The matchup you've all been waiting for is almost here. The 3-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a game up on the 2-6 Dallas Cowboys, but that doesn't mean that the Cowboys don't have a fighting chance in this one. They do. But they better bring that fight because anything less is just going to ignite a full-blown dumpster fire that is the Cowboys season if they can't pull out a win in Tampa on Sunday.
I can envision this game going either way, and here are some factors that stick out the most.
The Bucs win if...
Helpless against the run
After watching the Philadelphia Eagles running game have their way last Sunday night, it has set the stage for some concern against Tampa Bay this week. The Bucs rank 7th in rushing this season with 131.9 yards per game. That's even better than Dallas, despite a recent surge that has put the Cowboys into the top 10. The running back tandem of Doug Martin and Charles Sims present a nice one-two punch that can alleviate how much the team needs to rely on their rookie quarterback, Jameis Winston.
The Cowboys linebacker group has gone from healthy to thin in a matter of just one game. Sean Lee has been ruled out and the availability of Rolando McClain and Anthony Hitchens is unknown as they are dealing with their own injuries. This means Andrew Gachkar will see plenty of opportunities. That's not too worrisome, however if you start seeing a lot of snaps for players like Kyle Wilber, Damien Wilson, and the recently added, Keith Smith - it could get a little dicey.
Big Play of Mike Evans
The Cowboys defense have had three games this season where they've allowed a receiver to have a big game against them (over 100 yards) - Julio Jones (week 3), Julian Edelman (week 5), and Jordan Matthews (last week). But they've also done a good job shutting down the team's big playmaking receiver too as Odell Beckham Jr was kept in check (44 and 35 yards), as was Brandin Cooks (25 yards). A big factor in all this is just how much of a threat their supporting casts imposes. Mike Evans is a great wide receiver, but the Bucs don't have other guys catching passes that could help take some of the attention away from him. This seems to favor the Cowboys, however one little slip up in the secondary and Evans could be off to the races. He doesn't need to make a lot of catches to hurt you.
Another close game
The Cowboys are a running team and with it comes many clock-chewing drives. Whether it's a good idea or not, this is going to shorten the game. That's a great approach when you want to keep the game close to give yourself a fighting chance, but this isn't one of those games. And as we all know, the Cowboys aren't fairing so well in close games this season. Even more concerning is how Dallas is being outplayed in the second half of games this season. This team has been on the wrong end of impact, fourth-quarter plays and as long as the game is close, they'll will always be vulnerable to that one play that could cost them the game.
Dallas wins if...
Trade field goals for touchdowns
Tampa Bay's defense isn't that great so the Cowboys offense will be able to move the ball on them. The key for Dallas will be the ability to find the end zone. Can the offense finish off drives or will they have to rely on Dan Bailey to work on his trick-shot kicks off the goal post?
The things that have stalled drives in the past are the same things that are concerning now. The offense can't have McFadden get loose for a big play only to find out that one of his teammates committed a senseless penalty that nullifies a great play and puts Matt Cassel behind the chains. And speaking of Cassel, he's got to be real smart with the ball. The Bucs defense don't do a lot of things well, but they do take the ball away. Seven points are great, three is decent, but no points flat out stinks.
Pass on first down
The Buccaneers defense is a solid run stopping team, but can be beat in the passing game. Former Cowboys cornerback, Sterling Moore is one of their better defensive backs and could draw the assignment of covering Dez Bryant. The Bucs also have three safeties who are questionable - D.J. Swearinger, Major Wright, and Bradley MacDougald. The Cowboys must take advantage of the holes in the defense and shouldn't wait until third down to do it. Keep the defense guessing by taking shots through the air. The Cowboys offense has been real effective when they have switched to this gear in the past, but they seem to hold off until there is a greater sense of urgency to move the ball. Well, don't wait. The time to score is now so stop lollygagging.
Don't give away points
It would be something really remarkable if the Cowboys defense was able to create a turnover and take it to the house. I remember how it felt when they blocked that punt in Philadelphia. It was sensational. It would also be super fantastic if Lucky Whitehead or Cole Beasley would maneuver their way through the special teamers and return it all the way for a score.
These are both great things, but to be honest - I won't be upset if that doesn't happen. My only request is that the Cowboys don't give up any of those things. I am 100% absolutely, without a doubt, almost certain that the Cowboys would probably win this game if they could just at least push in this department. I mean, seriously - just don't screw it up.