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Cowboys vs. Buccaneers: 10 thoughts including how a couple second-round gambles paid off big

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It may not have gone down like we hoped, but the Cowboys got the win.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys got back in the winning column on Sunday by beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-20. It was a good way to finish out the regular season at home. The game lacked excitement at times, especially from the offensive side of the ball, but the Cowboys got the job done and that’s what matters. Here are 10 thoughts on the Cowboys victory over the Bucs.

1. Cowboys run the East!

The Cowboys are NFC East champions for the third time in five seasons. Thanks to struggles by their divisional foes, nine wins is all it took to get the job done this season. This means that the Cowboys will essentially have a bye week before hosting a playoff game in January.

2. Offensive struggles continue

Don’t let the win fool you - the Cowboys have some serious problems. The offense has been a complete enigma these last few weeks. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 14, they had the most yards in 40 years. Last week against the Indianapolis Colts, they were shutout for the first time in 15 years. Sunday’s game against the Bucs will go down as a win for the Cowboys, but that happened despite the team’s worst offensive yardage production of the season.

Tampa Bay had over 150 more yards, 11 more first downs, and dominated the time of possession by over 10 minutes. Fortunately for the Cowboys, the defense was able to come away with some big plays to help them put points on the scoreboard.

Amari Cooper was completely invisible. Again. After a great six-game debut with the Cowboys, Cooper only has eight catches for 52 years over the last two games. Even the yard-churning Ezekiel Elliott has been kept in check. After a five-game stretch where Zeke had been tearing it up, he’s now had two-straight games where he’s been held under 90 yards rushing. The offense is broke.

This is a very unsettling feeling for a team who will be playing in the post season in a couple weeks.

3. Crawford scare

On the second play from scrimmage, Tyrone Crawford went down and stayed down. He was taken off on a cart which brought a scare to Cowboys Nation. Crawford was able to give the crowd a thumbs up as he left the field. Initial reports were that it is was a neck sprain, but we’ll keep our ear close to the ground as we await updates on Crawford’s health.

Per Jason Garrett, Crawford was released from the hospital after undergoing further evaluation. Garrett told reporters that a scan and MRI of Crawford’s neck were negative. That’s great news. You could see the worry on his teammates faces when he was down as he’s been such an inspirational player in the locker room.

4. Red zone got a little better

With all the attention on the Cowboys offensive red zone struggles, it was great to see the team find the end zone on it’s first possession. Dallas took it’s opening drive 75 yards on eight plays in just over five minutes. Aided by a 31-yard third down completion to Michael Gallup and a couple 10+ plays by Ezekiel Elliott, the offense rolled down the field on the Bucs defense. Dak Prescott capped off the drive with a quarterback keeper off the read-option.

Of course, it was back to the same old song and dance on their next red zone attempt. In fact, they had first-and-goal at the three-yard line and just like they’ve done all year - they couldn’t find the end zone.

The Cowboys got one final shot when Randy Gregory recovered a fumble and returned it to the two-yard line. They capitalized this time as Prescott found Michael Gallup on a fade in the end zone.

5. Second-round gambles pay off

The Cowboys front office has gotten a lot of flack for some questionable second-round draft picks in recent years. They took Randy Gregory in 2015 who has spent the better part of his career suspended for violating the leagues drug policy. They also rolled the dice on Jaylon Smith the following season after a gruesome knee injury ended his college career. Both these draft picks had done very little entering this season.

But that’s changed this year as Smith has been all over the field. He has over 100 tackles on the season. Gregory’s been heating up as well. Despite his compulsion to commit stupid penalties that extend drives, he’s constantly making plays. The two combined for a big defensive touchdown in the first quarter.

Smith finished with 10 tackles and two passes defended. Gregory finished with three QB hits, including a sack and a fumble recovery that he almost returned for a touchdown.

6. Money Maher

The Cowboys front office continues to look like a genius when it comes to their decision to move away from Dan Bailey and go with Brett Maher. After hitting a 62-yard field goal a couple weeks ago against the Philadelphia Eagles, Maher delivered again with a long one as he knocked down a 59-yarder in the second quarter.

Maher has only played 15 games in his young NFL career, but he already has the two longest field goals in Cowboys franchise history. Something tells me we haven’t seen his longest yet.

7. Extra chances for Tampa Bay

The Bucs first touchdown came with the help of a couple questionable penalties. They got 15 extra yards thanks to a roughing the quarterback penalty by Gregory. For the life of me, it’s unclear how they felt that warranted a flag. Gregory wasn’t late, he didn’t hit high or low, and he even tried to adjust his weight to avoid landing on him. It was actually a really good play, but the referees didn’t see it that way. Xavier Woods got called for a personal foul a few plays later after hitting Bucs receiver Adam Humphries.

Later, DeMarcus Lawrence got called for a weird delay of game penalty as he was adjusting to fill the gap on a key fourth-down play. Defenders do that all the time, but I’ve never seen anyone get called for it. The penalty gave the Bucs a new set of downs, but fortunately the defense was able to stop them from getting any points.

8. Another milestone for Zeke

Elliott leads the league in rushing with 1,434 yards and with Todd Gurley missing Sunday’s game, there’s a great chance Elliott will take down the league’s rushing title. It would be his second title in three years as nobody has a higher per game average than Zeke since he came into the league. With Elliott’s 105 scrimmage yards, he now has 2,001 total yards on the season, eclipsing his 1,994 mark his rookie season in 2016. Elliott also achieved another milestone as he became the fastest player to reach the 4,000 yard mark.

9. Big performance by the rookie

Sean Lee was inactive for the game, but the Cowboys linebacker group was in good hands with Smith and rookie Leighton Vander Esch. The defense got their mojo back against the running game as the Bucs only had 63 total yards on the ground. Running back Peyton Barber only had 43 yards on 17 carries for a measly 2.5 yards per carry.

One of the reason for the lack of production was that Vander Esch was all over the field. He finished with 15 total tackles, including 11 solo. He also recovered the onside kick that sealed the game.

Before the game, Vander Esch was presented with the Bob Lilly award, an honor bestowed upon him by Cowboys fans that recognize him for sportsmanship, leadership, dedication and achievement.

10. Season predictions

In September, I made some season predictions. The expectations were that the Cowboys defense would surprise people, Zeke would reestablish himself as one of the best players in the league, and the Jaylon Smith experiment would finally prove to be a success. Oh yeah, and one more - the Eagles weren’t repeating as divisional champs because our Cowboys would take back what is rightfully theirs. As it turns out, all of these things were true.