The Tampa Bay Buccaneers came to Dallas with a chance to deny the home-team Cowboys their second NFC East title in three years – or at least delay it – but let the opportunity slip away. It was, in fact, two plays in which the football slipped from their grasp that made the difference in the game, as the Buccaneers took a 27-20 defeat at AT&T Stadium despite controlling the ball for 35 minutes and outgaining the home team by 151 yards.
Despite being eliminated from the NFC playoff hunt the previous week, the Buccaneers matched the intensity level of the highly-motivated Cowboys, holding a talented Dallas offense to 232 total yards and fighting to the end with two long drives in the fourth quarter. However, a return of the Bucs' turnover-ratio problems, which had plagued the team for two months in the middle of the season, gave Dallas the edge.
LB Jaylon Smith returned a fumble 69 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. Randy Gregory, who forced that fumble with a blindside hit on a scrambling Jameis Winston, later recovered a fumble at the Buccaneers' four-yard line after a botched handoff between Winston and WR Bobo Wilson. That led to Dak Prescott's four-yard touchdown pass to Michael Gallup, which proved to be the game-winning points.
"It's the same story for us all year," said Buccaneers RB Jacquizz Rodgers. "We just keep killing ourselves, giving up a touchdown on offense and then a fumble in the red zone. That pretty much gave them 14 points and put us behind in the game."
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's defense, which held an opponent below 300 yards for the second time in three weeks, did not force a turnover for the first time in five weeks. CB Carlton Davis forced an Ezekiel Elliott fumble early in the third quarter, a potentially momentum-swinging play after the Buccaneers' offense had finished the first half with Rodgers touchdown run.
"It's always going to be a battle, man," said LB Lavonte David, who had two tackles for loss among his five stops. "You've got to finish the football game, four quarters strong. We felt like we had them. We did everything we wanted to but we just had a couple plays go against us and they capitalized on them. If they don't get the turnovers, it's 20-20, maybe. When they got the turnover down in the red zone, it was tough. A couple bounces didn't go our way today but as always I'm proud of these guys in the locker room and the effort they gave."
Added Winston: "Guys just didn't give up. I think we did a pretty good job on offense, we just had two unfortunate turnovers that hurt us. That's all this game comes down to."
Tampa Bay dropped to 5-10 and will finish the 2018 season next Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium. The Buccaneers were 1-7 on the road in 2018 but have a chance to finish with a winning record at home with a victory over Atlanta. Dallas improved to 9-6 and did, indeed, clinch the NFC East.
"We've got to finish strong," said Winston. "We've got to find a way to get a win and finish the season strong."
Winston threw 48 passes on the afternoon and completed 34 of them for 336 yards but was held without a touchdown toss until the final minutes of the game. In the second half he conducted a 17-play, nine-minute drive – the Bucs' longest of the season in both categories – that came close to making it a one-score game midway through the fourth quarter. The Bucs converted one fourth down on the drive and got another one on a penalty against Dallas, but Winston was stopped inches short of the sticks at the Dallas two-yard line on the third fourth-down gamble. The Bucs got the ball back and drove 71 yards to set up Winston's seven-yard scoring pass to Mike Evans but an ensuing onside kick failed.
"That was fourth-and-six, not fourth-and-short," said Winston of his scramble that came up short, just after the Buccaneers committed a delay-of-game penalty that pushed it back to the Cowboys' seven. "I was just trying to make a play. They beat us up on the outside, they were holding Cam [Brate] and I just tried to get in there."
Evans caught six passes in the game for 90 yards, in the process pushing his 2018 season total to 1,418 yards. That leaves him just five yards shy of breaking the team record in that category, set by Mark Carrier at 1,422 in 1989. WR Adam Humphries was Winston's most targeted player, with 12 passes coming his way. Humphries caught 10 of them to tie a single-game career high and add 79 yards.
Safeties Jordan Whitehead and Andrew Adams tied for the team lead with seven tackles, while rookie DT Vita Vea recorded the Bucs' only sack of the game. The Buccaneers defense allowed just 16 first downs and three third-down conversions and held star running back Ezekiel Elliott to 85 yards on the ground. Prescott completed 20 of 25 passes for 161 yards and one touchdown.
Bobo Wilson got the opening kickoff out to the Buccaneers' 36-yard line for a good start. Two straight passes to Adam Humphries took it to midfield and, after a lengthy delay to tend to injured Cowboys defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford, Winston threw deep down the left sideline to Evans for 38 yards. That play got the Bucs into the red zone but a holding penalty on Caleb Benenoch backed them up to the 23. The offense wasn't able to recover from the flag, so the Bucs settled for a 37-yard field goal that Cairo Santos drilled down the middle.
The Cowboys went straight to their top weapon to open their first possession, with Elliott running straight up the middle for 11 yards. LB Lavonte David blew up a screen pass for a loss of two and LB Adarius Taylor nearly intercepted the next pass, but Prescott converted the long third down with a precise 31-yard pass to rookie WR Michael Gallup, who barely got his second foot inbounds. A more effective screen pass to Cooper got 11 yards and a first down at the Bucs' 14, and a facemask penalty erased a sack by rookie DT Vita Vea. On first down from the seven, Prescott kept the ball on a zone read and ran around the left edge for a touchdown.
The Buccaneers got their second drive into Dallas territory, too, on the strength of two Chris Godwin catches for 19 yards and a 10-yard grab by Evans that he snatched just off the turf. However, on a third-and-five scramble from the Cowboys' 34, Winston was blindsided from behind by Gregory. The ball came loose and Smith scooped it up and ran 69 yards untouched for the Cowboys' second touchdown.
Another holding call, this one on Demar Dotson, put the Bucs in a quick hole on the next possession but Winston converted a third-and-11 by finding Humphries open down the left numbers for 16 yards to the Dallas 45. Winston looked to Humphries again on the next third down, getting nine yards on an out to the left, down to the Dallas 27. Another penalty, this one a block-in-the-back call on Winston, eventually stalled the drive and the Bucs once again had to settle for a field goal, which Santos nailed from 45 yards out.
Tampa Bay's defense followed up with a three-and-out, thanks to David's quick reaction to a third-down screen pass to Elliott, forcing the game's first punt, which rolled out of bounds at the Bucs' 20. Unfortunately, Dallas followed suit with its own three-and-out and the Cowboys got it back at their own 30-yard line with six minutes left in the half. Dallas did get a single first down on a quick out by Amari Cooper but Prescott's third-down pass to Gallup sailed high and incomplete, leading to another punt.
The Bucs started the next drive at their own 15 but eventually punted from the two-yard line after a penalty and a sack by Maliek Collins. Bryan Anger managed to get off a 57-yard punt from the back of the end zone but the return by Cole Beasley got the ball back over midfield. Carl Nassib sniffed out a Prescott keeper and stopped it for a loss of three and Jordan Whitehead stopped Elliott five yards short on third-and-13. The Cowboys brought out K Brett Maher to try a 59-yard field goal and he was able to sneak it in over the crook of the crossbar and right upright.
The Bucs tried to use the last 1:43 of the half to pull closer and succeeded. Winston hit Jackson deep over the middle for 24 yards and a roughing-the-passer penalty was tacked on the end to move the ball to the Dallas 36. An 11-yard catch-and-run by Evans took it down to the 20 and Humphries held on to an eight-yarder over the middle despite a crushing hit that drew a personal-foul penalty. On first-and-goal from the six, Winston scrambled for four up the middle, and Rodgers took a draw handoff on second down and bulled his way into the end zone with 20 seconds left in the half.
Dallas used those 20 seconds to mount the beginning of a scoring threat, as Elliott went up the middle for 17 yards on the first play. However, Vea sacked Prescott on a second-down dropback from midfield and the clock ran out.
Tampa Bay's defense started the second half with another three-and-out but missed a shot at a turnover when Dallas managed to recover the loose ball after Carlton Davis caused a fumble by Elliott.
Winston got the Bucs into Dallas territory on the next possession with completions of 17 yards to Evans and 20 to Godwin. However, Demarcus Lawrence sacked Winston for a loss of eight back to the 34 and, two incompletions later, Santos came on to try a 52-yard field goal. He pushed it wide to the right and the Cowboys thus took over at their own 42.
Dallas used that good field position to tack on three points, though a good stop inside the five kept it from being seven. An 18-yard pass down the right seam to Gallup got the Cowboys into Tampa Bay territory and Cole Beasley's first three catches of the game, on three consecutive plays. Made it first down at the Bucs' 16. Elliott released from the backfield to catch a short out and get a first down at the three, though Adarius Taylor got there in time to keep him out of the end zone. Jason Pierre-Paul sniffed out a tricky end-around to Amari Cooper and trapped him all the way back at the 10 on second down. Prescott hit Beasley again on third-and-goal but Whitehead got him out of bounds two yards short of the sticks. The Cowboys sent out Maher to kick a 20-yard field goal and give Dallas a seven-point lead.
Three plays into the Bucs' next possession, after a long run by Peyton Barber into Dallas territory was called back on a holding penalty, Winston tried to hand off to Bobo Wilson on an end-around. The exchange was botched and the loose ball was recovered by Gregory, who ran it down to the Bucs' three-yard line. That resulted in a three-yard TD pass from Prescott to Gallup with 2:23 left in the third quarter.
The Bucs mounted a lengthy drive in response but it came up short at the very end. Down by two touchdowns, the Bucs went for it on fourth-and-two from their own 45 and got it when Winston made a scrambling throw to Jacquizz Rodgers for five yards. Winston then converted another third down with a pass to Evans and scrambled down to the 16 on the next third down to make it fourth and inches. The Bucs lined up to go for it but got it for free when Lawrence was flagged for delay of game. A subsequent pass over the middle to Rodgers got it down to the two but that was followed by a Barber run for no gain, a hurried incompletion and a delay of game penalty. Winston scrambled on fourth down and dived to try to get to the sticks but came up a few inches short.
The Bucs got the ball back with 4:28 left in regulation and, after taking one deep shot to DeSean Jackson, worked it downfield with a succession of underneath throws. The big play was a 25-yard catch by Wilson over the middle that took it down to the seven-yard line, after which Winston and Evans hooked up on the touchdown pass.