Jason Witten knows how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers feel.
Witten, the Dallas Cowboys' Hall of Fame-bound tight end, played on three straight 8-8 teams before Dallas broke through to a division title last year. The Cowboys had to accept that they were a .500 team during that three-year run, but they also knew that it would have only taken a handful of plays here and there to vault them into the playoffs in any one of those years, or perhaps all of them.
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Witten's crew won their first two games of the 2015 season, and appeared to be in good shape to defend their NFC East title until they lost Dez Bryant and Tony Romo to injuries in successive weeks. Now they're riding a six-game losing streak as they prepare for a trip to Tampa and a date with the 3-5 Buccaneers. With Romo unable to help, the Cowboys have lost four games by a touchdown or less, including two in overtime. Their opponents on Sunday have traded losses and wins for the last five weeks but honestly believe they could be on an extended winning streak but for a couple of missed opportunities.
"In this league, the margin is so small between winning and losing games," said Witten. "I mean, Tampa's had that a lot. A lot of those games could go either way. So around the league, that's kind of the way the games are working out and you've got to be able to find those ways and execute in those situations. When you look at us last year, what we were able to accomplish, in a lot of those similar games we just found ways to win them. We executed."
The Cowboys nearly snapped their losing streak last Sunday in a shootout with the Philadelphia Eagles. Even without Romo, Dallas ran up 411 yards of offense and, most importantly, turned all three of their red zone trips into touchdowns, forcing a 27-27 game to go into overtime. The Eagles scored a touchdown on the opening possession of the extra period, denying Dallas the win, but that red zone efficiency was a positive development for the Cowboys to build on. That, too, is an issue the Buccaneers have shared with the Cowboys; Tampa Bay is tied for 27th in the league in touchdown percentage on drives inside the 20, and three field goals in four trips last Sunday was one of the main factors in a loss to the Giants.
Photos of the Cowboys' projected starters as listed on the team's depth chart.
"It's huge and I think when you watch [the Buccaneers], they move the ball really well down the field," said Witten. "It's hard when the field gets shortened and you get down in that area. But going back to the margin of wins, over 70 percent of the games in the fourth quarter are one-drive, one-score difference. So when you can have those [red zone] opportunities and you don't come away with points or you don't come away with touchdowns in a lot of cases, it's the difference between losing and winning.
"So that's critical. I think situational football is as detailed and as important right now as any time we've seen in the league, or my experience in the league, just because these games are so tight and you've got to be able to capitalize when you get down there. We've had our struggles in there, too. We finally did a better job last week capitalizing on some red zone touchdowns."
Dallas is one game behind Tampa Bay in the overall NFC standings but two wins closer to the top of its division than the Bucs are to theirs. They have Bryant back now and Romo is expected to return to the field in Week 11. Knowing how quickly things can turn around in the NFL, especially for a team that seems to be on the verge of victory week after week, Witten expects his team to continue fighting as if was in the playoff hunt. His words could apply just as easily to the Buccaneers.
"The goals haven't changed," said Witten. "Our focus right now, going into the second half of the season, is just simply, 'Let's get one win.' Let's take it one week at a time. I think our team has kind of bought into that approach. It gives us a chance to get back into it. But we haven't reassessed it and looked at it and said, 'Hey, we're playing for something else.' We still feel like our goals are right in front of us. Our focus has been on let's evaluate why we haven't won those games and let's correct it. Let's get better and try to go get a win."