SANTA CLARA — In like a lion, out like a lamb.
The 49ers stormed out of the gates against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, but came crashing back down to earth in a 24-17 loss to their NFC East rival.
Under scrutiny all week, Blaine Gabbert led two touchdown drives to start the game and the 49ers converted their first seven third-down attempts. A Jeremy Kerley crossing pattern turned into a 33-yard touchdown and Carlos Hyde finished off a 12-play, 80-yard drive with a touchdown to start the second quarter. Things were fine and dandy for Chip Kelly early on.
But the momentum, and in fact the game, was swung with 4:23 left in the second quarter. It appeared as if the 49ers had sacked Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott to force a punt, but a late penalty flag on Jaquiski Tartt called the safety for unnecessary roughness. Three plays later, Terrence Williams was dancing in the end zone on a 20-yard pass from Prescott and the rookie QB would add one more 4-yard touchdown pass to Brice Butler before the half to even the score at 14 apiece.
After the Tartt penalty, the 49ers looked like the 49ers we expected, and the Cowboys looked like a team primed for a postseason run.
To start the third quarter, San Francisco quickly marched down the field, but stalled in the red zone and had to settle for a field goal. Gabbert started 7-for-9 in the first quarter, but threw for just 3 yards in the second quarter. On the lone deep 49ers throw of the day, Gabbert severely under-threw Torrey Smith and Morris Claiborne intercepted the pass. It was the first throw of the possession after punt returner Jeremy Kerley set the 49ers up near midfield.
The Cowboys marched, too, but they finished their drive with a 1-yard Ezekiel Elliot touchdown run, taking a 21-17 lead with 1:08 left in the third quarter. Right after the Claiborne interception, Elliot ripped of a 26-yard scamper, which would turn into a Dan Bailey field goal. The 49ers never threatened again.
Gabbert finished 16-for-23 with 196 yards passing, 27 rushing yards, one touchdown pass and an interception. Hyde added 74 yards on 15 carries. Kerley added 8 catches for 88 yards.
The story for the Cowboys continues to be No Dez Bryant, no Tony Romo, no problems. Prescott went 23-for-32, 245 yards passing, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Elliot, meanwhile, added 138 yards on 23 carries.
The last team to win a division starting rookies at both quarterback and running back was the Washington Redskins back in 2012 with Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris. Prescott’s value as a fourth-rounder is turning out to be the steal of the 2016 NFL Draft; Gabbert’s stock continues its plunge.
There was some unfortunate injury news from the 49ers. NaVorro Bowman was carted off the field with a non-contact injury and some have speculated it could be an Achilles injury.
The 49ers return to Levi’s Stadium Thursday for a matchup against the Arizona Cardinals.