Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard (20) carries the ball against the San Francisco 49ers defense during the first quarter on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard (20) carries the ball against the San Francisco 49ers defense during the first quarter on Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

49ers vs. Cowboys: Turnovers loom large as Dallas thumps San Francisco

Chris Biderman

The Sacramento Bee

The 49ers followed a familiar formula against the Cowboys: turn the ball over and lose.

San Francisco on Sunday in Dallas gave the ball away four times, leading to 24 Cowboys points, and lost, 41-33.

The loss pushes the 49ers to 5-9 and put their playoff chances, which had been hanging by a thread in recent weeks, to rest. Nick Mullens turned the ball over three more times, tossing two fourth-quarter interceptions, and a first-quarter fumble.

San Francisco has lost six of seven since a high-water mark in October when the 49ers beat the Patriots. Since then, they’ve turned the ball over 22 times in eight games.

Here’s our rundown of the action.

First quarter

The two teams traded punts to start, but after the Cowboys had a punt downed near the goal line negated by a penalty, Richie James was stripped on the re-punt, giving Dallas the ball at San Francisco’s 22-yard line.

It led to a 1-yard touchdown run for Tony Pollard, giving Dallas a 7-0 lead, who started in place of Ezekiel Elliott, who was a surprise inactive just before the game with a calf bruise. It was the first missed start of his career due to injury.

The 49ers turned the ball over again on the third play of their next possession, when DeMarcus Lawrence hit Mullens’ throwing arm before it was moving forward. The fumble was recovered by former 49ers pass rusher, Aldon Smith, giving the Cowboys the ball back at San Francisco’s 24.

It was Mullens’ 14th turnover in 10 games this season. Lawrence beat right tackle Mike McGlinchey, who has been at fault in many high-profile plays for San Francisco this season.

It led to Dallas receiver Michael Gallup sneaking behind the defense for a 3-yard touchdown, putting the 49ers down 14-0 after 8:31 of game time. The Cowboys’ scoring drives went 22 and 24 yards, respectively.

The 49ers got on the board with a Jordan Reed touchdown from 5 yards out to cut the lead to seven. The drive included 42 rushing yards from Raheem Mostert and catches from Kendrick Bourne and Brandon Aiyuk, along with three third-down conversions.

Second quarter

The Cowboys drove into 49ers territory again, but Arik Armstead came screaming through the inside while working a two-man game with rookie Javon Kinlaw allowing him to get to Dalton for his first sack since recording half a sack Oct. 4 against the Eagles. It forced Dallas to settle for a 48-yard field goal, which was good, making 17-7.

Shanahan decided to get aggressive by going for it on fourth-and-goal from 2. The play went to Aiyuk, who took a shovel pass while sweeping to the left side in for his seventh touchdown of the season and his fifth touchdown in his last seven games. That made it 17-14, Cowboys.

The Cowboys got the ball back with a chance to score before the break, even after Armstead’s second sack of the game, but missed a 60-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining in the half, leaving the 49ers with the ball at midfield, but they couldn’t make anything happening after a penalty on Trent Williams.

The 49ers outgained Dallas, 170-134, but the Cowboys had the lead thanks to their touchdowns following San Francisco’s two turnovers.

Third quarter

The 49ers appeared to force their first takeaway on the opening possession of the second half when Javon Kinlaw appeared to strip Dalton during a scramble, but the referees ruled the fumble was caused by the ground, despite replays showing the ball might have been moving on the way to the ground.

San Francisco got some bad news after one offensive play in the third quarter. Mostert, who had 68 yards on 14 carries, got tangled up and limped off the field. The broadcast showed him motioning towards his lower left leg, which is where he’s battled through a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss time recently.

But the drive ended in a Robbie Gould 41-yard field goal to tie it at 17. It came just after the 49ers ruled out free safety Jimmie Ward with a concussion after a scary hit on CeeDee Lamb late in the second quarter. Defensive end Dion Jordan was also ruled out with a knee injury.

The Cowboys retook the lead with a lead with 12-yard touchdown pass in the right flat to tight end Dalton Shultz, who broke a tackle from Richard Sherman to make it 24-17. It came a play after a 45-yard connection from Dalton to CeeDee Lamb on a great throw up the right sideline beating backup safety Marcell Harris in coverage.

The 49ers tied it up again with a 1-yard touchdown run from Jeff Wilson, after he momentarily left the game, which followed up an impressive catch and run from Reed.

San Francisco got the ball back after a punt pinned them near their own goal line. After giving themselves some breathing room, Mullens threw an interception to safety Donovan Wilson, which led to a go-ahead 48-yard field goal giving Dallas a 27-24 lead, and 17 points off 49ers turnovers.

Mullens followed up that series with two passes that were nearly intercepted on the following possession that led to a punt.

Mullens on the following possession had Aiyuk open on a third-and-10 and was hit as he threw a short incompletion, but Dallas was called for pass interference giving the 49ers an automatic first down with 3:30 left near midfield.

But then Mullens threw another interception, this one to Anthony Brown, while he looked for Aiyuk over the middle.

Then running back Tony Pollard ran right through the demoralized 49ers defense for a 40-yard touchdown, giving Dallas a 34-24 lead, while breaking three tackles. That gave the home team 24 points off four San Francisco giveaways.

Mullens took an awkward hit to his throwing arm was replaced by C.J. Beathard, who helped the 49ers get in range for a quick field goal with 40 seconds left to make 34-27.

The Cowboys returned the onside kick for a touchdown and Beathard tossed a Hail Mary score as time expired, making it a 41-33 finish.

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