The 8-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 11-2 Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at AT&T Stadium in a game that was "flexed" into the evening slot due to its significant playoff implications. Dallas has already clinched a spot in the NFC postseason field but, even with the best record in the conference, has not yet nailed down the NFC East title or a first-round bye. Thanks to the Giants' win over Detroit on Sunday, the Cowboys still cannot clinch the division or lock up a bye on Sunday night, but they can put themselves on the verge of achieving both goals.
READ: BUCS-COWBOYS INACTIVES
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is trying to extend its own five-game winning streak, which is tied with the Lions for the longest active run in the NFL. The Bucs have already been strong playoff contenders Kansas City and Seattle in that run could top both of those wins with a road victory over the NFC's top seed. The Buccaneers came into the day tied with the Atlanta Falcons for first place in the NFC South but now need a victory to keep pace with Atlanta after its win over San Francisco in the afternoon.
The move of Sunday's game into prime time meant a long afternoon in the team hotel for Buccaneers players. It was an opportunity to watch some of the other important games in the playoff race unfold, but also a lot of time to think about the significance and spectacle of their own pending contests. Head Coach Dirk Koetter was not worried about his players being focused by kickoff, however.
"When you get to Sunday, it's always huge," said Koetter. "Every Sunday is huge in the NFL. That's all you can do. Now, the hype and the excitement around the game, of course it's going to be awesome. In the team meeting on Friday, I had the players [do] a show of hands, how many guys hadn't played in this stadium? We showed some pictures of this stadium. A lot of guys haven't been there. This is a cool stadium. You're going to have all the celebrities of Sunday Night Football.
"Still, once that whistle blows, it's 60 minutes of NFL football, and we've been doing fine in that respect. We've got to just put the hype aside and play football and we'll be fine."
Here are some additional notes regarding Sunday night's Bucs-Cowboys matchup:
Tampa Bay's defense has driven the team's five-game winning streak, allowing an NFL-low 12.8 points per game since Week 10. Buccaneer defenders have been particularly stingy after the intermission in each of those games, allowing a single score in three of the five contests and none in the other two. Overall, Tampa Bay has allowed 17 total second-half points in the last five weeks, an average of 3.4 per game, behind the guidance of Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith.
Pictures of the Buccaneers leaving on Saturday for their game against the Cowboys.
In the same time span, the Cowboys have averaged 12.6 points scored in the second halves of games, 10th-best in the NFL. Dallas will obviously pose a big challenge for the Buccaneers and their recent second-half prowess, but the current streak has included games against the likes of Russell Wilson, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers.
"The numbers that our defense is putting up right now are really uncanny numbers, especially when you figure the quarterbacks that we've been going against," said Koetter. "I think the main thing is, the players believe in what they're doing and then Smitty and our defensive staff, whatever they are getting us on in the first half, they're making good corrections and adjustments at halftime to take away.
READ: FANTASY FOOTBALL WEEKLY
"Every offense goes in at halftime, and the plays you had success with you're going to figure out a way to get back to them. The things you didn't have success with you're going to wipe that off your board and come up with something else or go to plays that were lower on your sheet. It's just smart football to know that they're going to repeat those plays that were successful. If you have a way that you can take those away, that's just smart. So that's great adjustments by the defensive staff and then the players, of course for executing."
Additional Lineup Notes
In the first half of their Week 13 win at San Diego, the Buccaneers lost three significant pieces in their offensive lineup to injuries. Wide receiver Cecil Shorts suffered the worst blow, a season-ending knee injury, but wide receiver Adam Humphries (concussion) and tight end Luke Stocker (ankle) were also hurt badly enough to miss last Sunday's win over New Orleans.
The Buccaneers are getting both Humphries and Stocker back in Week 15 to face the Cowboys. Humphries is the team's third-leading receiver and their best weapon out of the slot in 2016. Stocker does not put up big receiving numbers but is considered the best point-of-attack blocker among the team's tight ends, and thus an important cog in the rushing attack.
That ground game hasn't quite put up the numbers the Buccaneers had hoped to produce in 2016, but at least it has a healthy stable of backs for the stretch run. Running back Charles Sims returned from injured reserve last week and contributed 50 yards from scrimmage. Sims, lead back Doug Martin and reserves Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber give the Bucs depth, versatility and help in other areas of the game. In this particular game, the Bucs will go with Martin, Sims and Barber, with Rodgers inactive.
"It helps you because those running backs don't only just run the ball," said Koetter. "They wear a lot of different hats. They help a lot in protection. We use them in the screen game, and with the exception of Doug all those other three halfbacks also are major cogs on special teams. Having depth so you don't have to play one guy 65 plays, keeping them fresh, and they all have unique talents. So it improves your depth and your special teams."
While Stocker returns to the offense's front line, right tackle Demar Dotson remains out due to a concussion. He will be replaced for a second straight game by Gosder Cherilus, a nine-year veteran with 115 NFL starts under his belt. On defense, the Buccaneers will have the services of a pair of Pro Bowlers in linebacker Lavonte David (hamstring) and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (foot), both of whom were listed as questionable on Friday's injury report.
Tampa Bay's inactives, in addition to Dotson, are QB Ryan Griffin, WR Donteea Dye, RB Jacquizz Rodgers, DT John Hughes, DL DaVonte Lambert and G Caleb Benenoch.
As expected, the Cowboys will be without starting defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence on Sunday night, as he is out with a back ailment. The other six Dallas inactives are QB Mark Sanchez, CB Morris Claiborne, S J.J. Wilcox, RB Alfred Morris, LB Mark Nzeocha and DT Cedric Thornton.
Keep An Eye On
Linebacker Sean Lee is the second-leading tackler in the NFL, with 130, and by the Cowboys' count he's had an incredible four 20-stop games this season. Lee is more than just a tackling machine, however; since 2010, he is tied for the NFL lead among linebackers with 12 interceptions. That's true even though Lee missed 17 games due to injury over the previous three seasons.
While Tampa Bay's defense has produced a league-high 13 interceptions since Week Five, the Buccaneers' offense has also helped with the amazing turnover turnaround while throwing just four picks in the same span. The Cowboys' defense has not produced a lot of interceptions this season, but Lee is always a threat to take the ball away as he roams the middle of the field.
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth-overall pick in this year's draft, is not only a prime Rookie of the Year candidate but also a potential league MVP. He leads the NFL with 1,392 rushing yards, has a 4.9-yard per-carry average and has scored 13 total touchdowns.
As his draft status indicates, Elliott is obviously a very talented player. The Cowboys are maximizing his talents by putting him behind what many consider to be the best offensive line in the NFL.
"What stands out is a tremendous offensive line," said Koetter. "Three Pro Bowlers – left tackle, center, right guard, all Pro Bowl-caliber players. And then this rookie runner, think where he was picked. No matter where you were picking in last year's draft, there was speculation all the way up that he might be the number-one pick in the draft. So plenty of people saw this coming."
Pictures of the Top 10 Cowboys in Week 14, according to their Pro Football Focus player grade.
Koetter is clearly drawing a distinction between Elliott and the Cowboys' other Rookie of the Year candidate, quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott ranks third in the NFL with a 102.7 passer rating and his 20 touchdown passes have been balanced by only four interceptions (though two of those came last Sunday).
"A lot of people thought Dallas might pick a quarterback as high as they picked, but they already had a pretty good quarterback," said Koetter, referring to veteran and Week One starter Tony Romo. "They couldn't foresee the injuries of course. They couldn't have hit it any better, [then] 32 teams pass on Dak Prescott until the fourth round, and then they get this guy in the fourth round. Everyone talks about Romo – don't forget Kellen Moore was their backup. They got two quarterbacks hurt before [Week Two]. They didn't even know what they had, and then this young kid just comes in and plays lights-out."
The Buccaneers take on the Cowboys on Sunday, with kickoff scheduled for 8:30 p.m. ET at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The game will be broadcast nationally by NBC and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.