Cowboys clinch NFC East with win over Bucs
ARLINGTON, Texas — For all the ups and downs of this season, the Dallas Cowboys have been a pretty dang good football team on their home turf.
Dallas refused to let Tampa Bay build momentum and the Cowboys made all the plays they needed to grasp a 27-20 victory over the Buccaneers on Sunday at AT&T Stadium.
In doing so, Dallas (9-6) clinched the NFC East division championship, locked up a playoff berth and finished the regular season with a 7-1 record at home. So the Cowboys will play one more home game this season as they’ll likely host the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round of the playoffs in two weeks.
Dallas coach Jason Garrett preaches focusing on the moment and that’s what the Cowboys did against Tampa Bay. Dallas put a sobering 23-0 loss at Indianapolis the week before behind it, and then did the only thing it needed to do — outperform the Bucs (5-10).
“Obviously we wanted to come out here and get things done under our will, I guess you could say, not necessarily winning the division or clinching the division or a playoff spot by other teams losing,” Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We wanted to come in and make sure that we secured this thing. We got it done this week. It was a great team win.”
Although Tampa Bay out-gained Dallas, 383-232, the Cowboys won the turnover battle, 2-0, leading directly to 14 points.
Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith scooped a fumble by Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
“Their guys are relentlessly chasing the football,” Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said. “Jameis has made a lot of plays like that this year. He knows that guys are always coming up behind him, but he’s made a lot of big plays like that, too. So you can’t do that. He’s trying to play. He’s one step away from making a big play.”
Defensive end Randy Gregory, who forced the fumble that Smith grabbed, recovered another one at the Bucs’ 4 in the third quarter. Gregory’s recovery led to Prescott’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Michael Gallup, which put the Cowboys in front by 14 late in the third.
The Dallas defense didn’t exactly shut down Winston and the Bucs’ offense, but the Cowboys were opportunistic throughout and stingy enough in the second half as they held Tampa Bay to 7 points after halftime.
“They can be really prolific offensively,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. “I think we saw glimpses of that during the game. But I thought our guys continued to fight and battle. And the turnovers were huge. Randy knocking it out and Jaylon picking it up and running it in was obviously a huge, huge play in the game. And then the other one, we get a chance to pick a fumble up and give our offense the ball at the 4-yard line going in.”
The moment of truth for the Dallas defense came when Tampa Bay had a first-and-10 at the Cowboys’ 11, trailing by two touchdowns with most of the fourth quarter remaining. Winston hit running back Jacquizz Rodgers for a 9-yard gain to the Dallas 2 on first down. But the Dallas defense stood up there.
Defensive lineman Maliek Collins stuffed Peyton Barber for no gain on second-and-1. Winston threw incomplete on third-and-1 and then he let the play clock run out facing fourth-and-1.
“I don’t know what it was,” Winston said. “I just thought it was quick. … Obviously, I have to be aware of that. I wish I had that one back.”
The Bucs quarterback scrambled on fourth-and-six, but came up a yard short as Dallas defensive lineman Antwaun Woods wrapped up Winston.
Tampa Bay eventually posted a fourth-quarter touchdown when Winston tossed a 7-yard scoring pass to Mike Evans with 2:05 remaining. But linebacker Leighton Vander Esch recovered the ensuing onside kick attempt and Dallas ran out the clock.
Prescott had a pedestrian afternoon, completing 20 of 25 passes for 161 yards with a TD and no interceptions.
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott produced 85 rushing yards on 18 carries, easily keeping him in the NFL lead with Todd Gurley sitting out Sunday. Elliott also caught five passes for 24 yards, boosting him over 100 total yards for the ninth time this season.
Elliott got around the right end for 11 yards on a second-and-8 play from the Bucs’ 42 late in the fourth quarter, allowing Dallas to run out the clock and celebrate a division title.
Prescott told reporters that they were the ones guilty of giving up on this Cowboys team when it was 3-5 through the first half of this season.
“We knew it all along,” the Dallas QB said. “At 3-and-5 we knew exactly what we had. We knew the team that we had and we still know that. There’s a lot of work to be done. We’re happy for tonight, we’re going to celebrate it tonight the right way, but then get right back to work.”
NOTE: Cowboys defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford left the game on a stretcher in the first minute of the contest with a neck injury. He was on the turf for several minutes after taking a shoulder to the neck area. The injury was initially ruled a strain and Crawford was able to move his arms and legs as he was leaving the field. He was taken to an area hospital for evaluation.
Garrett said during his postgame news conference that Crawford had a scan and an MRI and both were negative. Crawford was reportedly going home from the hospital about the same time that the game ended.