The Bucs fought their way back from a 14-point hole on the road, managed to take a three-point lead in the second half, but stumbled hard down the stretch.
Killing all hopes of snatching the team’s sixth win in a row was a dreadful final quarter of offensive football. Tampa Bay hung 17 unanswered points on the Dallas Cowboys to take a 20-17 lead late in the third before running out of gas well ahead of the finish line.
Five fourth-quarter possessions resulted in a just five yards of offense, three punts and two interceptions, all but handing Dallas its 12th win of the season. A bend-but-don’t-break defensive effort allowed the Bucs to keep hope alive until the end, but the Cowboys and kicker Dan Bailey converted three field goals in the final period to secure a big 26-20 victory on Sunday Night Football.
Despite striking first on a 25-yard Roberto Aguayo field goal with less than six minutes left in the first quarter, Tampa Bay spent most of the first half trying to keep Dallas in check. The rookie combo of quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott fueled three straight scoring drives that resulted in 17 straight points.
Sparking that run was Dallas taking advantage of Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston’s early second-quarter fumble deep in Tampa Bay territory. Cowboys defensive tackle Terrell McClain was credited for a sack on the play as the ball slipped from Winston’s grasp mid-throw. Five plays later, Dallas was capitalizing on the mistake and Elliott was rushing into the end zone from two yards out and jumping into a giant, red Salvation Army donation kettle.
Elliott entered the night as the league’s top rusher and gained a little breathing room with a 159-yard performance on 23 carries. It was the seventh 100-yard game of the Ohio State rookie’s debut season and he’s now up to 1,551 yards on the year.
A 17-point, second-quarter barrage by the Cowboys wasn’t enough to break the Bucs, though. The team came out in the second half and showed it has what it takes to hang with any opponent on any given Sunday.
Since Dallas won the coin toss and wanted the ball immediately, Tampa Bay received the opening kick of the second half. After completed just 6 of 12 passes for 81 yards through the first two quarters, Winston wasted little time to set a new tone. Aided by a few tough yards picked up by running back Doug Martin, Winston got Tampa Bay back in the game with some assistance from wide receiver Adam Humphries. Scrambling to his left, Winston fired downfield on third-and-1 from the Dallas 42 and hit Humphries for a game-changing touchdown. Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown got a hand on the ball but Humphries kept his concentration and completed a play that narrowed Dallas’ lead to 17-13.
Winston then followed up a four-play stop by the Bucs defense with a 10-play, 81-yard drive that ended with him zinging a 10-yard touchdown strike through the middle of the field to tight end Cameron Brate.
The 20-17 advantage would carry into the fourth quarter, but it was all Dallas from that point forward.
Winston finished his night with 247 yards and two touchdowns, but completed just 17 of 35 pass attempts and got intercepted three times. The first interception came on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half and the third came during desperation mode with about half a minute to play from the Bucs 20.
But it was the second one that caused some problems. The Cowboys had just tied the game at 20-20 early in the fourth and Tampa Bay faced a third-and-14 situation from its own 21. Under pressure, Winston sailed a pass to Humphries that got picked by safety Jeff Heath and returned to the Bucs 22.
Tampa Bay caught a break when Prescott’s 20-yard touchdown to running back Lance Dunbar was nullified by a holding penalty, but Dallas took the lead 23-20 with Bailey’s 38-yard field goal.
Still trailing by the same deficit, the Bucs missed a golden opportunity to at least knot things back up midway through the fourth. Usually reliable Cowboys tight end Jason Witten coughed up a fumble caused by Bucs linebacker Kwon Alexander at the Dallas 45 with 8:32 remaining. Tampa Bay answered with a 1-yard loss on a run by Martin and two incomplete passes.
The best moment of the drive was Bryan Anger’s 36-yard punt that pinned Dallas at its own 4, but the ensuing drive included the Cowboys’ longest play from scrimmage – a 42-yard scamper by Elliott that put him over the 100-yard mark. That set up Bailey’s 33-yard field goal that capped the night’s scoring.
Dallas outgained Tampa Bay 449-276 and picked up 24 first downs to the Bucs’ 16. The big difference in yardage came in the teams’ ground attacks. Elliott powered an effort that netted 185 yards and Martin and the Bucs managed just 52 on 20 attempts.
Not to be lost in defeat was the defensive performance of Alexander. The second-year linebacker racked up a career-high 21 tackles and forced Witten’s fumble. That tackle total tops his previous high of 17 set Week 1 of this season against the Atlanta Falcons. Also cracking double digits Sunday night was safety Keith Tandy. Starting for a third straight game, Tandy picked up 14 tackles.
The problem with those high tackle stats, however, is their necessity. Tampa Bay lost the time of possession battle 36:04 to 23:56.
The Bucs will try to shake off Sunday night’s loss this week and get back to their winning ways next weekend in New Orleans. Tampa Bay goes to battle with the Saints for the second time in three weeks on Christmas Eve this Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:25 p.m.