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Turnaround on turnovers helps Cowboys keep faint hopes alive

Schuyler Dixon
Associated Press
San Francisco 49ers defensive end Kerry Hyder Jr. (92) rushes as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton (14) throws a pass in the first half in Arlington on Sunday. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

ARLINGTON  — The Dallas Cowboys, who were last in the NFL in turnover margin for almost half the season, are plus-7 the past two games.

They also have consecutive wins for the first time this season. Coincidence? Probably not.

Most of the turnovers came early, too. Two in the first quarter against San Francisco turned into a two-touchdown lead on the way to a 41-33 victory Sunday. Cincinnati lost three fumbles in the first quarter of Dallas' 30-7 win a week earlier. 

"To get it early definitely you can see that it brought a lot of energy to our sideline," coach Mike McCarthy said. "That's two weeks in a row we've been able to go out with back-to-back series and have a turnover to start the game. It'd be great if we can keep that up."

The much-maligned defense is still giving up yards — San Francisco's second-highest total of the season at 458 — but the group under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is finally making plays as well.

Safety Donovan Wilson made a nice break on a throw from Nick Mullens to set up the go-ahead field goal early in the fourth quarter. Anthony Brown had the second interception with the Niners driving on the next possession.

"We always knew we were capable," cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. "We just found the ingredients these last few games."

And those ingredients are? 

"Just going out there every day practicing, trying to get the ball, just flying to the ball and just understanding that we're still in this thing," Lewis said.

Yes, Dallas (5-9) just beat an injury-ravaged San Francisco after weak Cincinnati, but the Cowboys are still in this thing with two games remaining, needing to beat both NFC East opponents (Philadelphia and the New York Giants) while hoping Washington loses to Carolina and Philadelphia.

Anything else, and the postseason is out of reach. But the idea of it still being in reach when the team was 3-9 with six losses in seven games says something about McCarthy's hope of building something for 2021 after a rough Dallas debut.

WHAT'S WORKING

The other part of the formula on turnover margin is the Cowboys not committing one for the second straight game. They had at least one in the previous 11 games. Andy Dalton threw at least one interception in each of his first five starts filling in for Dak Prescott, who is out for the season with a broken ankle. 

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The running game wasn't good without Ezekiel Elliott, who was sidelined by an injury (calf) for the first time in his career. Before Tony Pollard broke several tackles on a 40-yard scoring run late in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys had 40 yards on 15 carries (2.7 yards per carry) with Pollard and Rico Dowdle, who has played mostly special teams this year.

STOCK UP

Wilson's first career interception came after the second-year player missed two games with a groin injury. The week before he got hurt, Wilson had his breakout game with two forced fumbles in a surprising win at Minnesota.

STOCK DOWN

Hail Mary defense might need a few extra reps in practice after the Cowboys gave up a meaningless TD that way on the final play of the game. Kendrick Bourne sealed off Brown, Wilson and Darian Thompson as the ball sailed over Jourdan Lewis' outstretched arms.

INJURIES

The questions of availability continue for the defense. A week after cornerbacks were in and out of the game with injuries, nose tackle Antwaun Woods and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch left with sprained ankles and didn't return. Safety Xavier Woods couldn't finish because of a rib injury. Receiver Michael Gallup could also miss time with a hip strain.

KEY NUMBER

Minus-6 — That's the new turnover margin and actually has the Cowboys closer to the middle of the pack than the bottom. Dallas has six interceptions in the past seven games after getting just one in the first seven.

NEXT STEPS

While the Cowboys need help against Washington because they lost both of those games, they are in control as it relates to the Giants and Eagles. Dallas and New York are tied, a half-game ahead of Philadelphia, and the Cowboys would finish alone in first place in the NFC East with two wins and two Washington losses.