Just like that, San Francisco's plans for a playoff game at home were fractured. Not to mention the collective psyche of the 49ers. On a day when the Niners had everything to gain, it instead was the Cowboys making all the big gains. Dallas ploughed through San Francisco's defense for 186 yards rushing on its way to a 420-yard output, punching the Niners backward throughout the second half and leaving them with a black eye in the form of a 27-21 defeat before a crowd of 64,366 at Texas Stadium.
"We just broke down," Niners defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. "They were the better team today," added Niners safety Zack Bronson. That about covers it. The Niners, after shutting out the Miami Dolphins and limiting the Philadelphia Eagles to three points in back-to-back home victories the past two weeks, were pummeled by the NFL's 29th-ranked offense and fell to fifth in the NFC playoff seeding order with one week remaining in the season.
The Cowboys, controlling the ball on the ground behind tailback Emmitt Smith, held a whopping advantage of almost 16 minutes in time of possession. Smith rushed for 126 yards on 26 carries as Dallas held the ball for 37 minutes and 49 seconds, keeping it away from the Niners and their dangerous offense, which was limited to 285 yards.
"That is the style of play that they have been playing," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said. "Their philosophy is to chew up clock, chew up yards on the ground and keep the other team's offense off the field as much as possible, shorten the game, and they did it again. They were successful with that concept and philosophy. Emmitt Smith's still got it."
But it wasn't just Smith doing the damage, although he did plenty in extending drives and wearing down San Francisco's defense. This time, though, he received some help from unexpected areas. "What you saw today is what you see when you have everybody involved on offense," said Smith, who enjoyed the 74th 100-yard rushing game of his career and also became the second player in NFL history to surpass 16,000 career yards rushing. "When you have balance on offense like we did today, you increase your chances of winning."
Rookie quarterback Quincy Carter provided the balance, completing 15 of 25 passes for a season-high 241 yards and two touchdowns in what easily was his best game as a pro. Carter also bedeviled the 49ers with 30 yards and a touchdown rushing. Carter entered the game with a quarterback rating of 55.2, the worst among all starting quarterbacks in the NFL. But the Niners allowed him to pick them apart, and he also hit some long passes that swung the momentum to the Cowboys in the third quarter.
Carter had a quarterback rating of 118.9 on Sunday, throwing a two-yard scoring pass to Darrin Chiaverini that put the Cowboys ahead 10-7 in the second quarter, and later connecting on a 47-yard scoring bomb to Joey Galloway that put Dallas ahead 24-14 and in control for the remainder of the afternoon. That long scoring strike came against the coverage of rookie Rashad Holman, who was playing in place of regular starter Ahmed Plummer at left cornerback. Plummer was injured on San Francisco's first defensive play of the game and never returned. The Cowboys were able to exploit that chink in San Francisco's defensive armor, and also were able to beat cornerback Jason Webster on the other side several times.
"Ahmed's been playing great. He's a Pro Bowl-type corner," Niners safety Lance Schulters said. "So obviously losing somebody like him, who's a playmaker and playing good, it takes something away. But we just didn't make enough plays as a defense to get it done."
The Niners didn't make enough plays as an offense, either. San Francisco couldn't sustain drives, gaining more than two first downs on just two of its 10 drives the entire afternoon. The Niners had one first down or less on six of their drives. Still, they led 14-10 at halftime after taking advantage of a Dallas onside kick and then working their two-minute drill to perfection at the end of the second quarter. After Dallas initiated the scoring with a 22-yard field goal by Jon Hilbert early in the second period, the Cowboys attempted to surprise San Francisco with an onside kick. But Terry Jackson fell on the kick, giving the Niners the ball on the Dallas 43, and San Francisco needed just four plays to get into the end zone.
Trailing 10-7, the Niners got the ball with 1:26 remaining before halftime, and quarterback Jeff Garcia smartly drove them 73 yards in six plays for the go-ahead touchdown. That gave the appearance the Niners were poised to take over in the second half, but that development never took place. In fact, the exact opposite happened. The Cowboys took the second-half kickoff and converted three third downs on a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that gave them the lead for good.
That drive was indicative of how the game would play out the rest of the way. The Cowboys, in fact, completed 11 of their 17 third-down plays, their highest third-down conversion rate in the past four seasons and their most third-down conversions in a game since 1990. Their 24 first downs also were a season high and their most since 1999. No wonder the Niners lost to a team with a losing record for the first time this season. The Cowboys had lost their previous two games before improving to 5-10.
"They beat us up today," Schulters said. "They ran the ball down our throats. But we still gave ourselves a chance to win the game." The Niners, despite being outplayed considerably, made it interesting at the end when they finally spread their offense in desperation late in the fourth quarter. Trailing 27-14, Garcia came out throwing when the Niners got the ball back with four minutes to play. He took them 79 yards in 10 plays, but the drive died at the Dallas 5-yard line with three consecutive incompletions in the end zone. But the Niners stopped the Cowboys on three plays, and Jackson blocked Micah Knorr's punt, giving the Niners the ball at the Dallas 4. This time, San Francisco capitalized with the second of Garcia's two touchdown passes to J.J. Stokes.
The Niners then had a decent shot at recovering a high-bouncing onside kick by Jose Cortez with 39 seconds remaining. But the ball fell into the hands of the Cowboys, sealing their payback for San Francisco's 41-24 win here last season. And, probably, sealing the Niners' fate of having to travel to some icy NFC Central city for the first-round of the playoffs. "I don't know if it was our worse game," Mariucci said. "But obviously, we didn't play our best game." The Cowboys probably did. On a day when the Niners and their defense weren't up to their usual standards, that was plenty good enough.