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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs Streak Ends with Hard-Fought Loss

Tampa Bay rallied to take a second-half lead against the NFC-leading Cowboys on Sunday night in Dallas but eventually lost, 26-20, to end a five-game winning streak.

Pictures from the Buccaneers' Week 15 match-up with the Cowboys.

A five-game winning streak got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers flexed to prime time against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night. That time change was no problem for a team that clearly deserved a national spotlight; it was after the game began that the clock became a problem.

The Cowboys snapped Tampa Bay's winning streak on Sunday night at AT&T Stadium with a 26-20 decision that included three lead changes, two in the second half. Dallas controlled the ball for more than two-thirds of the first half to build a 17-6 lead but the visiting Bucs rallied with a pair of third-quarter touchdown passes by QB Jameis Winston, one each to Adam Humphries and Cam Brate. Dallas got the last laugh, however, with a trio of fourth-quarter field goals by Dan Bailey.

The loss dropped the Buccaneers a game behind the Atlanta Falcons in the race for the NFC South title, with two weeks to play, but Tampa Bay's playoff hopes remain very much alive. The Bucs would win the division with wins in Weeks 16 and 17 coupled with one loss by Atlanta. In addition, Tampa Bay is percentage points behind Washington in the second Wild Card spot, tied with Green Bay at 8-6 each. Washington (7-5-1) plays Carolina on Monday night.

Tampa Bay won the turnover battle in all five games during its winning streak, but that run ended on Sunday night and may have been the difference in the game. A second-quarter fumble by Winston deep in Tampa Bay territory led to the game's first touchdown and a fourth-quarter interception set Dallas up for a go-ahead field goal. On both plays, Winston was hit as he was trying to throw. The Cowboys defense came up with two more interceptions, but one was on a Hail Mary in the second half and the other was on a desperation fourth-down throw on the Bucs' last possession.

Winston threw for 247 yards on 17-of-35 passing and was masterful in the third quarter, but he pointed to the giveaways as the main reason for the loss.

"Can't turn the football over," said the second-year passer. "Had too many turnovers – I had [four] on the night. I've got to give our team a better chance to win games."

The Buccaneers had very little success running the football, which put the onus on Winston in the passing attack. Doug Martin was held to 42 yards on 16 carries and the team as a whole generated just 52 yards on the ground. Winston directed 75 and 81-yard drives to start the third quarter, almost all of it through the air, which briefly put the visiting team up, 20-17.

"We played like us," said Winston of the better results after halftime. "When we're playing like us, we're hard to stop. I was protecting the football then. We've just got to do a better job of that. [The Cowboys] played good but I slowed down. I didn't play well enough for us to get the win."

Jeff Heath intercepted Winston in the fourth quarter after DT David Irving hit the quarterback's elbow as he threw. Tampa Bay's defense held after the turnover but Bailey still gave the Cowboys a lead they wouldn't relinquish with a 38-yard field goal. Tampa Bay had an excellent opportunity to take the lead back after LB Kwon Alexander forced a fumble at midfield by TE Jason Witten, but the offense stalled, leading to a punt. Tampa Bay still had the field position advantage after the punt was downed at the Dallas four-yard line, but a 42-yard breakaway run by rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott turned the field around and led to an insurance field goal. Still, for the fourth time in the last six games, the Buccaneers' defense did not allow a touchdown after halftime.

"We just got our act together, man," said Alexander, who also had a season-high 21 tackles to lead both teams. "We just came out and started playing like a team. We just didn't finish well enough but we're going to get it all back together. The offense started driving the ball and scoring in the second half and we matched their intensity. We just didn't come out with the win."

Elliott, the NFL's leading rusher by a wide margin, had another impressive evening, rushing 159 yards and a touchdown and averaging 6.9 yards per carry. Elliott's fellow rookie starter, quarterback Dak Prescott, was just as impressive, completing 32 of 36 passes for 279 yards and also rushing for a score.

The Buccaneers failed to hand the Cowboys their first loss at home since the opening week of the season, but they showed tremendous fight after an early 14-point deficit. Afterward, they sounded like a team that still had its sights on the playoffs, with the hopes of matching up against the Cowboys once again.

"We were out there having fun and enjoying it," said Alexander. "But we have to finish. All that sounds good but without the 'W' it ain't nothing. I credit their whole team. Their whole team did a great job, great coaching staff, they coached them well. We'll see them again."

Dallas controlled the football during the first half, with more than 20 minutes of possession. The Cowboys also secured the only two takeaways before the break, the first of which led directly to an Elliott touchdown. Dallas took an 11-point lead into the intermission and gained 257 yards of offense in the first half to the Bucs' 105. The Cowboys second takeaway was a relatively meaningless interception on a 'Hail Mary' pass attempt to end the half.

The Cowboys took the game's opening possession into Buccaneer territory but a timely second-down sack by DE Will Gholston limited the damage. Each of the first six plays run by Dallas gained at least five yards, but a holding penalty erased another good run by Elliott and Gholston's sack led to a 56-yard field goal try by Dan Bailey. Bailey left it short and the Bucs took over at their own 46.

The Buccaneers used that good field position to drive for the game's first score, though they too came up a bit short at the end. A pass-interference call on Brandon Carr against Evans got the ball down to the Dallas 25, and three successive runs by Martin moved the chains again. Humphries caught a short pass over the middle to make it third-and-three at the Dallas seven but S Byron Jones broke up a pass intended for Brate on third down and the Bucs had to settle for Aguayo's 25-yard field goal.

The Cowboys tied the game on the next possession with an 11-play field goal drive ending in Bailey's 27-yarder. Prescott converted two third downs on the march, one on a 22-yard slant to Beasley to put the ball into Buccaneer territory, but another ill-timed penalty hurt the home team. Tackle Doug Free was called for a 15-yard facemask penalty to create a second-and-25 from the Bucs' 31 and two plays wasn't enough to make up that distance.

Unfortunately, Dallas earned another scoring opportunity just moments later. On Tampa Bay's next play, DT Terrell McClain hit Winston as he was throwing, resulting in the ball popping out of his hand for a fumble just as he was starting to throw. Maliek Collins recovered for the Cowboys at Tampa Bay's 14-yard line.

Three runs, the last one by Darren McFadden, created a first-and-goal at Tampa Bay's two-yard line, and two plays later Elliott punched it in for the game's first touchdown.

After a Buccaneer three-and-out that included two near-misses in the passing game, the Bucs had to punt and Bryan Anger's 38-yarder was fair caught at the Dallas 36. After gaining one first down, the Cowboys faced a third-and-six and the Bucs got quick pressure on Prescott but he was able to spin out to his left and hit the open field for a gain of 15 to the Tampa Bay 35. An in-and-route by Witten against Lavonte David converted the next third down, and Prescott followed with a dazzling 21-yard throw on the run to Brice Butler at the Bucs' two. Prescott easily ran it in himself on the next play.

Winston hit Evans on two sharp in-route passes for a total of 29 yards to get the ensuing drive started, and then found a diagonal lane to deliver a 25-yarder to Freddie Martino at the Dallas eight-yard line. Unfortunately, a personal-foul call on Winston subtracted a costly 15 yards from there and the Bucs again had to settle for Aguayo's three-pointer, this time from 34 yards out.

The Cowboys had a little less than two minutes to work with after that field goal and Prescott threw four underneath completions in a row, two each to Bryant and Witten, to get the ball across midfield. After a Dallas timeout with 47 seconds left, the Cowboys committed a holding penalty but Prescott then found Bryant down the middle for 23 to the Bucs' 30. David forced the Cowboys to use their last timeout with a six-yard sack of Prescott with 23 seconds left, which ultimately led to a 52-yard field goal try by Bailey. The Cowboy kicker hooked his try to the left by about a yard to keep the score at 17-6 heading into halftime.

The Bucs did try to use the last few seconds of the half to score but Winston's Hail Mary heave was intercepted in the end zone by Jones.

Tampa Bay got the ball to start the second half and made very good use of it, driving 75 yards on eight plays for its first touchdown of the game. Two Martin runs picked up the initial first down and Evans made a sliding sideline catch three plays later to convert a third-and-10. On third-and-one from the Cowboys' 42, Winston faked a handoff and rolled left. He had a chance to potentially run to the sticks or throw underneath to Evans, but Winston chose to heave it deep and Humphries made a juggling catch as he crossed the goal line.

Tampa Bay's defense forced a punt for the first time in the game on the next possession and it was fair caught by Humphries at the Bucs' 19. Two plays later, Winston hit Shepard for a good gain down the left numbers but it was erased by an Ali Marpet holding call. Winston immediately threw a very similar pass to Shepard to turn a second-and-18 into a first down. Brate then made a dazzling, diving grab over the middle for 17 to get the ball close to midfield. Three plays later, Winston converted a third-and-two by rolling right, avoiding several near-sacks and throwing back to the left to Brate for a gain of 22 to the Cowboys' 23. A perfectly-thrown slant to Evans on second-and-14 gained 17 yards to the 10. Two plays later, Winston zipped 10-yard touchdown pass to Brate down the middle, with a defender hanging all over him. Aguayo's extra point gave the Bucs a 20-17 lead with four minutes left in the third quarter.

Elliott got the ball to midfield on the next possession with a 20-yard run, and Prescott completed a 17-yard sideline pass to Beasley to put it just outside the red zone. Robert Ayers sniffed out an end-around to Lucky Whitehead, however, and dropped the receiver for a loss of seven on the next play. Dallas wasn't able to recover and had to settle for Bailey's 40-yard game-tying field goal 90 seconds into the fourth quarter.

The Cowboys quickly got back into position to retake the lead thanks to two plays by DE David Irving. First, he dropped Winston for a loss of six on a first-down sack. Then, on third-and-14, Irving hit Winston's elbow as he started to throw, resulting in a wobbler that was easily intercepted by S Jeff Heath. The Bucs' defense held from there and Dallas settled for another Bailey field goal, this one from 38, to retake the lead.

Pass break-ups by Irving and Collins put a quick end to the Bucs' next drive and a holding call on the punt added 10 yards to Dallas's field position, putting them at their own 46 with 8:45 to play. Tampa Bay's defense immediately turned that situation around with its first takeaway of the night, as Alexander forced a fumble by Witten and David recovered for the Bucs at the Dallas 45. However, the Bucs couldn't gain a first down and had to punt. Bryan Anger bounced his high kick down to the Dallas four.

Dallas escaped that situation with Bryant's 19-yard grab over the middle, and Elliott then broke free for a gain of 42 to Tampa Bay's 34. That set up Bailey's final field goal and the last points of the evening.

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