Still, San Francisco's biggest strike was an aerial one, and it went to an unlikely target. Trailing 10-7 and facing second-and-11 from the Dallas 30 with six minutes remaining, Mariucci, who calls the offensive plays, sent wideouts Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes on "go" patterns down each sideline. Young chose Stokes, who in Rice's absence is finally living up to the potential that made him the 10th pick in the '95 draft. With cornerback Kevin Smith a half step behind him, Stokes extended his arms and made a lunging catch just short of the goal line, setting up William Floyd's game-winning touchdown run.
As usual, however, it was the Niners' top-rated defense that levied the most decisive blows. Bryant Young, who missed his second consecutive game with a sprained right foot, is probably the league's best defensive tackle, but teammate Dana Stubblefield is closing the gap. Briefly removed from the nickel defense after San Francisco's late-August signing of 1996 NFC sack leader Kevin Greene, Stubblefield has become a terror. He sacked Aikman twice, increasing his team-leading total to nine. "I'm getting my pride back," says Stubblefield, who slumped in '96 after having made the Pro Bowl in the previous two years. "I don't want offensive coordinators to think they can handle me with one blocker."
The 49ers' defense came up big throughout the second half. In the third quarter free safety Merton Hanks, not known for his hitting, stopped Dallas running back Sherman Williams's leap for the end zone with a midair collision at the goal line, and two plays later the Cowboys settled for a field goal. Cornerback Rod Woodson, the Niners' prize free-agent signee, shadowed wideout Michael Irvin all afternoon and matched him shove for shove. With 54 seconds to go and the ball on the San Francisco 39, Aikman threw to the end zone, and Irvin, who had a step on Woodson, was tripped as he went for the ball. Back judge Bill Lovett threw a flag indicating pass interference but then was overruled after field judge Scott Green deemed the contact incidental.
Cowboys coach Barry Switzer wasn't thrilled by the call, but he has much bigger worries. Like DeBartolo, Dallas owner Jerry Jones can't stomach losing, and this is the first time the Cowboys have been under .500 in the second half of the season since 1990, when they finished 7-9. Over the weekend a story in The New York Times detailed an informal team gathering last month in which Switzer reportedly told players he had been up "partying all night" and defended his lifestyle. On Sunday Jones downplayed the story, saying earnestly, "What Barry actually told them was he had been up all night thinking about how to stop the losing."
Still, Switzer's margin for error is slimmer than Kate Moss. "Somehow, someway, we've got to find a way to win our last seven," he said after the game.
Switzer was considerably more chipper in 1994, when in his first year with the Cowboys he won eight of his first nine games. Now Mariucci is the one soaking up the good vibes. With Rice saying he plans to return for the Monday-night showdown with the Broncos on Dec. 15—something that Niners doctors think would make medical history but aren't ruling out—the despair of early September is but a faint memory.
As Mariucci left the locker room following Sunday's game, he spotted Woodson, gave him a big hug and exclaimed, "Was that fun or what?" When Mariucci ventured to the Niners' parking lot, San Francisco fans erupted, yelling comments like, "Lookin' good, Coach!" and, "That's how you do it, Steve!"
He was grinning as he got into his car. There was no need to lock the doors.