The Dallas Cowboys came into the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers needing to answer a lot of questions on offense, but with the defense playing very well. The offense answered most, but not all of the questions, and after having a bad stretch coming out of halftime, the defense shut Tampa Bay down. The Cowboys won the turnover battle and had more sacks. And at the end, Dallas escaped with a 26-20 win, their two game lead over the New York Giants for the NFC East crown intact, and renewed faith in the ability of Dak Prescott, who had very productive night. He competed a superb 32 of 36 passes for 279 yards and added a touchdown with his legs.
It took a final stand, as the Buccaneers forced a punt with 1:36 left in the game, but Tampa Bay had used all its time outs by then. With the ball on their own 11, there was just too much field for them to drive. On fourth and 12, the ball was picked off by Orlando Scandrick to seal the win for Dallas.
It was a tie game early in the fourth quarter. After having controlled the game early, the Cowboys had been forced to come from behind after the Buccaneers got their offense on track. But a David Irving sack set up third and long, which led to an interception by Jeff Heath. They were limited to a field goal attempt after a Lance Dunbar touchdown was negated by a Tyron Smith hold, a problem they fought all night. But they got the lead back. And with some help from David Irving, the Cowboys forced a three and out, despite giving the Bucs a first and five on an illegal substitution call. Irving was a force all night, getting two sacks, two tackles for a loss, and a knocked down despite limited time on the field, and was in Jameis Winston’s face on several other plays.
But things were not over, as Jason Witten would get the ball knocked loose at the Dallas 45 on the first play of the next possession. But the Cowboys stopped the Bucs again as the defense stood up. The third quarter went badly for Rod Marinelli’s group, but they played well most of the rest of the game.
Then, with the ball on their own five yard line, the Cowboys moved down the field in a hurry. A pass to Dez Bryant got them out of the shadow of their own end zone, and Ezekiel Elliott busted off a 42 yard run to get another 100 yard rushing game on his ledger. But the drive came up short and the Cowboys had to kick it back to the Buccaneers with 2:58 left on the game clock and only a six point lead.
The Cowboys came out trying to show that they had corrected their offensive woes, and expect for their own mistakes, they did. Holding penalties by Vince Mayle and Doug Free would lead to long-range misses by Dan Bailey, and lead directly to a field goal by the Buccaneers. But in between, Dallas was an offensive machine. They dominated time of possession 20:20 to 9:40 in the first half, had a 257-105 edge in yards, and turned a Jameis Winston fumble into an Ezekiel Elliott touchdown. Dak Prescott would cap Dallas’ best drive of the half with his own rushing TD, going right up the middle untouched on what looked like a designed quarterback draw. Prescott had a very good half, going 21 of 25 for 191 yards while completing passes to eight different receivers. Dez Bryant had five catches for 56 yards while Jason Witten pulled in eight balls. Most encouragingly, the Cowboys converted on five of eight third downs, and Dan Bailey did not punt the ball once. It was literally only their own mistakes that stopped the Cowboys on any of their drives before half as they took a 17-6 lead into halftime.
One interesting side note was that Darren McFadden was active while Alfred Morris was not, and McFadden made immediate contributions, carrying the ball twice for ten yards, including his first touch of the game from the fullback position to get a first down to set up Elliott’s touchdown. He also caught a pass, but was dropped for a loss on a good defensive play. Outside of the penalties, the only real negative of the first half was the two Bailey misses, but both were from outside of 50 yards.
Defensively, the Cowboys were strong, with Sean Lee once again making tackles all over the field and the defensive line getting some good pressure as well as good penetration on some running plays. They also added a meaningless interception on a Hail Mary pass to close out the opening stanza. They held up their end of the bargain by holding Tampa Bay to two field goals.
But the Buccaneers came out with a drive down the field to open the second half. It took a spectacular catch by Mike Evans to keep the drive going, and then they got a deep touchdown on a third and one play where Brandon Carr got a hand on the ball but Adam Humphries was still able to gather the rebound in for the score. It got the Buccaneers back into the game.
The Cowboys had something going on the next drive, but a bit of razzle dazzle went wrong for them as an end around to Lucky Whitehead from Elliott was mishandled, and Ronald Leary had to fall on the ball to keep it from being a disastrous turnover. Had the play worked, Whitehead may have gone for a ways.
The Buccaneers’ offense had found its rhythm in the third quarter, as Winston was hitting receivers who in turn were making some pretty impressive catches under duress. The Dallas defense could not seem to slow them as they exploited seam routes using a rapid tempo that was tiring the defense out. Cameron Brate capped the second Tampa Bay drive of the half with yet another acrobatic catch to put them up by three. The pressure was right back on Prescott and the offense to get their mojo going again to regain the lead and rest the defenders.
The Cowboys were only able to answer with a field goal by Bailey to tie the game at 20 all. It was a nice looking drive stymied by another failed play involving Whitehead when Robert Ayers shot through the gap to snuff out another jet sweep.
But the defense rose up in the end to seal the win. Dallas now only needs one more win or one Giants loss to seal up both the NFC East and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.