ARLINGTON Texas — Tony Pollard dipped right, cut left and spun out of a tackle as if San Francisco linebacker Dre Greenlaw weren’t clutching the fabric of Pollard’s jersey.
Then he turned on the jets.
Pollard raced for a 40-yard touchdown with 2:36 to play, extending a Cowboys lead that rookie CeeDee Lamb would then seal with a kick-return touchdown of an onside attempt. The Cowboys’ 41-33 win over the 49ers Sunday came mere minutes after the Washington Football Team had fallen 20-15 to the Seattle Seahawks.
The fortuitous span means that, at least for one more week, the Cowboys remain alive in the NFC East.
The Niners return to their temporary Arizona headquarters at 5-9, a record equivalent to last in the NFC West. But the Cowboys’ 5-9 leaves them just a game out of first, even if they don’t control their own destiny.
Here are three more things we learned in the Cowboys’ win:
Dallas running back Tony Pollard (Photo: Tom Pennington, Getty Images)
The offense without Ezekiel Elliott: Cowboys fans had clamored to see what second-year back Tony Pollard could do during Elliott’s least productive pro season, averaging a career-low 64 yards a game and 3.9 yards per carry. Entering Sunday, the Cowboys expected Elliott to play. But pregame warmups showed his calf contusion to be more serious than Dallas expected, and he was ruled a game-day inactive — the first time in five seasons Elliott has missed a game due to injury. Pollard started strong in the first quarter, boosted particularly by a 30-yard screen pass up the right sideline to end the quarter. He totaled 61 yards and a score in the first period. He stalled for much of the second, third and fourth quarters but broke off the clutch 40-yard scoring run when the Cowboys needed it most. Elliott still runs with a different power than Pollard up the middle. But Pollard is far shiftier than his counterpart, and that paid off vs. a stingy Niners run defense.
Cowboys run defense: The Cowboys have boasted the worst run defense and worst scoring defense in the league through much of 2020. They entered the matchup against an injury-ravaged Niners team averaging 162.7 yards and 30.8 points a game. They still surrendered too many big plays up the middle, allowed 5.7 yards a carry (150 yards on ground total) and fell for eye candy on a misdirection touchdown. They nearly held the Niners to under 30, but a 49-yard Hail Mary as time expired killed that possibility. In the Cowboys defense’s … defense, the team matched its season-high takeaway mark with two interceptions and two fumble recoveries, one of which came on a punt return. The Cowboys scored 24 total points off turnovers, a welcome change of pace for a team that lost too many when coughing up balls for 11 consecutive games. The Niners game marked the first time Dallas has gone consecutive games without a giveaway.
Momentum? This was not only the second straight game the Cowboys offense didn’t turn the ball over but also the second straight game the defense nabbed at least three takeaways. And, it's the first two-game win streak of the Mike McCarthy era. The Cowboys hadn’t won in back-to-back weeks since September 15 and 22, 2019. Players and coaches talked at length about the need to stack success to keep this season’s playoff hopes alive as well as to establish a winning culture under McCarthy. Special teams coach John Fassel told players this week that momentum is like a snowball — and they needed to get it rolling. The 63 and sunny North Texas weather may stand in contrast, but more than at any time in 2020, the Cowboys’ 18-point win has the ball rolling in the right direction.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein https://twitter.com/JoriEpstein
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