There was a lot on the line for the Dallas Cowboys against the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the New York Giants winning their game earlier in the day against the Detroit Lions, Dallas needed to win to maintain their lead in the NFC East and keep their hopes alive for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They did just that, in a game that saw them having to come back in the fourth quarter. It took everything they could muster on both offense and defense, and that leads to a split decision on the game balls this week.
One has to go to Dak Prescott, who was suddenly and strangely embattled after the loss to those pesky Giants the week before. The coaches stood behind Prescott with the full expectation that he would overcome the distractions and rebound.
He did that emphatically. He completed a remarkable 32 of 36 passes for 279 yards. Not only was he superbly accurate throwing the ball to eight different receivers, he also helped the team with his running ability. One fifteen yard run kept a drive alive, and he also scored untouched on what looked like a designed quarterback draw. He also was converting third downs, with the team going five for eight before having five failed conversions down the stretch. At times, he did not get much help from his teammates. Two fumbles happened without his involvement, and repeatedly plays were called back on holding penalties, including what would have been a touchdown by Lance Dunbar that showed why the team still keeps him on the roster.
But none of that shook the renowned poise of Prescott, and while the Cowboys repeatedly left points on the field, they were able to put up enough to get the win. Given all that was going on around him during a week where the remarkable eleven-game winning streak was discounted, Prescott’s performance was absolutely crucial to the win.
Still, with the failures to score more touchdowns when only the Cowboys could stop their own offense, it would also require the defense to step up. And no defender did so more than David Irving, who was seeing increased playing time after an apparent injury to Tyrone Crawford. Irving, who had previously shown against the Green Bay Packers that he can take over and disrupt an offense even in limited snaps, was nearly an unstoppable force, particularly in the fourth quarter. For the game, he had two sacks, two tackles for losses, a pass knocked down, and five quarterback hits. The latter played a part in two of the three interceptions thrown by Jameis Winston. Winning the turnover battle four to one was a major part of the win, and Irving’s constant pressure on Winston had tremendous value in making that happen.
While Prescott and Irving get the game balls, there are also a couple of players who deserve at least a mention. Ezekiel Elliott had 159 yards rushing included a 42-yard gain in the fourth quarter that flipped the field and set up the final Dan Bailey field goal. And Sean Lee continues to be the leader of the defense in all ways, with a team high ten tackles while he seemed to be around the ball all night long.
But the game balls have to go to the quarterback and the best pass rusher on the field for the night. The Cowboys had to have major contributions from both the offense and defense to get the win, and they got the biggest from a rookie quarterback and and a reserve defensive lineman. For that, there are two game balls that have to be awarded, and those two earned them.