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Countdown to Kickoff: Bucs-Cowboys

The 5-9 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been eliminated from the NFC playoff hunt but could play spoiler this Sunday in Dallas, at least temporarily. The 8-6 Cowboys are a game up on Philadelphia and Washington and, thanks to favorable tiebreakers, would clinch the NFC East with a win over the Buccaneers. Dallas is coming off its worst game of the year, a 23-0 blanking in Indianapolis, but its five games before that all ended victoriously.

Dallas boasts the NFL's leading rusher in Ezekiel Elliott, while third-year quarterback Dak Prescott has been accurate (67.6% completion rate) and careful with the football (eight interceptions). However, the offensive line, long one of the Cowboys' greatest strengths, has suffered from injuries and lineup shuffling and has allowed Prescott to be sacked 51 times. Dallas also didn't have a particularly dynamic passing attack…until Amari Cooper arrived in a midseason trade to give it a big-play element.

The Cowboys' defense, on the other hand, has very few weaknesses. The front line includes one of the league's most dangerous pass-rushers in Demarcus Lawrence and the linebacking trio of rookie Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee (when healthy) might be the most athletic group in the league. Dallas ranks fifth in the NFL in overall defense, and is fifth against the run and seventh against the pass. More importantly, the Cowboys have given up the fourth fewest points this season (For more on the Cowboys' strengths and weaknesses, read this week's Scouting Report.)

For the second week in a row, Tampa Bay's top-five offense will face off against a top-five defense. Here are five more specific issues to consider while waiting for the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff of Sunday's Bucs-Cowboys contest:

1. Will elimination from the playoff race affect the Buccaneers' intensity level?

Even after a Week 14 loss to the Saints put the Bucs on the very edge of the playoff race, the team still approached their trip to Baltimore last weekend as an opportunity to improve their postseason chances. Unfortunately, a loss to the Ravens officially eliminated Tampa Bay from contention.

In contrast, the Cowboys have a very real carrot dangling in their faces: The would clinch the NFC East title with a win over Tampa Bay on Sunday. The Cowboys could lose and still get that division crown with a win over the Giants in Week 17, but they would surely prefer to take care of business this weekend.

Thus, there would seem to be a gap between the two teams in terms of motivational factors. With their season ending in seven days no matter what happens at A&T stadium, will they be able to play with as much intensity and desire as the home team? Is simply winning its own motivation? Is it a matter of professional pride? Head Coach Dirk Koetter, who has praised his team's effort level throughout the 2018 season, even on afternoons that produced disappointing results, believes his team will play has hard as ever. He does acknowledge, however, that not every team in this situation has been able to muster that same effort.

"I do think that [the Bucs will play hard] because I think your best players set the tone on that," he said. "I just believe that everybody’s a pro and getting paid to do a job. They’ve done that to the best of their ability so far. I would be surprised if anyone doesn’t follow that here in these next two weeks. It would surprise me knowing the guys like I do. I’ve seen it go the other way."

There's evidence to support Koetter's belief from just a year ago. The Buccaneers went into the final two weeks of the 2017 season with a 4-10 record and games remaining against two teams that were still fighting for playoff spots and positioning. Tampa Bay lost at Carolina, 22-19, but took a lead into the game's final minutes before the Panthers converted a key fourth down from the Bucs' three-yard line. A week later, the Saints came to town with a playoff berth secured by the division title still up for grabs. The Buccaneers beat New Orleans, 31-24, on a last-minute touchdown catch by Chris Godwin, though the Saints win on to win the South anyway. The Panthers also made it into the postseason. The Buccaneers did not, but did prove to themselves that they could beat a playoff-bound squad.

2. How well will the Buccaneers handle the Cowboys' two top offensive weapons, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper?

Tampa Bay's defense gave up 242 rushing yards to the Ravens last Sunday, though that included a big contribution from rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. This Sunday's trip to Dallas brings an equally difficult, if more traditional, challenge to the Bucs' run defense in the league's leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott is not only averaging just under 100 rushing yards per game, he's also the Cowboys' leading receiver with 72 grabs.

As a runner, Elliott is powerful and decisive, and incredibly effective between the tackles. He can bull through defenders to gain extra yards after the contact.

"We’ve got to get 11 hats to the ball and make sure we wrap up," said Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "He’s hard to bring down with just one person, so make sure we are gap sound, control the line of scrimmage and get as many people to the ball as we can."

For the first half of the season, the Cowboys lacked an explosive weapon in their passing attack to pair with Elliott's power rushing. Then, on their bye week, the Cowboys were able to swing a trade for Oakland wide receiver Amari Cooper, the fourth-overall pick in the 2015 draft. Dallas lost its next game but then reeled off five straight wins to climb to the top of the NFC East, and Cooper helped power that run with over-the-top production. He has six touchdowns in seven games as a Cowboy and already has outings of 180 and 217 yards since the trade.

"He’s definitely given them a lift on the outside and they’ve had some injuries this year at tight end and some of their other wide receivers," said Koetter. "They’ve got the number one rusher in the league and Cooper’s definitely given them a lift on the outside.”

Cooper's 180-yard outing against Washington in Week 12 included touchdowns of 40 and 90 yards and he's averaging 15.3 yards as a catch as a Cowboy.

"He’s added speed, which they already have, but he added speed and productivity and long-ball opportunity," said Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner. "Just another explosive weapon in an offense that’s got very, very good players; another one comes aboard and it gets even more prolific."

Tampa Bay will counter with a pass defense that, after being much-maligned for the first half of the season and deservedly so, has held five of its last six opponents below 200 passing yards. That's despite a run of injuries that has led to constant shuffling in the secondary and a league-high 35 different players used on defense this season.

"I think they’ve not allowed big plays," said Duffner of the improvement in the secondary. "They’ve kind of kept things in front of them and played with I think a little better technique. I think that that’s probably the biggest thing right now is that they’re playing with some confidence and making plays. I’m pleased that these people when they do come in they’re accepting the opportunity with the role they get and doing their best with it and that’s all you can ask."

3. Can Jameis Winston finish the season strong?

Tampa Bay leads the NFL with 318.9 passing yards per game and has already set a team single-season record with 31 touchdown passes, but not all of that has come from the right arm of fourth-year starter Jameis Winston. Winston began the season on an NFL suspension and was later benched after a midseason rash of turnovers, with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick filling in both times. Winston returned to the starting lineup for games ago, and while the team's results in that span have been mixed – most notably, two wins and two losses – Winston has definitely shown dramatic improvements in terms of ball security and decision-making.

Winston has just two interceptions and no lost fumbles in his four starts since reclaiming the starting job, and one of those picks was a desperation heave into the end zone with one second left and a 14-point deficit on the scoreboard. He also had two touchdown passes in three straight games before being held without one in Baltimore.

Winston is finishing up the fourth year of his rookie contract, though the Buccaneers picked up his fifth-year option in the spring. It remains a fair question if Winston will be the long-term answer at a position where the Tampa Bay franchise has essentially never had one. Continuing his improved play over the final two weeks of this season could only help his cause.

"I think you never reach a limit of growth," said Winston. "Every player’s going to continue to grow every single year. I think I’ve grown in a lot of ways as a football player and as a man since I’ve been here. I would never put a cap or ceiling on how much I can grow. I will continue to get better – that’s it."

4. Which team's rookie defender and first-round draft pick will have the biggest impact?

In the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, the Buccaneers selected Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea with the 11th pick and the Cowboys picked Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch eight spots later. Tampa Bay wanted a dominant force in the middle of their defensive front; the Cowboys were seeking a playmaker for the middle level of their defense.

A training camp calf injury slowed Vea's progress but the big rookie has seen a significant uptick in his performance in the last month. Vander Esch has looked like a star in the making since the beginning of the season as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker in the Cowboys' defense. Neither seems to be encountering a rookie wall, and either could be the source of a game-changing play on Sunday.

"He’s getting better game after game after game," said Duffner of Vea. He’s playing dominantly at the moment and we’d like that to continue. That helps the entire defense. When you’re strong up the middle, you’re going to be strong overall. We’re anxious for him just to continue to have that kind of production. I think again, it’s reflective of his preparation, but it’s also just again the more reps he’s getting. He’s kind of now more in the midseason for him because of injury and so forth early on in the year. We’re anxious to continue to see him be in that productive mode."

Vander Esch saw his playing time increase when veteran Sean Lee went down with a hamstring injury. Lee might return to action this Sunday against the Buccaneers, but even if he does the Cowboys are sure to find plenty of work for their up-and-coming rookie. Putting Vander Esch, Lee and Jaylon Smith on the field at the same time would give the Cowboys an incredibly rangy and productive trio of linebackers.

"I think their resurgence, where they won the five games in a row, a lot of that was centered around the speed of those linebackers,: said Koetter. Those two guys [Vander Esch and Smith] have really – looks to me like – gained confidence as the season had gone on and are playing up to their speed or playing as fast as their timed. Their defense is not complicated, but it’s successful because they rotate that front four and they just play extremely hard and they run to the ball. We know that you’ve got to get those linebackers blocked if you’re going to move the ball against these guys."

5. Will Mike Evans get the record in his home state?

Mike Evans, a Galveston, Texas native, didn't grow up a Cowboys fan, so he has no extra motivation to make a splash specifically in Dallas. But Evans could end up reaching a significant milestone in AT&T Stadium anyway.

Already the Buccaneers' all-time leader in career receiving yards, the former Texas A&M star is also on the verge of breaking the team's single-season record in that category. That mark has stood for almost 29 years since it was set at 1,422 by Mark Carrier in 1989. Evans is second in the NFL through 15 weeks with 1,328 yards. That means he needs 95 more to surpass Carrier's mark, and given that Evans is averaging almost exactly that per game (94.9) in 2018, he has to be considered at least a decent bet to get the record this Sunday.

Evans will still have another game to catch Carrier if he doesn't make it to 1,423 this weekend, but it would be nice to see it happen with a sizeable number of his friends and family in the stands.

"Mike has aspirations of owning every record, and higher than that," said Koetter. "I would just say if he doesn’t get it this year, he’s going to get it. If he stays healthy, I would say he has a great chance to get it this year and he deserves it."

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