The 2018 Dallas Cowboys are NFC East division champions after defeating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27–20 in an workmanlike effort Sunday in Arlington. The Cowboys took an early 7-3 lead and never trailed. The defense scored their first touchdown of the season when Jaylon Smith electrified the crowd midway through the first quarter. Another turnover set Dallas up at the Buccaneers’ two-yard line for another touchdown.
The defense needed to step up because the offense struggled throughout much of the game. The Cowboys would finish with only 232 yards total offense. But they managed to score two touchdowns on their three red zone attempts and avoided turning the ball over.
It wasn’t the crisp, impressive performance Cowboys’ fans hoped for. The offensive struggles against a bad Tampa defense is disconcerting. But the end result was effective. Dallas will now be able to rest ailing starters next week and avoid a nail-biting showdown against a division foe on the road. Two weeks from now Dallas will host a wild-card round playoff game. It’s the third time in five years they’ll do so (a far cry from the previous 17 years when the team hosted only one playoff game).
Before many had even reached their seats we had the unfortunate sight of Tyrone Crawford laying motionless on the field on the second play of the game. The play looked relatively innocent when it happened but fans and players alike were visibly shocked by sight of Crawford surrounded by medical personnel. It was announced as a neck strain but the severity of the injury is not known.
The early going saw the Dallas defense giving up long, time-consuming drives but not giving up a lot of points. After Dallas special teams gave up another long kickoff return the Bucs moved 45 yards in seven plays for an opening drive field goal. They looked to be moving well on their next drive, using nine plays to cover 41 yards but on third-and-five from the Cowboys’ 34 the Dallas defense came up with the play of the game.
Jameis Winston was flushed right and was unaware Randy Gregory was tracking him from behind. Gregory made the sack, forcing a fumble which was scooped up by Jaylon Smith who raced 69 yards for the team’s first defensive score of the season.
These drives surrounded an impressive opening drive touchdown from the Cowboys’ offense. The big play was a 31-yard completion from Dak Prescott to Michael Gallup on third-and-12.
The score came on a Dak Prescott run from the 7-yard line, giving them team one of their two red zone touchdowns on the day.
Tampa Bay bounced back from Smith’s fumble return with another long drive but it was again derailed in the scoring zone when Jameis Winston was called for a block in the back. The 14-play drive resulted in another field goal and a 14–6 Dallas lead.
The Dallas offense then reverted to early season form. Their next three drives totaled only 33 yards over 12 plays. They did manage a field goal late in the half after a Maliek Collins sack forced Tampa to punt from their own end zone. Cole Beasley returned the ball to the Bucs 45, giving Dallas good field position. Dak, however, missed a wide open Blake Jarwin and the team eventually settled for a 59-yard field goal attempt from Brett Maher. Maher nailed the kick, giving him the two longest field goals in Cowboys’ history, and Dallas a 17-6 lead.
Tampa responded smartly, going 75 yards in eight plays for a touchdown with 20 seconds remaining in the half. The drive would include two highly questionable personal foul penalties on the Cowboys, and a blatant offensive pass interference on Bucs wideout Mike Evans went uncalled. The trend of referees having horrible games continues. Dallas would receive the second half kickoff with a 17–13 lead.
The team’s offensive woes would continue though. First, some good fortune when an Ezekiel Elliott fumble was recovered by Dalton Schultz. But then Prescott didn’t see a wide open receiver on a third down play and the Cowboys punted. Things were looking somewhat bleak at this point as the Bucs quickly moved downfield, reaching the Cowboys 26 in only three plays. But then Demarcus Lawrence made a huge play, recording a sack for an eight-yard loss. Tampa would eventually settle for 52-yard field goal attempt that went wide. Dallas had dodged a bullet.
Then came the second key sequence of the game that would see Dallas stretch the lead to 14 points. First Dallas put a nice drive together that sputtered in the red zone (again). But the 12-play drive ate up seven minutes and gave Dallas a 20-13 lead with just under four minutes remaining the third quarter.
The Bucs then gifted a turnover to the Cowboys when Jameis Winston botched a handoff attempt. Randy Gregory fumbled and bumbled the ball all the way to the Bucs two-yard line, setting up Dallas in scoring position.
The second of two fade attempts resulted in the score, Dak connecting with Michael Gallup for a 27–13 game going into the fourth quarter.
The only real drama that remained was a goal line stand by the Cowboys defense. Tampa faced a fourth and one from the Dallas two-yard line when they were called for delay of game. The eventual fourth-and-six attempt came up just short when Winston was pressured and his scramble attempt was thwarted by Antauwn Woods. Thus, the Bucs’ 17-play, 9+ minute drive yielded zero points. It was the Cowboys’ fourth goal line stand of the season.
The Dallas offense recorded a couple first down after the stop, with a clutch Cole Beasley catch on third down being the key play. Zeke then had a good run and looked to have had another long run but a Tyron Smith penalty negated the play and the Cowboys eventually punted. Still, they used up 3:20 off the clock and forced Tampa to use all three of their timeouts. Tampa took over with 4:28 remaining needing 14 points to tie the game.
They would march 71 yards for a touchdown, Mike Evans getting the score on a seven-yard catch. But the Bucs’ on-sides kick attempt was recovered by Leighton Vander Esch and the game was effectively over.
It wasn’t pretty but it was effective. The Cowboys are NFC East champions.