It’s hard to envision a cornerback having a better quarter than Morris Claiborne had in the fourth quarter Sunday.
The oft-maligned veteran intercepted a pass, snapping a two-plus year drought, and then had a tackle for loss. He capped it off with a game-sealing play, knocking San Francisco 49ers receiver Torrey Smith out of bounds short of the first-down marker on a late fourth-down attempt, earning a mobbing from his teammates.
That essentially closed out a 24-17 victory over the 49ers. Afterward, the question posed was, which play was more memorable — the interception or fourth-down stop?
“I’m happy with both of them,” said Claiborne, smiling. “The fourth-down tackle is really what closed it out. I’m just thankful.”
The fourth-down stop, though, had everyone raving in the locker room. Claiborne made a physical play to prevent Smith from keeping the 49ers’ hopes alive.
It happened on a fourth-and-6 from the Dallas 35, and Blaine Gabbert and Smith couldn’t turn a short right-side pass into anything more than a 3-yard gain against Claiborne.
“I was so proud for him. That play he made on fourth down was one that could be a tidewater change,” owner Jerry Jones said. “A physical play. We know he has great skills. The thing about him has been a question of physical. For him to make a physical play to get us the turnover and get us the ball, which is the equivalent of it, that’s big.”
The interception proved to be just as significant earlier in the quarter with the Cowboys clinging to a 21-17 lead.
The 49ers had good field position after a 26-yard punt return by former TCU star Jeremy Kerley, and Gabbert tried to hit Smith on a deep pass on the first play of the drive. But the ball sailed away from Smith, and Claiborne made the adjustment.
“As the game was going on, I was praying to myself, ‘God, it’s never too late. I’m still here. I still want one,’ ” Claiborne said. “I remember walking around telling the training staff that I’m going to get you one. I even told our linebackers coach, ‘Hey, I’m going to get you one.’ It just so happened that I came back over with one.
“I can’t even describe the feeling. I just want more.”
It was his first interception since Sept. 21, 2014.
It’s hard to imagine Claiborne still being with the Cowboys given what transpired. He lost his starting job in 2014 after that interception, storming out of the practice facility one day, and continued to be bothered by injuries.
But the Cowboys have stuck with him, and Claiborne is finally flashing the potential he showed coming out of LSU when Dallas made him the sixth overall pick in 2012.
“Talk about hanging in there with a guy, allowing him to get his confidence,” tight end Jason Witten said. “I just think going back to camp, the way he played, the way he approached it, the confidence he has, that swagger he brought, that’s big-time plays he’s made. You don’t see corners come up and make tackles like that [on fourth down].”
Added defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli: “He’s playing at a high, high level. That interception was a game-turner and then that tackle at the end of the game was big. That’s a hitting corner.”
Claiborne proved to be the defensive story of the day, but the entire defense stepped up down the stretch.
The Cowboys pitched a shutout in the fourth quarter, and held the 49ers to only three points in the second half. San Francisco started the game by converting its first seven third-down opportunities, but it finished by converting only one of seven.
“We knew we could play better and we knew some of the plays that we gave up were our control,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “Guys just making sure they do their job perfect every time. Once we got on track and started doing our job and playing at a higher intensity, I feel like we shut them down.”
Nobody more than Claiborne.