The Dallas Cowboys, 9.5 underdogs, fought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the very end to fall just short by a 31-29 score. The game featured drama, lead changes inside the final two minute warning, and a measure of redemption for a field goal kicker. The result was still in doubt down to the final seconds, and NBC probably got themselves a ratings bonanza from the matchup of the defending Super Bowl champions and the most watched team in the NFL.
The game quickly turned into a duel between the quarterbacks, as Dak Prescott and Tom Brady led their teams up and down the field. Prescott was quite impressive against the vaunted Buccaneers defense, while Brady just used his savvy and good protection from his line to keep picking the Cowboys apart. It made for an exciting game that went down to the wire and was much, much more competitive than the oddsmakers believed it would. Prescott was as good as he was before the injury last year, finishing with 403 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
However, Dallas clearly won the turnover battle, intercepting Brady twice and forcing two fumbles, while only losing one Prescott interception. That should have led to an easy win for the Cowboys, but there were just enough mistakes by them to make it a nail-biter.
Coming into the game, the one vulnerability of the Tampa Bay defense was the secondary, and Kellen Moore and Prescott attacked them relentlessly. It was evident from the first Cowboys offensive play of the game, when Moore dialed up an empty backfield from his own two-yard line and netted 28 yards. Not only were Prescott and his receivers piling up the yards, they were drawing a lot of flags that netted them first downs. Overall, in fact, the Buccaneers did not have the advantage that so many Tom Brady teams have experienced with the referees. A lot of the laundry on the field was on them, and it often kept drives alive for the Cowboys.
Mike McCarthy is under a lot of scrutiny this year, and he did not impress with some cautious calls on fourth down. One that stood out was the decision to kick a field goal from the Buccaneers three-yard line early in the third quarter. Dallas was down by five points, and Tom Brady was having a lot of bad luck to that point. Playing it safe and just kicking the field goal was betting too much on Brady not getting hot after.
One question that was definitely answered was that Dak Prescott was indeed back. By halftime, he already had 224 yards and two touchdowns, completing 23 of 32. It was not flawless, as he had as many as three passes that probably should have been interceptions. Hps luck would end on a pass that went through the hands of CeeDee Lamb. The resulting pick would set the Buccaneers up with a short field, and it didn’t take long for Tom Brady to hit his longtime sidekick Rob Gronkowski to open up the first two score lead of the game, 28-19 in the third quarter. Still, he was standing in against the run and moving when necessary. He also eight yards on two carries, one of which looked like a designed run. Neither the rebuilt ankle or the strained shoulder were at all a problem. He even escaped what looked like a sure sack to gain a couple.
Most importantly, Dak kept leading the team back. After that nine-point deficit, he would bring the Cowboys back to within two on a touchdown throw to Amari Cooper, who was the leading receiver with well over 100 yards and two scores.
Unfortunately, Tom Brady was also pretty hot. He had 213 yards and three TDs by half. He only completed 13 of 21 throws. The Dallas defense was hot and cold, giving up big gains but stopping the Buccaneers offense at other times. They did get three turnovers before half, one a punched out ball by DeMarcus Lawrence that was recovered by Randy Gregory, an interception that went off the hands of Leonard Fournette and right to Trevon Diggs, and a Jourdan Lewis pick of a caroming Hail Mary pass that he ran out of the end zone for 66 yards. He was tantalizingly close to going all the way and giving the Cowboys a halftime lead.
Still, they trailed at intermission, 21-16. Part of the reason was that the special teams were simply horrid. They gave up 55 yards on returned kicks and punts in the first half, and Greg Zuerlein missed three kicks, an extra point and two field goals. The last FG attempt was a 60-yarder, so he can’t be faulted too much for that, but the others were just bad misses. He would go a long way toward redemption, however, nailing a 48-yarder to give the Cowboys a one point lead with 1:24 left in the game. Not only did Dallas leave points on the field, they also were losing the field position badly, starting too many drives in the shadow of their own goalposts. And he poor kick coverage continued into the second half. John Fassel did not get much at all out of his teams unit, something that really needs to be fixed, stat.
As mentioned, Moore was far better in his duties. The offense was creative, he totally ignored establishing the run because it wasn’t working, and it was mostly some bad execution at key points that stopped the offense, not the feared Tampa Bay defense. And the offensive line has to be complimented, because despite missing Zack Martin, they held up well. Prescott was seldom running for his life. He did take some hits standing in to deliver the ball, but only had one sack through the first three quarters.
The grade on Dan Quinn’s defense was more mixed. They looked at times like the porous unit of last season - but it was not continuous, as they also had some good stops and three and outs. It will probably take more analysis, but if they can build on this start, they are not likely to be the detriment the defense was in 2020.
The running back position was nonexistent for the Cowboys for most of the game, with only 20 yards on the ground in the first as Ezekiel Elliott barely touched the ball. The Buccaneers were not much better to that point, only totaling 32. Despite this, the game was an excellent illustration of how you don’t have to be running the ball much for play-action to work, as both teams used it to good effect.
Elliott was still important, as he was vital in picking up blitzers to protect his quarterback. It is an element of his game that is not remarked on enough.
The injury bug was with the other team for a change, as three different Buccaneers were helped off the field. Two were in the secondary. Some looked to just be cramps, but one did not return with an arm injury. But Michael Gallup, who was having a good game, left in the second half with an ankle injury, hopefully not serious.
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