8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Cowboys -7, Over/Under: 47
If we had told you back in August that tonight’s meeting between the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be a potential Playoff Preview, you’d probably have called our bluff, but midway through December that’s precisely the case as these two division leaders have their eyes fixed squarely on the Postseason. The Buccaneers (8-5, T-1st in NFC South) were indeed a question mark coming into the 2016 campaign, having surprisingly fired Lovie Smith and promoted Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter to Head Coach, yet after a slow start have caught fire en route to possessing a share of First Place in the South with the Atlanta Falcons. After a disappointing 3-5 run through the first half of the season, the Bucs have since won five straight games, on the strength of their all-of-a sudden suffocating Defense. Simply put, Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith has worked wonders with this unit, which has been a revelation over the past five weeks, relegating the opposition to a scant 12.8 points per game on an impressive 299.0 Total Yards, all the while forcing a staggering fourteen turnovers in that span. While their comrades on the opposite side of the ball have struggled maintaining consistency, this group has kept games close, as the Offense has been held under twenty points in three of these five victories. Take last weekend’s 16-11 win over New Orleans for example; Koetter’s charges smothered the visitors’ potent offensive attack, limiting Drew Brees and Co. to a mere 294 Total Yards, including just forty-six rushing yards on sixteen carries, while intercepting Brees three times. It’s really been a startling change for a Defense that throughout the first eight games yielded a porous 29.0 points on 398.9 Total Yards. Again, the biggest change (apart from a return to health for many Bucs) has been their sudden ability to force turnovers in bunches; at twenty-five takeaways, Tampa Bay leads the NFL in that department, with all but eleven of that total coming in the past five weeks alone. Turnover Differential is always a major factor in determining success in this league, and through the first eight contests, the Buccaneers were Minus-2 in TO Differential, but since then have been a remarkable Plus-9. A number of players have contributed to this side’s growth, particularly Defensive Tackle Gerald McCoy (26 TKL, 6.5 SK, 4 PD, 2 FF), Linebacker Kwon Alexander (104 TKL, 3.0 SK, 1 INT, 4 PD, 1 TD), and Cornerback Brent Grimes (38 TKL, 3 INT, 17 PD, 1 FF) just to name a few. On the flipside, the Offense has been largely one-dimensional, living (and dying) on the arm of Sophomore Quarterback Jameis Winston. The former No. One Overall Pick has improved marginally upon his Rookie campaign a year ago, but still has a wealth of room to go before realizing his considerable potential; Winston has completed 61.7% of his attempts for an average of 258.8 passing yards, with twenty-three touchdowns to twelve interceptions, and a QBR of 59.7. He too has shown marked improvement as the season has progressed, connecting on 63.9% of his attempts for an average of 250.7 yards, fifteen touchdowns and just four interceptions over the last nine outings, in which Tampa has since gone 7-2. Thankfully, the running game is also starting to pick up, providing the sorely needed balance that was absent throughout the first half of the campaign. Injuries have had a lot to do here, but with Doug Martin (379 yards, 3 TD), Jacquizz Rodgers (422 yards, 1 TD), and Charles Sims (133 yards 1 TD) all healthy contributors now, this group has become more threatening than it was before. During the winning streak, the Bucs have averaged 99.8 yards on the ground, rushing for 100 or more yards on three occasions whereas they only reached that mark three times in the eight games that proceeded it. This team hasn’t been to the Playoffs since 2007, and though the general consensus was that these Bucs were likely still another year away from level of contention, they continue to get better with each passing week.
Meanwhile, things have really gotten interesting in Dallas (11-2, 1st in NFC East), where the relentless momentum that was their eleven-game winning streak came to a screeching halt against the only team to defeat them this season. It was a 20-19 loss in the Season Opener to the New York Giants that served as the catalyst to the longest winning streak in franchise history, and it would be a 13-10 defeat in the Meadowlands to their bitter rivals that ended it. For the second consecutive week, the Cowboys appeared anemic offensively, amassing just 260 Total Yards and thirteen First Downs, while converting only one of their fifteen Third Downs. Sustaining Drives has been the hidden key to their success all season, allowing Jason Garrett’s charges to control Time of Possession while affording their susceptible Defense the luxury of rest. However, last Sunday Night, they only held the ball for 29:08, while Quarterback Dak Prescott had arguably his worst performance as a professional. The Rookie has played well beyond his years at times this season, but as he did in the Opener, exhibited all the hallmarks of an inexperienced youngster; under pressure all night, Prescott managed to complete just 17-of-37 attempts for 165 yards, a touchdown and a pair of interceptions, while looking completely out of synch with Pro Bowl Receiver Dez Bryant (38 catches, 644 yards, 6 TD) who was all but invisible, hauling in just one pass for ten yards, which was fumbled away upon completion, effectively ending the contest. In his two meetings with Big Blue, the Rookie has completed 42-of-82 passes (51.2% ) for 392 yards (196.0 Y/G), one touchdown and two interceptions, but against all other opponents has connected on 69.7% of his attempts for an average of 249.7 yards, nineteen touchdowns and just two interceptions. Given his performance of late, many in the media pondered if it was time for Garrett to sit the Rookie down in favor of veteran Tony Romo, who was finally pronounced fit to play a few weeks after rehabbing from back surgery. While, Romo is clearly the more decorated of the two signal-callers, the fact remains that he hasn’t seen the field since late November of 2015, and pulling Prescott (who’s played no minor role in their success thus far) reeks of prematurity. What Dallas needs to do is get back to basics, and run the football behind the most revered Offensive Line in the league, led by the likes of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zach Martin, all who are perennial Pro Bowlers. Of course, feeding the ball to Ezekiel Elliott is never a bad idea; the Rookie Tailback has been simply outstanding this season, leading the NFL in rushing yards (1,392 yards, 12 TD), while proving potent in the passing game, hauling in twenty-eight receptions for 322 yards and another score. Just how good has Elliott been, you ask? Historically speaking, the No. Four Overall Pick ranks behind just Eric Dickerson and Adrian Peterson for most rushing yards through the first thirteen games of their respective careers. With Dickerson already residing in Canton and Peterson well on his way there, that is very exclusive company for Elliott to find himself in. No team has ran the ball more this season than the Cowboys (32.0 attempts/game), en route to rushing for 152.2 yards (2nd Overall) on a healthy 4.8 yards per carry (2nd Overall), but if they fail to establish themselves on the ground early, then they risk leaving their defense to exploitation. Despite rarely being on the field, Dallas has seen the third-most plays ran against them per drive (6.2) for an average of 34.0 yards per Drive (27th Overall). Both Minnesota and New York succeeded in stringing together long Drives that succeeded in keeping Elliott and Co. on the sidelines, as the Defense has been starved of big plays throughout the campaign. In addition to forcing the fewest Three & Outs in the NFL, these guys have jus fourteen takeaways (24th Overall) and registered twenty-six sacks (23rd Overall) thus far. Basically, the longer their Defense is on the field, the smaller the margin for error is for the Cowboys, which is something that bears keeping a watchful eye as they head into the Playoffs and face stiffer competition.