up in his first career start after Ezekiel Elliott was unable to play. These five plays in particular were a huge part of the Cowboys’ victory.
Dorance Armstrong knocks the ball loose on a punt and falls on it for the first takeaway
Both the Cowboys and the 49ers started the game by trading three-and-outs on their opening possessions. But the Cowboys were forced to punt again after an illegal formation penalty took away Hunter Niswander’s punt that was downed at the San Francisco one-yard line.
That ended up being a good thing for Dallas, as 49ers punt returner Richie James fielded the second one before Dorance Armstrong expertly stripped the ball on the tackle. A scrum ensued, and both teams walked away insisting they had recovered the ball, but Armstrong himself managed to secure it.
That clutch play set the Cowboys up just 22 yards from paydirt, and it took them a mere five plays before Tony Pollard slammed his way into the endzone for a touchdown.
DeMarcus Lawrence gets the strip sack on Nick Mullens
After the Cowboys special teams created a huge takeaway, it was the defense’s turn to show what they could do. Right after scoring the first touchdown of the game, the Dallas defense made their presence felt.
On third and eight from the 49ers’ own 27-yard line, DeMarcus Lawrence beat right tackle Mike McGlinchey almost immediately off the edge. McGlinchey recovered well enough but he was too late to prevent Lawrence from slapping Nick Mullens’ arm and stripping the ball.
Lawrence forces the fumble on Mullens and the Cowboys recover their 2nd fumble in the first 6 minutes! pic.twitter.com/XWaR4AECtA— Main Team (@MainTeamSports) December 20, 2020
Once the ball was loose, Aldon Smith jumped on top of it for the clean recovery. That sent the Cowboys offense out to start their drive at the 49ers’ 24-yard line. And just like last time, it took them just five plays before they were in the endzone to take a huge 14-0 lead early.
CeeDee Lamb’s huge sideline catch sets up the touchdown for Dalton Schultz
The 49ers didn’t quit, though, and managed to tie the game up at 17 apiece on their first drive of the third quarter. The Cowboys, who had yet to put together a single offensive drive of 40 yards or more, were looking to break out and break the tie.
They moved the sticks once, but quickly faced a third down with seven yards to go for the first down. Taking the shotgun snap, Andy Dalton got flushed out to his right before uncorking a long bomb to CeeDee Lamb:
Lamb not only hauled in the pass down the sideline, but he managed to keep his feet in bounds and pick up an additional 13 yards to take it to the San Francisco 12-yard line. Dalton ended up hitting Dalton Schultz for a touchdown on the very next play, but it was all set up by this beautiful deep shot by Lamb to convert the third and long.
Donovan Wilson’s diving interception helps Cowboys take the lead
Donovan Wilson returned to the field for the Cowboys after missing a few weeks with an injury, and boy did he make an impact. With the game tied up at 24 apiece early in the fourth quarter, the 49ers had the ball and were looking to convert on third and six backed up to their own 16-yard line.
That’s when Mullens, who had thrown at least one interception in each of his last five starts, made the mistake of throwing at the second-year safety.
Wilson simply made an incredible break on the ball for the diving interception, and it set the Cowboys offense up at the 49ers’ own 28-yard line. While Dalton and the offense was ultimately unable to gain even a single yard, they were in position to kick the field goal and take the lead, which they never gave up for the remainder of this game.
Anthony Brown’s pick seals the win for Dallas
San Francisco got the ball back down just 27-24 with four and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter; they needed to string together a drive there and then. Their previous three possessions had come up empty, and time was running out.
After overcoming a 15-yard penalty to gain a first down, it seemed like the 49ers were finally figuring it out. But then Mullens made yet another mistake on second and nine, when a short pass over the middle was picked off by Anthony Brown.
Brown, who had missed the previous three games, returned the interception for 14 yards to take it down to the San Francisco 46-yard line. With the Cowboys offense taking the field and just under three minutes left in the game, this pick had the feeling of a final nail in the coffin. It helped that Pollard scored a monster touchdown from 40 yards out just two plays later, but Brown’s pick, the Cowboys’ fourth takeaway of the day, sealed the deal.