IRVING, TEXAS — IRVING, Texas -- The ball was knocked out of Alvin Harper's arms in the end zone. Then the ball sailed wide right off Eddie Murray's foot. When San Francisco scored five plays and 80 yards later, the ball -- and the game -- seemed to be bouncing the 49ers' direction.
Except for just one thing. It was only the third quarter.
"We figured this game would be won in the fourth quarter," Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson said.
And after Michael Irvin put Dallas on top late in the third, a Murray field goal and the Dallas defense did the rest in the fourth quarter as the Cowboys scored a 26-17 victory over the 49ers yesterday. It was Dallas' fourth straight victory.
The Texas Stadium crowd of 65,099 got largely what it came to see: a shoot-out involving what may be the NFL's two best teams. The 49ers amassed more than 400 yards, but Troy Aikman to Irvin proved to be the most potent weapon on the field.
Irvin caught a career-high 12 passes for 168 yards including the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. By comparison, the 49ers' Jerry Rice caught seven balls for 82 yards, but five of those passes for 57 yards came in the final 4:10 after Irvin had grabbed the headlines and the Cowboys had grabbed a nine-point lead.
"I love the big game," Irvin said. "This is what it's all about. I live for these kinds of games."
The victory kept Dallas a game behind New York in the NFC East. San Francisco remained two games behind New Orleans in the NFC West.
The 49ers trailed, 16-10, at halftime and were in danger of falling desperately far behind in the third quarter.
On a third-and-eight at the San Francisco 17, Aikman lofted a pass for Harper in the left corner of the end zone. The ball passed through Harper's arms, hesitating for a moment but not long enough for officials to rule it a catch.
"I caught the ball," said Harper. "I was starting to lift my arms up to signal touchdown when it got knocked out."
On the next play, Murray's streak of 10 field goals was stopped when he missed from 35 yards. And then the 49ers roared to life.
They covered 80 yards in five plays with a 40-yard run by fullback Marc Logan the big play. Steve Young's 12-yard scoring pass to Brent Jones put the 49ers ahead, 17-16, with 2:32 to go in the third quarter.
The Cowboys had to punt on their next possession, but Logan fumbled on first down for the 49ers when he was stripped by Russell Maryland. Tony Casillas recovered at the San Francisco 39. Two plays later, Irvin beat cornerback Michael McGruder for a 36-yard touchdown pass from Aikman, hauling in the ball on his hip at the 5 and trotting in for the score.
The Cowboys' offense produced 23 points in the first half. However, the Dallas lead after 30 minutes was only 16-10 since the Cowboys handed San Francisco their first score.
On the game's first possession, Emmitt Smith was stripped of the ball by linebacker John Johnson. The fumble bounced to cornerback Eric Davis, who ran 47 yards down the left sideline for the touchdown just 3:04 into the game.
After four straight victories, the Cowboys take a week off before opening a stretch of three straight against NFC East opponents: Philadelphia, New York and Phoenix.
"We're still one game back, and the Giants are playing extremely well," Johnson said. "After these next three games, we'll be able to see where they stand."
L They learned yesterday that they still rank above the 49ers.
NFL WEEK 7
( Cardinals 36 Redskins 6
Browns 28 Bengals 17
Oilers 28 Patriots 14
Steelers 37 Saints 14
Giants 21 Eagles 10
Lions 30 Seahawks 10
Chiefs 17 Chargers 14
Cowboys 26 49ers 17