Each NFL game is made up of about 125 to 135 plays, usually the ones that get all of the attention are the headline-grabbing touchdowns or game-deciding plays in the last few minutes, but what about all of the crucial plays that led up to those moments? What about the overlooked plays that had a significant bearing on the direction of the game but are usually forgotten in favor of flashy highlights? Here is a look at five plays that may get lost in the wash, but ultimately were critical in shaping the Cowboys 26-20 victory over Tampa Bay.
Play: Doug Martin Rush for 5-Yard Loss/Personal Foul on Jameis Winston
Situation: First and goal from the Dallas 8
Score: Dallas leads 17-3
Time: 3:03 remaining in the second quarter
Impact: After the Cowboys pushed the lead to 14, Tampa Bay responded with an impressive drive that looked like it would ultimately end up in the end zone. Instead, after David Irving blew up the first and goal run for a five yard loss, Winston set his offense back even further with a headbutt to Justin Durant that resulted in a personal foul penalty that pushed the all back to the Dallas 28. The Bucs ended up settling for a 34-yard field goal, and it was Winston’s penalty that torpedoed the drive.
Play: Mike Evans 13-Yard Reception
Situation: Third and 10 from the Tampa Bay 36
Score: Dallas leads 17-6
Time: 13:36 remaining in the third quarter
Impact: It looked like the Cowboys defense was ready to get the ball back for the offense with a double-digit lead at the start of the second half, but Winston and Evans had other plans. Winston had plenty of time in the pocket to find a sliding Evans on the sideline for a great fingertip catch that extended the drive. Just three plays later Winston would find Adam Humphries for a miraculous 42-yard touchdown that tipped off the outstretched hands of Brandon Carr to cut the lead to 17-13.
Play: Russell Shepard 19-Yard Reception
Situation: Second and 18 from the Tampa Bay 11
Score: Dallas leads 17-13
Time: 8:00 remaining in the third quarter
Impact: After a holding penalty nullified a first down Tampa Bay was backed up with a 2nd and 18 on their own 11, but on the very next play Winston immediately found Shepard for a first down. Again, Winston had plenty of time in the pocket to scan the field and throw an impressive strike into the Cowboys zone coverage. This play sparked a drive that looked like it would stall after the penalty, and it ultimately ended with a second straight touchdown, this time a 10-yard reception by Cameron Brate that gave Tampa a 20-17 lead.
Play: Charles Sims 6-Yard Reception
Situation: Second and 11 from the Dallas 46
Score: Dallas leads 23-20
Time: 7:54 remaining in the fourth quarter
Impact: Following the Jason Witten fumble the Buccaneers got the ball in great field position at the Dallas 45, down just three and only about 10 yards outside of field goal range. After a good play by Benson Mayowa to stuff a first down run for a loss the Bucs ran a screen on second down that caught the Cowboys bringing Sean Lee on a blitz, and it looked like it could be a potential big-gainer with several offensive linemen out in front and no defenders in sight. It was a nearly perfect play call but Byron Jones did a great job of beating right tackle Gosder Cherilus to the spot, forcing Sims back inside and slowing his momentum before eventually making the tackle for only a six-yard gain when it looked like it could’ve easily been 10-15. Justin Durant also did a great job of beating his block to help Jones make the tackle. Instead of a first down in field goal range, it was third down, and the defense would get off the field and force a punt on the very next play. This was arguably the biggest sequence of the night.
Play: Dez Bryant 19-Yard Reception
Situation: Second and 9 from the Dallas 5
Score: Dallas leads 23-20
Time: 6:30 remaining in the fourth quarter
Impact: After the defense’s big three and out the offense found itself pinned inside their own five with just under seven minutes to play. On first down Ezekiel Elliott managed only a yard, putting them in a tough 2nd and 9, and the distinct possibility of a three and out and giving Tampa the ball back in Cowboys territory was undoubtedly in the minds of many Cowboys fans. The offense spread the formation with Prescott in the shotgun, and he delivered with a huge throw to Bryant that gave the offense a new set of downs and got them out of the shadow of their own end zone. It was arguably Prescott’s most important throw of the game. On the next play Elliott broke off his biggest run of the night, a 42-yarder that would help drain the clock and set up a Dan Bailey field goal that pushed the lead to six.