It was a game that the Dallas Cowboys needed to win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the worst way. Instead, they lost it in the worst way. After either outplaying the Buccaneers or at least matching them play for play, they faded once again down the stretch. It is time to face the fact that the Cowboys are not a very good football team without Tony Romo, and there is no certainty they are going to be significantly better once he returns. In a match where all it would have taken was one sustained touchdown drive from Dallas, they could not muster one, and they fell 10-6 in a display of ineptitude that should shatter any illusions remaining of how they might be able to get back into the playoffs.
They almost had a very unlikely hero in reserve safety Jeff Heath, who managed to intercept two balls caroming off Tampa Bay receivers' hands. He put the Cowboys on winning side of the turnover battle, when it was the other team that could not hang on to potential game-changing interceptions. But Dallas was unable to convert a third and one following his second pick in the fourth quarter, electing to pass the ball which was dropped by Dez Bryant. The only short punt of the day by Chris Jones followed, and for the first time all day, Tampa Bay drove into the red zone. Once again the Dallas defense was unable to get a stop when it could have won the game. It looked like they got a crucial turnover when Jameis Winston fumbled the ball trying to dive into the endzone, but a defensive holding penalty gave the ball back to Tampa with a first down at the half-yard line. Winston then ran it in, and, with less than a minute and no timeouts, the Cowboys were unable to overcome that.
The game was once again full of almosts and just-misseds, but for once it was on both sides of the ball. Both teams saw wide receivers drop badly needed receptions. Both saw sure interceptions clank off the hands of defenders. Both squandered opportunities to take control of a game where one touchdown looked like it would put the game almost out of reach. Although Matt Cassel had some issues, he was not the only problem by a long shot. What was an issue with him was that he either was repeatedly unable to read the defensive alignment, or the coaching staff was not letting him change the play at the line. That, more than perhaps anything, is what the Cowboys miss with Tony Romo out.
There were a few times when the Cowboys did manage to make plays that have eluded them recently. They notched two sacks in the first half and Jeff Heath snagged a deflected pass for only the fourth interception of the year for the Cowboys. With the exception of a handful of plays, the defense was very solid for most of the game. They were helped by a couple of Mike Evans drops at key times. The biggest problem was that, once again, they were not able to stop the other team on third and long plays.They really handled the Buccaneers' running game well, but Jameis Winston was able to find open receivers far too often. He got on a roll late in the third quarter, and that was a dangerous thing in a game that was this close, but then Tyler Patmon broke up a third down pass to end the threat.
At the same time, Bryant and the other Cowboys receivers were just not able to win their matchups consistently. Tampa worked their eponymous defense well, and Cassel was just not the quarterback to pick them apart. And as the Cowboys had shut down the Bucs' running game, they returned the favor. It reduced the game to a contest between two passing attacks that were both too inconsistent and mistake prone.
If there was one unit of the Cowboys that did well, it was the special teams. Although Dan Bailey missed his first field goal of the season, that may have been more because of windy conditions than anything. Chris Jones repeatedly pinned the Buccaneers deep, which put the pressure on them to move the ball. His short punt late could have been better, but Tampa Bay had found a rhythm on offense that doomed Dallas.
It came down to whether either team could mount an effective drive, or whether Bailey's field goals would be enough. Winston has shown a trend of getting better in the fourth quarter. As the game clock wound down, he began to make clutch throws while, once again, the Cowboys were caught blitzing by a timely screen pass, and Evans started making catches instead of dropping the ball. Of course, he picked the Cowboys to get his career high number of receptions.
It is fitting that the last gasp for the Cowboys was on a Cassel interception on an attempted desperation heave for Bryant where Bryant did not really make a play on the ball. It was a terrible performance from a team that needed so much more, but showed it did not have it to give.