By Dwain Price
Acting like a Grinch who stole Christmas for the second week in a row, the Dallas Cowboys kept alive their very slim playoff hopes this past Sunday with a 41-33 triumph over the San Francisco 49ers at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
After forcing just 11 turnovers in the first 12 games of the season, the Cowboys have taken their game of thievery to a whole new level and now have seven takeaways over the past two contests. That includes forcing four turnovers against the 49ers and winning a game for the second week in a row for the first time since the middle of last season.
The new-look Cowboys are now 5-9 on the season with games remaining this Sunday at noon at home against the Philadelphia Eagles, and on Jan. 3 at the New York Giants as they attempt to steal the NFC East title. If the Cowboys win those two games and the Washington Football Team (6-8) lose their home game on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers and lose their road game on Jan. 3 against the Eagles, the Cowboys will win their division and secure a spot in the playoffs.
However, if the Cowboys lose one of their last two games or Washington wins one of their last two games, there will be no playoff party for the Cowboys this season.
“Our focus is these next two games,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “We’ve got to just handle what we can handle, control what we can control and we’ll see how everything shakes out.
“We know that there’s still a chance out there, so we’ll just make the most out of these last two opportunities and see how everything shakes out.”
The victory over the 49ers was almost a carbon copy of what transpired during last week’s 30-7 road win at the Cincinnati Bengals. The Cowboys scored 17 points when the Bengals turned the ball over three times on their first three possessions, and they tallied 14 points when the 49ers turned the ball over twice on their first three possessions.
During the first 12 games this season, the Cowboys scored an NFL-low 28 points off turnovers. Last week they scored 17 points off turnovers against the Bengals, and Sunday they tacked on an additional 24 points via turnovers in the victory over the 49ers.
On the Niners’ second possession of the game, the Cowboys recovered a San Francisco fumbled punt at the 22-yard line and Tony Pollard scored on a one-yard burst for a 7-0 lead less than six minutes into the game. And on the 49ers’ ensuing possession, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence caused another San Francisco fumble and defensive end Aldon Smith recovered it at the Niners’ 24.
That led to a short three-yard TD toss from Dalton to Michael Gallop and a 14-0 lead for the Cowboys.
“It brought a lot of energy to our sidelines and guys are feeding off one another,” coach Mike McCarthy said of the turnovers. “It’s two weeks in a row we’ve been able to go out and in back-to-back series have turnovers (near the) start (of) the game. It’ll be great if we can keep it up.”
If the Cowboys can keep it up, the possibilities are endless.
“We’re starting to step up to the plate and live up to our expectations,” Lawrence said. “You practice the fundamentals and you practice the way you want to play and soon enough it’ll come to life. It is contagious.”
With starting running back Ezekiel Elliott unable to play at the last minute due to a calf strain, his backup – Pollard – stepped up to the plate and acquitted himself quite well. Pollard rushed 12 times for 69 yards and two touchdowns, and also caught six passes for 63 yards.
Pollard’s spectacular tackle-breaking 40-yard TD gallop with 2:27 remaining put the Cowboys ahead, 34-24.
“It was big for me – a dream come true,” he said. “Being in the league, getting a chance to start the game out, knowing the team would be dependent on me a little more, I just tried to take advantage of my opportunities.”
After the 49ers inched to within 34-27 of the Cowboys, CeeDee Lamb nailed the coffin on this victory when he carried an on-sides kick back 47 yards for a touchdown with just 34 seconds to go in the game. It’s the first time the Cowboys ran a kickoff for a touchdown since 2008 – a scenario that covered 204 games.
“We’re trying to see what we’re building here,” Lamb said. “We’re taking steps in the right direction, obviously, with these past two weeks coming out with victories.”
McCarthy, in his first year in what has turned into a tumultuous season for the Cowboys coach, claimed it was “obviously fun” to finally see his players benefit from the fruits of their labor these past two weeks.
“It was a great locker room,” he said. “But we’ve also – two weeks in a row – we’ve had a lot of young players have opportunities. So that’s something that gives us another piece of growth throughout our football team.”
While many Cowboy fans want them to intentionally lose games so they can have a higher draft pick next spring, the players and coaches don’t share in what they consider to be an illogical line of thinking.
“We’re professional athletes,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “We’ve got to go out there and do our best and put our best foot forward and go out there and win games, and that’s what we’ll try to go out there and do. We’re trying to string a few (wins) together and trying to get in the playoffs.
“We just found the ingredients these last two games and we’re sticking with it. We’re playing some good ball right now.”
Dalton certainly played some good ball as he was a workmanlike 19-of-33 for 209 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the 49ers. This was the second week in a row that Dalton tossed multiple touchdowns without tossing any interceptions.
“I think (Sunday) was a complete game by everybody – all phases of the game,” Dalton said. “There’s been no quit in this team.”
And the fight is expected to continue against the Eagles.
“We’re just trying to stay focused,” Pollard said. “As long as we take care of what we have to, we’ll have a chance. Hopefully we’re just going to try to keep this thing going.”