Cowboys go for division clincher vs. Bucs

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) leads the NFL in rushing with 1,349 yards.Photo Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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Dallas has a pair of five-win teams left on its schedule in the Buccaneers and the New York Giants, but the Cowboys are eager to wrap up the division and erase the stench from last week’s 23-0 loss at Indianapolis.

“This is a must-win for us,” said Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. “We’ve got to do whatever we can to go out there and secure that NFC East division title. We’ve just got to know that nothing’s going to be given to us. We’ve got to go out there and take everything.”

A five-game winning streak put Dallas in firm control of the division before the clunker against the Colts. The Cowboys were limited to 292 yards by Indianapolis and absorbed their first shutout loss in 15 years.

Still, Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter knows what his team is up against in Dallas, where Tampa Bay has won only once in 12 career matchups — that coming in 2001. Koetter noted how the addition of big-play wide receiver Amari Cooper in a trade with Oakland has upgraded the Cowboys’ offense.

“They’ve got the No. 1 rusher in the league and Cooper’s definitely given them a lift on the outside,” said Koetter. “He’s added speed, which they already have, but he added speed and productivity and long-ball opportunity. Just another explosive weapon in an offense that’s got very, very good players. Another one comes aboard and it gets even more prolific.

“This team is playing at a high level right now. They’ve been really — from a run and pass standpoint — productive and scoring points. It’s going be, like I said, a very formal task for us.”

Dallas has struggled in the red zone of late, including an early possession against Indianapolis last week, and head coach Jason Garrett pointed to some of the reasons for the team’s inability to convert.

“If you want to talk about the last three games, some of it has been we’ve had some minus plays right from the start that got us in some bad down-and-distance situations. We’ve had some other negative plays or penalties,” Garrett said. “I think another part of it has been the execution part. We’ve had some other negative plays or penalties.

“In the game the other day, there were some plays we could have simply made. I think the players will tell you that, the coaches will tell you that. We would’ve cashed in on drives and we didn’t make them.”

The Cowboys were forced to go with a makeshift offensive line last week. Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin missed the game due to a sprained MCL, and left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo exited the game with an eye injury. Martin did not practice Wednesday and his status is uncertain for Sunday.

The Buccaneers rank third in the NFL in total offense, but they’re trending downward the last couple weeks as they managed just 260 yards per game and scored a combined 26 points in losses to the Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints. Tampa Bay scored just three points in the second half of each game.

Even though the Bucs were shut out in the Pro Bowl voting for the first time since 2009, there is elite talent on both sides of the ball. Wide receiver Mike Evans ranks second in the NFC with a career-high 1,328 receiving yards while defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has 11.5 sacks in his first season in Tampa Bay.

“I believe Mike, JPP and (linebacker) Lavonte (David) had a good shot,” Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “The lack of respect that (David) gets is unreal. Mike is second in the league in receiving. JPP is right there with the best of them in getting to the quarterback. They vote how they vote and it went how it went. You can’t do anything about it.”

Elliott was among five players named to the Pro Bowl for the Cowboys, but he acknowledged the honor was secondary on his checklist.

“It’s nice to get in the Pro Bowl, but we’re chasing goals a lot loftier than the Pro Bowl,” Elliott said. “It’s definitely an honor for my peers and the coaches and the fans to honor me as one of the best backs in the league and to represent the NFC. But we’re definitely chasing a Super Bowl, not a Pro Bowl.”

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