The Dallas Cowboys staved off a comeback by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to secure a 26-20 win Sunday night at AT&T Stadium. Dallas now moves to 12-2 and keeps their top spot in the NFC as the Buccaneers slide back into the playoff hunt with an 8-6 mark.
Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott also staved off any talk of franchise-turned-backup quarterback Tony Romo getting his old job back as the fourth-rounder out of Mississippi State went 32-for-36 for 279 yards and rushed four times for 20 yards and a touchdown.
"I've got a great teammates, great coaches that trust and believe in me," Prescott told NBC Sports postgame as to why he is so unflappable. "I just like to stay focused, stay in the moment, hand [Ezekiel Elliott] the ball and let him do what he does."
Prescott got tremendous aid from a fellow rookie, running back Elliott, who Dallas fed 23 times for 153 yards and a touchdown. The league-leader in rushing yards had a 6.9 yards per carry on the evening, but was unable to salt the game away on the Cowboys' final drive.
After the Buccaneers burned all of their timeouts and the two-minute warning, quarterback Jameis Winston had a final chance with 1:36 to go in the game down six at his own 11-yard line to drive 89 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. Winston got the drive off to a good start with an 11-yard completion to tight end Cameron Brate.
The second-year field general out of Florida State faced immense pressure from the Cowboys defensive line as rookie Maliek Collins forced a fumble on second down. The recovery setup Tampa bay on a third-and-18 from their own 20-yard line, but the more damaging part of the strip-sack was the time taken off the clock. Now facing a third-and-12 with 39 seconds left, Winston overthrew a double-covered Mike Evans. The receiver had Dallas defenders beat, but the ball sailed over him. On fourth-and-12, Winston evaded a rushing David Irving, who finished the game with two sacks, but desperately heaved the ball into triple coverage where cornerback Orlando Scandrick intercepted the ball to seal the game.
"One of the words we talked about from the outset of this week is 'response,' how are we going to respond," said head coach Jason Garrett. "Our guys did a great job responding with our work during the week to prepare for this ballgame. And we came out and did a good job in this ballgame to get a lead."
The Cowboys started the game in a manner familiar over the past three games: good drive, explosive running by Elliott, but the drive ultimately stalled by a penalty when receiver Vince Mayle held on a second-and-2 from the Tampa Bay 29-yard line. Then, Prescott was sacked, and a subsequent third-and-17 only netted a 6-yard reception by tight end Jason Witten to set up a 56-yard Dan Bailey field goal attempt. The kicker's attempt was just short, another familiar sight as Bailey's 55-yard attempt in New York similarly fell short.
Tampa Bay made use of their first drive of the game with quarterback Jameis Winston leading them on a 47-yard drive that culminated in a 25-yard Roberto Aguayo field goal to take a 3-0 lead with 5:58 in the first quarter.
The Cowboys offense wasn't deterred when they got the ball back. In fact, they converted two of their three third downs. However, it was the same old story as Doug Free incurred a 15-yard face mask penalty on a second-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 16-yard line. Dallas wasn't able to overcome the second-and-25 and ultimately succumbed to sending Bailey back for a field goal try, this one of 28 yards that he booted good to tie the game 3-3.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Cowboys defensive tackle Terrell McClain penetrated the Buccaneers offensive line and knocked the ball out of Winston's hands. As players on both sides kicked the loose ball around in a frantic effort to possess it, Cowboys rookie defensive tackle Maliek Collins fell on the football to give the offense a first-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 14-yard line.
Dallas pounded the ball with Elliott and McFadden before Elliott dashed through the parted Buccaneers defense for a 2-yard touchdown to give Dallas a 10-3 lead with 12:8 in the second quarter. The pride of Ohio State leaped into the oversized Salvation Army red kettle in the end zone and the officials threw a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct flag on the Cowboys.
"It's just sitting there right in the end zone," Elliott said as to why he jumped into the pot. "It's the perfect celebration. But we work with the Salvation Army here at the Cowboys. They're one of our biggest partners. So, we had to show them some love."
The Cowboys coaches, charity-minded as they may be, weren't too happy about Elliott's antics as the KettleJump backed the Cowboys kickoff team and virtually eliminated a chance for a touchback. However, Dallas forced Tampa Bay into a three-and-out and got the ball back to mount a drive reminiscent of the style that built the W side of their now-12-2 record. The Cowboys drove 64 yards to cap off a 10-play drive with a 2-yard Prescott quarterback draw to extend the Dallas lead to 17-3 with 6:56 in the second quarter.
Tampa Bay started out its ensuing drive going no-huddle, which put the Cowboys defense on its heels as the Buccaneers went from their own 25-yard line to the Cowboys' 8 in seven plays, and not once did Tampa Bay face a third down. However, on first-and-goal after Doug Martin was dropped for a 5-yard loss, a weird Winston headbutt Dallas linebacker Justin Durant to cost his team 15 yards in an unnecessary roughness call.
Backed up outside the red zone now on second-and-goal from the 28, the Buccaneers' promising drive stalled with Aguayo having to hit a 34-yard field goal with 1:55 to go until halftime.
Dallas used all three of its timeouts to drive from their own 25 to the Tampa Bay 34 and give Bailey another shot at a long field goal. Unlike Bailey's last two 50-plus attempts, this 52-yarder shanked outside the left upright no good and gave the Buccaneers a chance to put points on the board before halftime. Ultimately, Winston chucked a Hail Mary into the end zone that safety Byron Jones picked off for his first career interception as time expired.
When the Buccaneers came out of the locker room, they drove 75 yards in 3:08 to narrow the Cowboys' lead to 17-13 with a 42-yard touchdown grab by receiver Adam Humphries. Cornerback Brandon Carr tipped Winston's pass at the goal line, but Humphries caught the football to score the touchdown.
Dallas responded to the Tampa Bay scoring drive with a double-reverse Elliott fumbled on the pitch to receiver Lucky Whitehead on third-and-2 from the Dalls 46-yard line. Left guard Ron Leary fell on the football to give the Cowboys a chance to punt the ball away and avoid Tampa Bay having midfield to start their next drive.
As momentum was still sporting Buccaneers red and gray, the Buccaneers drove 81 yards in 10 plays through the Dallas defense. Winston hit Brate for a 10-yard touchdown to put the Buccaneers ahead for the second time on the evening 20-17. Tampa Bay had scored 17 unanswered points.
Dallas answered on the next drive, albeit in a meek fashion with Bailey hitting a 40-yard field goal to tie the game with 13:37 left to play in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys offense drove 58 yards in 10 plays thanks to Elliott's three carries for 33 yards and Prescott's four completions on four pass attempts for 13 yards. Whitehead's 7-yard loss on a reverse is what ultimately put the Cowboys behind the chains to where they had to punt.
Cowboys safety Jeff Heath picked off Winston on a third-and-14 from the Tampa Bay 21 on the following drive to give the Cowboys the ball at the Buccaneers' 22-yard line.
Thanks to a holding call on left tackle Tyron Smith that nullified a 22-yard touchdown catch by running back Lance Dunbar, the Cowboys were once again behind schedule and went three-and-out. But Bailey was good from 38 yards away to give the Cowboys a 26-20 lead they would not relinquish.
The Cowboys host the Lions next week on Monday night. Detroit is in a battle for their playoff lives as they lost 17-6 to the Giants Sunday while the Cowboys also need to keep ahead of the 10-win Giants so their series sweep won't be the tiebreaker that relegates Dallas to a wildcard slot. The Cowboys can watch Philly vs. New York on Thursday, however, hoping for a Giants loss that will give Dallas the NFC East title and a first-round bye.
5:58 1st Quarter -- Roberto Aguayo kicks a 25-yard field goal. 3-0 Buccaneers
15:00 2nd Quarter -- Dan Bailey kicks a 28-yard field goal. 3-3
12:38 2nd Quarter -- Ezekiel Elliott rushes for a 2-yard touchdown. 10-3 Cowboys
6:27 2nd Quarter -- Dak Prescott rushes for a 2-yard touchdown. 17-3 Cowboys
1:56 2nd Quarter -- Roberto Aguayo kicks a 34-yard field goal. 17-6 Cowboys
11:52 3rd Quarter -- Adam Humphries catches a 42-yard touchdown pass from Jameis Winston. 17-13 Cowboys
4:18 3rd Quarter -- Cameron Brate catches a 10-yard touchdown pass from Jameis Winston. 20-17 Buccaneers
13:37 4th Quarter -- Dan Bailey kicks a 40-yard field goal. 20-20
9:40 4th Quarter -- Dan Bailey kicks a 38-yard field goal. 23-20 Cowboys
3:03 4th Quarter -- Dan Bailey kicks a 33-yard field goal. 26-20 Cowboys
* Witten now owns seventh place in NFL history in receptions with 1,086.
* Prescott now owns the single-season record for most rushing touchdowns by a Cowboys quarterback with six. And his 88.9-percent completion number for this game is the second-highest (minumum 30 attempts) in a game in NFL history.
* Jeff Heath now has three interceptions against Winston, which for Winston are the most he has ever thrown against one particular NFL defender.
* Garrett now has the second-most December wins in franchise history with 14.
* Prescott set the Cowboys' single-game completion percentage with 88.9 percent with a minimum of 30 attempts.
* Prescott also set the single-game completion percentage for a rookie quarterback.
* Elliott is now 257 yards away from breaking Eric Dickerson's rookie rushing record.
THE FINAL WORD
"Just win. Stay focused. Look forward and just win." -- Dak Prescott on the team's mindset after hearing New York won Sunday afternoonnull