The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hoped to play spoiler Saturday night against the playoff-hunting Dallas Cowboys, but a turnover on the game's opening drive quickly signaled the expiration date on the home team's chance for a fifth victory in 2011. Instead, the visiting Cowboys turned a first-half surge into a 31-15 win at Raymond James Stadium, improving to 8-6 as the Buccaneers fell to 4-10.
Dallas turned that early takeaway into seven quick points and followed with three more first-half touchdowns to build a 28-0 lead. The Bucs rallied in the third quarter on touchdowns by Dekoda Watson and Dezmon Briscoe but never got into a lasting rhythm on offense and turned the ball over on downs on each of their last two possessions.
Dallas QB Tony Romo directed the Cowboys to their big lead by throwing three touchdown passes and running for a fourth before halftime. All three of Romo's scoring tosses came on third down, and that was a persistent problem for the Tampa Bay defense. The Dallas offense racked up 399 total yards, much of it by sustaining drives with third-down conversions. RB Felix Jones had a 38-yard run in the second quarter but otherwise the Cowboys had just one play over 20 yards; instead, they kept the ball moving by converting on seven of 13 third downs, including six of seven in the first half.
That said, Romo was often brilliant, scrambling to buy time on many snaps and eventually completing 23 of 30 passes for 249 yards and a passer rating of 133.9. He threw short first-half scoring strikes to WRs Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson, and just before halftime snuck it over the goal line for a fourth-down TD run. Jones, getting the bulk of the carries after the season-ending injury to DeMarco Murray, ran 22 times for 108 yards.
There was only one turnover in the game, but it's fair to wonder if it was the evening's turning point. Bucs QB Josh Freeman got the ball to midfield on the opening possession with scrambles of 25 and seven yards, but he fumbled at the end of the second one and the Cowboys turned the ensuing possession into a quick touchdown drive.
Freeman ended up as the team's leading rusher with 37 yards on four carries, and he also completed 17 of 27 passes for 148 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. With the Bucs struggling to move the ball in the first half and the defense failing to get off the field on third down, Freeman had just four pass attempts at halftime. RB LeGarrette Blount was once again marginalized by the team's early deficit, rushing just nine times for 21 yards. In the end, the Bucs had a season-low 190 yards of offense on a season-low 43 plays.
The Buccaneers' defense was stronger in the second half but couldn't slow down Romo's attack before the intermission. Rookie DE Adrian Clayborn was once again a bright spot, combining four tackles with a sack, a tackle for loss, a quarterback pressures and a forced fumble. Early in the third quarter, his sack of Romo forced a fumble that Watson returned seven yards for a touchdown. On the Bucs' next possession, Freeman directed a 12-play, 75-yard drive ending in a 13-yard touchdown pass to Briscoe.
The Bucs went for two and got it after Briscoe's touchdown, with Freeman throwing to TE Kellen Winslow in the back of the end zone to make it 31-15. That hypothetically kept the home team within two scores, but their best drive of the fourth quarter stalled at midfield and the Cowboys were able to run out the clock.
The Bucs' recent turnover problems cropped up again early, killing what was a promising opening drive for the home team. Freeman scrambled once for 25 yards to midfield and then again for seven more into Dallas territory, but he was stripped of the football by trailing LB Anthony Spencer, with the Cowboys recovering at their own 44. Dallas turned that takeaway into the game's first points, driving 56 yards for a touchdown. Passes of 14 yards to Jones and 16 to Bryant got the march started in a hurry and Romo finished it with a scrambling eight-yard TD pass to Austin.
The Cowboys were able to double their lead before the end of the first quarter. After DE Marcus Spears tripped up Blount on a third-and-one run to force a punt, Romo directed a 10-play, 69-yard drive that once again ended in an eight-yard scoring pass. This time, a Jason Witten 28-yard catch on third down and a 15-yard run by Sammy Morris got the ball inside the 10, and Romo had an easier time on this occasion finding Bryant in the middle of the end zone for the score.
Meanwhile, the Bucs' offense struggled to gain its footing. Midway through the second quarter, a drive that began at its own 26 stalled almost immediately due to consecutive sacks by DeMarcus Ware and Orlando Scandrick. Even though Michael Koenen was able to flip the field position with a 59-yard punt, the Cowboys promptly drove 89 yards for their third score. Jones' 38-yard run up the middle accounted for much of the yardage, and Romo once again found the end zone on a third-down play, this time scrambling right and firing a dart to Robinson along the back line.
After another three-and-out for the Bucs, the Cowboys got the ball back at their own 38 with three minutes left in the half. Romo got the ball over midfield with three straight short completions and then found a sliding Witten over the middle of the field for 22 yards to the Bucs' 13. This time his third-down pass was stopped a yard short of the goal line, but the Cowboys quickly went for it on fourth-and-goal and Romo was able to sneak it over for a 28-0 halftime lead.
(Click here for a detailed report on the first half of Sunday's game.)
The Bucs did manage to get things going just after halftime, even though Dallas had the first possession of the second quarter. A holding penalty backed the Cowboys up to their 10, and they soon faced a third-and-19. Clayborn chased Romo down from the back side on third down and sacked him, stripping the ball so that it bounced into the clutches of Watson. The second-year linebacker had to keep his feet in the middle of a pile of players near the goal line but he managed to push it over for the Bucs' first touchdown of the game, just 1:11 into the second half.
Clayborn made a hustling tackle on the Cowboys' next possession to drop Jones for a loss of three on second down and force a third-and-eight at the 33. However, Romo found Austin on a vertical route up the middle of the field on third down and Austin caught it for a gain of 19 to the Bucs' 38. A 14-yard run by Jones three plays later got the ball to the edge of the red zone and Romo's completion to Witten made it third-and-two at the 12. Romo's third-down pass in Austin's direction was incomplete under pressure, and the Cowboys settled for Dan Bailey's 30-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, making it 31-7.
The Bucs' next drive started with a six-yard sack of Freeman by DE Sean Lissemore, followed by a nine-yard pass over the middle to TE Kellen Winslow. On third-and-seven, Briscoe worked free down the left numbers and Freeman delivered a 17-yard strike into his stomach for a first down at the Bucs' 45. A six-yard Freeman scramble got the ball over midfield, but a draw play to Blount was good for just one yard. Freeman stepped up and to his right on third-and-three and threw on the run to Lumpkin for a gain of 13 to the Dallas 35. Another Winslow catch got seven yards but a deep out to Parker was well-covered and just incomplete. On third-and-three, Freeman went to Lumpkin again and it worked for nine yards and another first down at the Dallas 19. A sideline strike to WR Micheal Spurlock got six but Winslow couldn't hold on to a hard pass on second down. On third-and-four, Briscoe worked his way open on the left side, caught a short out and made it inside the pylon for his fourth touchdown of the year. The Bucs went for two, trying to make it a two-touchdown game, and succeeded on Freeman's seam pass to Winslow.
That made it 31-15 just before the end of the third quarter. As the fourth quarter began, Romo found Witten for 16 yards and Jones followed with runs of nine and five yards to put the ball on the midfield stripe. Another 10-yard run by Jones took it to the Bucs' 35, but a second-down sack by Bennett made it third-and-14 back at the 39. A heated pass rush put Romo on his back foot on third down and his middle dumpoff to Morris was incomplete. The Cowboys punted it away and it went into the end zone for a touchback with exactly 10 minutes left in the game.
After a touchback, Freeman hit Briscoe for six yards and Winslow for 17 and that made it first down at the Bucs' 43. TE Zack Pianalto hauled in a seven-yard catch at midfield, but a screen to RB Mossis Madu just missed picking up good yardage when he was tripped up by LB Sean Lee. The Bucs called a timeout before running their third-down play but then false-started to make it third-and-nine. Freeman threw incomplete under pressure on third down but the Bucs chose to go for it with the clock winding down. Freeman threw underneath to Lumpkin and he fought for extra yards and got over the line for a first down at the Dallas 42. An intentional grounding call on the next snap cost the Bucs a down and 11 yards, but a short release pass to Madu got nine of them back. Freeman's next pass was batted down at the line, and Parker's attempt to make a leaping catch downfield on fourth-down failed when the ball tipped off his fingers.
The Cowboys took over at their own 44 after the play and, for obvious reasons, kept the ball on the ground. Jones cut back for six yards on first down but Morris' runs on second and third down left Dallas in a fourth-and-one at the Bucs' 46. The Cowboys brought on the punting unit and Mat McBriar hit it into the end zone for a touchback with 3:28 left in the game.
The Bucs final possession started with a holding penalty and didn't get far. The Bucs elected to go for it on fourth-and-12 from their own 18 but Freeman's deep pass attempt to Spurlock was incomplete. The Cowboys took over with 1:45 left and were able to run out the clock.
Game Notes: The Cowboys now lead the all-time series with the Buccaneers, 10-3, and have won the last four meetings. Tampa Bay's last victory in the series occurred in 2003. The Bucs are 2-3 at home against the Cowboys. … S Corey Lynch played in the 50th game of his NFL career on Saturday night. Of those 50, 43 have come as a member of the Buccaneers. … The Bucs-Cowboys game marked Tampa Bay's first appearance in a Saturday night nationally-televised game since 2001, when the Bucs beat the Baltimore Ravens, 22-10 in Week 15. … DE Adrian Clayborn's third-quarter sack gave him 7.5 on the season. That is already the second-best total by a rookie in Buccaneers history, after Santana Dotson's 10 in 1992. Clayborn has at least half a sack in five straight games. … WR Dezmon Briscoe made his first career start, taking over for the injured Arrelious Benn. Briscoe finished with three catches for 36 yards and a touchdown. … DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, signed off the Philadelphia Eagles' practice squad several weeks ago, saw his first action as a Buccaneer Saturday night. He finished with one tackle and one quarterback pressure.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following seven players inactive prior to Sunday's game: QB Rudy Carpenter, WR Arrelious Benn, WR Sammie Stroughter, S Larry Asante, CB Myron Lewis, G Derek Hardman and T James Lee. Benn and Stroughter were out due to injury.
The Cowboys declared these seven inactives: WR Andre Holmes, WR Dwayne Harris, S Mana Silva, G David Arkin, G Daniel Loper, G Derrick Dockery and DT Josh Brent.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, CB Aqib Talib suffered a hamstring injury in the second quarter and did not return.
The Cowboys did not report an injury from the sideline on Saturday night.