Cowboys force four turnovers, take down 49ers 41-33 in Week 15

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Kendrick Bourne (84) leaps over the Dallas Cowboys Donavon Wilson (left) and Jourdan Lewis (26) catching a Hail Mary pass in the end zone in the second half in Arlington on Sun Dec 20, 2020 (AP News photo)

By Joe Hawkes
Staff Writer

DALLAS — For the second straight week, the 49ers defense held an opponent to ten points or less.

But offense and special teams didn’t do their part, committing four turnovers (three by quarterback Nick Mullens) as the Dallas Cowboys scored 24 points of turnovers to upend the visiting San Francisco 49ers, 41-33, Sunday afternoon in front of a sparse crowd at AT&T Stadium.

“I really wanted the guys to come out and play good football, and I think offensively, defensively and special teams guys did a lot of good things,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “When you have four turnovers, it doesn’t matter what you do, especially when you’ve got zero.”

San Francisco racked up 458 yards of total yards and controlled the clock for 35:56.

It marked the eighth straight game that the 49ers had two or more turnovers in a game; their longest streak since 2006. The turnovers have doomed the 49ers in recent weeks after a stellar performance from its defense.

Mullens completed 21-of-36 passes for 219 yards with two touchdowns, but threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter leading to 10 points that killed San Francisco’s chances at pulling the win out after trailing 27-24. He was also sacked twice.

It was also the sixth straight game that Mullens threw an interception.

San Francisco didn’t get off to the start it wanted to, falling behind Dallas 14-0 in the first quarter thanks to fumbles inside their own territory.

After the 49ers forced the Cowboys to punt following a 3-and-out, Dallas forced the first turnover of the game as kick returner Richie James fumbled at the San Francisco 23-yard line and recovered by the Cowboys.

The Cowboys took an early 7-0 lead thanks to a 1-yard touchdown run by backup running back Tony Pollard. Pollard started Sunday’s game in place of Ezekiel Elliott, who was sidelined by an injury for the first time in the two-time rushing champion’s career.

Pollard finished with 12 carries for 69 yards and two touchdowns. He was also big in the passing game, catching a team-high six catches for 63 yards.

On the ensuing drive, defensive end Demarcus Lawrence forced a fumble from Mullens that was recovered by linebacker Aldon Smith at the San Francisco 24-yard line. Five plays later, wide receiver Michael Gallup scored on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to put Dallas up 14-0.

Mullens would help the 49ers climb back into the game on the 49ers’ third possession of the game, engineering a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Reed to cut the Cowboys’ lead to 14-7 shortly before the end of the first quarter.

After the Cowboys added a 48-yard field goal by kicker Greg Zuerlein to push their lead to 17-7 in the second quarter, Mullens would find rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk for a 2-yard score trimming the Cowboys’ lead to 17-14.

Aiyuk finished with nine catches for 73 yards and a touchdown on 13 targets. For the season, the rookie leads the 49ers with 50 catches for 660 yards and four touchdowns.

In the third quarter, the 49ers tied the game at 17 on a 41-yard field goal by kicker Robbie Gould.

On the next drive, the Cowboys retook the lead, 24-17, on Dalton’s 12-yard touchdown strike to tight end Dalton Schultz.

Dalton completed 19-of-33 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns. San Francisco sacked Dalton twice (both by defensive tackle Arik Armstead) and held the Cowboys to 291 yards of total offense. Dallas had possessed the football for 25 minutes.

Jeff Wilson’s 1-yard scoring run for San Francisco tied the game at 24 late in the third quarter. It was the fourth touchdown drive of 75 yards.

Mullens had a chance to lead the 49ers to a tie-breaking score, but safety Donovan Wilson’s first career interception thwarted the drive and set up Dallas in great field position. After three straight incomplete passes, Zuerlein drills a 46-yarder to give Dallas a 27-24 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Following cornerback Anthony Brown’s interception, Pollard put the game away with a 40-yard touchdown run that put Dallas up 34-24 late in the fourth quarter.

After the 49ers kicked a field goal on second down to pull within a touchdown with a minute left in the game, CeeDee Lamb recovered the onside kick and raced 47 yards for a touchdown.

Lamb hauled in a team-high 85 yards on five catches over nine targets.

Backup quarterback C.J. Beathard who replaced Mullens following his second interception, handled the final two possessions for the 49ers. Beathard threw a 49-yard Hail Mary touchdown to Kendrick Bourne on the game’s final play.

Bourne finished with four catches for team-high 86 yards and a touchdown.

In a matchup between two franchises that have combined for 10 Super Bowl titles, the Cowboys (5-9) kept their slim playoff hopes alive while the loss all but ends the 49ers’ (5-9) chances at defending their NFC championship. San Francisco will be the second Super Bowl runner-up to miss the playoffs in 13 seasons when the season is over.

“If we don’t take care of our own business, nothing else matters,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’re clearly focused on what’s in front of us. We really want to finish strong with these two division games. That’s clearly my focus.”

Next week, both San Francisco and Dallas face divisional opponents as the 49ers will face off against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium.

The Cowboys will host the Philadelphia Eagles (4-8-1) in Week 16.