ARLINGTON, Texas – Head coach Mike McCarthy isn't necessarily a huge stats guy, but he believes the turnover battle is the leading factor in the outcome of football games.
The Cowboys' season is a perfect case study.
Through the first 12 games, they posted a minus-13 turnover differential with only 11 takeaways on defense. The record: 3-9.
The last two games, the Cowboys are plus-seven with seven takeaways, including four more in Sunday's 41-33 win over the 49ers. The result: the team's first two-game win streak of the season to improve to 5-9.
And with two games left, there's still a glimmer of hope in the NFC East race with first-place Washington (6-8) losing Sunday to Seattle. The second-place Giants (5-8) play Cleveland on Sunday night.
"We've just been able to put it together," cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. "We always knew we were capable, but we just found the ingredients in these last few games and we're sticking with it. I'm proud of the guys. We stuck to it, and we're playing some good ball right now."
The Cowboys have ranked at or near the bottom of the league in most major defensive categories all season. Sunday, the 49ers' 458 yards was the second-highest total against the defense this season.
But four San Francisco turnovers (two first-quarter fumbles and two interceptions in the fourth quarter) gave the Cowboys the ball four times inside 49ers territory. The result: 24 of the Cowboys' 41 points.
"Just staying focused on the little things, the details," McCarthy said, explaining the team's sudden rise in takeaways. "That's what football always comes down to. It's always about the fundamentals and the execution of it."
Turnovers have been a problem for the 49ers (5-9) all season. They've had at least two in eight straight games now. Sunday, the trend continued on their first punt return of the game, when defensive end Dorance Armstrong stripped Richie James and recovered the ball at San Francisco's 22.
Running back Tony Pollard, starting for an injured Ezekiel Elliott (calf), found the end zone five plays later for a 7-0 lead.
The Cowboys led 14-0 after DeMarcus Lawrence sacked quarterback Nick Mullens and gave the offense prime field position again just outside the red zone. Quarterback Andy Dalton hit Michael Gallup for a 3-yard touchdown pass.
San Francisco kept the game close with their vaunted running game, producing 150 yards. But two Mullens interceptions in the fourth quarter, one each from safety Donovan Wilson and Anthony Brown, set up 10 more Cowboys points.
On a day where the offense couldn't find much traction – they only had two explosive plays before Pollard's game-sealing 40-yard touchdown run in the final three minutes – those short fields proved essential.
"That's huge," Dalton said. "With a short field, you want to take advantage of it. You want to score touchdowns when you're in that position. And it was big for us today. That's the difference in the game."
The last two games, in fact.
The Cowboys will take on the Philadelphia Eagles in their last home game of the regular season on Sunday, Dec. 27 at 3:25 p.m. A limited number of tickets are on sale now. Get yours now before they sell out!
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