While the Cowboys still have playoffs on their minds when the NFC East co- leaders head to Raymond James Stadium seeking to bounce back from a potentially very damaging loss from a week ago, the floundering Buccaneers will be attempting to avoid their longest in-season skid in 24 years when they take the field for Saturday's standalone Week 15 matchup.
Dallas could have entered this game with a division title already wrapped up in time for the holidays, but back-to-back close losses marred by fourth-quarter collapses have placed the Cowboys in a two-team deadlock with the New York Giants with three weeks remaining in the regular season. The most recent setback came against the Giants at Cowboys Stadium this past Sunday, with Dallas squandering a 12-point lead with under four minutes to play in a frustrating 37-34 defeat to its longtime rival.
The Cowboys had gone ahead by a 34-22 count on quarterback Tony Romo's fourth touchdown pass of the night, a 50-yarder to young wideout Dez Bryant with 5:41 to go, but the defense allowed New York to reach the end zone twice in the closing stages to pull ahead before Dallas kicker Dan Bailey had a 47-yard field goal attempt partially blocked as time expired.
One week earlier, Bailey missed a 48-yard try on the final play of regulation that would have given the Cowboys a win over Arizona, moments after having a successful kick nullified when Dallas head coach Jason Garrett called an ill- fated timeout. The Cardinals went on to record a 19-13 triumph in overtime after overcoming a seven-point deficit entering the fourth quarter.
Dallas does still control its own destiny despite its current rut, which dropped the club to 5-9 in December games since 2008 and a lackluster 9-14 all- time in regular-season tilts held after November in which Romo's started, as the Cowboys will visit the Giants in the 2011 finale on Jan. 1.
"We have to process this game and somehow put it behind us," said Garrett after last week's result. "You can't let losses linger, just like you can't let success and wins linger."
The Cowboys had ripped off four consecutive wins, all against opponents presently below .500, prior to falling short against the Cardinals.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, hasn't come out on top since a 26-20 home decision over NFC South front-runner New Orleans all the way back on Oct. 16. The Buccaneers were 4-2 and right in the thick of the division race at the time, but have since been dealt seven straight losses to plummet out of contention.
The lowest point may have come last Sunday, when Tampa Bay was inundated with errors in a 41-14 throttling at the hands of a three-win Jacksonville squad averaging a measly 12.6 points per game at the time. The Jaguars had scored 37 points combined over their previous three outings.
The Bucs were awful in nearly every phase. The offense committed five turnovers and wide receiver Preston Parker added two more by fumbling away a pair of punt returns, one of which was recovered by Jacksonville for a touchdown. On defense, Tampa allowed the usually punchless Jags to put up a season-best 325 yards and cross the goal line on 4-of-5 red-zone opportunities.
Tampa Bay hasn't dropped eight in a row in the same season since closing out the 1987 campaign with eight consecutive losses, and the team's lengthy skid has triggered rampant speculation about the future of head coach Raheem Morris. The Buccaneers will play their final home date of 2011 with Saturday's tilt, prior to hitting the road for divisional bouts with Carolina and Atlanta.
"I hate to say there's an extra emphasis on [this game]; that means you didn't have emphasis on the other ones," said Morris. "It certainly is special because it's the last one, the last one this season [at home]. These guys are going to get ready to go out there and play football."
Tampa Bay owns a 3-3 record at Raymond James Stadium this year, while the Cowboys have lost four of their six road games thus far in 2011.
Dallas has won nine of 12 lifetime regular-season meetings with Tampa Bay and posted its third straight win in the series with a 34-21 ousting of the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in the 2009 opener. The Cowboys also registered home victories over Tampa Bay twice in the past five years, a 38-10 rout in 2006 as well as a 13-9 verdict in 2008. The Bucs haven't bested Dallas since a 16-0 result in Tampa on Oct. 26, 2003, which capped a three-game win streak for the team in the set.
The Cowboys and Buccaneers also faced off in back-to-back years in postseason play, with Dallas following up a 38-0 shellacking of Tampa at Texas Stadium in a 1981 NFC Divisional Playoff with a 30-17 home win in a First-Round game during the 1982 season.
Both Garrett, who spent part of the 2004 season as a backup quarterback with the Buccaneers, and Morris will be opposing both one another and their counterpart's respective teams for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Predominantly a pass-first operation anyway, the Dallas offense may be even more skewed towards airing it out after impressive rookie running back DeMarco Murray sustaining a season-ending fractured ankle against the Giants. Though the team does have another capable runner on hand in Felix Jones (413 rushing yards, 1 TD, 23 receptions), who stepped in to rush for 106 yards on only 16 attempts last Sunday, the former first-round pick isn't known as a workhorse and there's next to no depth behind him, with aging veteran Sammy Morris just brought in this week to serve as the backup. Luckily for the Cowboys, Romo (3646 passing yards, 26 TD, 9 INT) has been playing at an exceptionally high level as of late, with the highly-scrutinized quarterback having compiled a stellar 15-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the past six games and shredding New York for 321 yards and four scores this past weekend. An imposing group of receivers is also now at full strength with big-play artist Miles Austin (32 receptions, 5 TD) returning in Week 14 after a four-game absence caused by a hamstring injury. The two-time Pro Bowl participant joins Bryant (47 receptions, 8 TD) and breakout star Laurent Robinson (46 receptions, 8 TD), coming off a four-catch, 137-yard outburst against the Giants, as dangerous deep targets for the league's sixth-ranked passing game (273.4 ypg), with always-reliable tight end Jason Witten (64 receptions, 5 TD) continuing to serve as Romo's go-to guy underneath.
The Cowboys could be set up for a field day against a porous Tampa Bay defense that's permitting the fourth-highest yardage total (388.5 ypg) in the NFL and been scorched for 35 points or more in four of its last five games. The Buccaneers have been equally deficient against the run and pass, having yielded a troublesome 139.7 yards per game on the ground (28th overall) and ranking 28th in pass efficiency defense, while the team's total of 20 sacks is the second-fewest in the league. The Bucs did come up with a pair of interceptions of Jaguars rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert last week, however, and are slated to get playmaking cornerback Aqib Talib (33 tackles, 2 INT, 11 PD) back from a hamstring strain that rendered him inactive in that contest. Tampa Bay is littered with first and second-year players along the front seven and have often showed their inexperience, though end and 2011 first-round pick Adrian Clayborn (33 tackles, 6.5 sacks) has emerged as the team's best pass rusher and fellow rookie Mason Foster (63 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) has been solid at the middle linebacker spot. The midseason addition of controversial tackle Albert Haynesworth (15 tackles) hasn't generated much of an impact, however, as the ex-Patriot has yet to register a sack in five games as a Buc.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL
Mistakes have haunted Tampa Bay on this side of the ball all throughout this disappointing season, and never were those miscues more prevalent than in last week's debacle. Quarterback Josh Freeman (2896 passing yards, 12 TD, 18 INT) was intercepted twice and lost a fumble while playing through a sore throwing shoulder and running back LeGarrette Blount (737 rushing yards, 5 TD, 12 receptions) coughed the ball up twice (losing one) against the Jaguars. The Buccaneers were also whistled for 12 penalties accounting for 97 yards and rank third overall with 108 total infractions, while their 31 giveaways are tied with Philadelphia for the most in the NFL. Freeman has been responsible for his share of those turnovers, as the young triggerman's 18 picks are tops in the league and been the main topic of discussion of his miserable campaign. The 23- year-old hasn't gotten a whole lot of support from his pass-catching crew, however, with second-year wideouts Mike Williams (60 receptions, 3 TD) and Arrelious Benn (29 receptions, 2 TD) both enduring sophomore slumps and oft- injured tight end Kellen Winslow (58 receptions, 2 TD) now more of a possession-type at this stage of his career. Though ball security has been a bit of an issue lately, Blount has been an effective lead back who's eclipsed the century mark in two of his last four games.
The Dallas defense will be aiming to atone for its worst display of the season, with the unit torched for a whopping 510 total yards by the Giants and New York's Eli Manning throwing for 102 of his 400 passing yards on the pivotal final two drives. The Cowboys were unable to record a sack of Manning in that game, an anomaly for a cast that's accumulated 35 quarterback takedowns in 2011 and boasts one of the league's truly elite pass rushers in outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (46 tackles, 15 sacks). Provided he's not hampered by a neck stinger that clearly affected his play last week, the perennial All-Pro and counterpart Anthony Spencer (51 tackles, 6 sacks) will be counted on to bring the heat and help out an inconsistent secondary that could be without cornerback Mike Jenkins (19 tackles, 1 INT, 8 PD) due to a shoulder injury that briefly knocked him out of the Week 14 loss. Flamboyant coordinator Rob Ryan's group has been pretty good against the run, with rising star inside linebacker Sean Lee (87 tackles, 4 INT), disruptive nose tackle Jay Ratliff (34 tackles, 2 sacks) and Spencer heading up a contingent that's eighth overall in rush defense (101.2 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Tampa Bay's pass rush. The Buccaneers haven't had much of one over the course of this season, but they'll need to come up with ways to create pressure to have any chance of winning this game. The Cowboys are 5-1 when Romo's been sacked one time or less in 2011, but they're 1-4 when the accomplished quarterback is taken down three or more times in a game. Romo has been sacked eight times during Dallas' two-game losing streak, with the Cardinals amassing five two weeks back.
A big day out of Blount. With Freeman battling a sore right shoulder and plagued by turnover problems in recent weeks, expect the Bucs to run the offense through their powerful running back and the Cowboys to be geared up to stop him. Tampa Bay is 0-6 this season when rushing for 90 yards or less, so it's apparent that getting Blount heavily involved increases its chances of success.
The fourth quarter. The Cowboys have either had a lead or been tied entering the final period in five of their six losses following their late stumbles against the Giants and Cardinals. If the Bucs can keep it close, they've got a quarterback with a reputation of coming through in the clutch in Freeman, the proud owner of eight fourth-quarter comebacks during his three-year NFL career.
This appears to be a game that the Cowboys can dominate at first glance, as Romo and the Dallas receivers shouldn't encounter a whole lot of difficulty finding and attacking weak spots in a lackluster Tampa Bay defense that doesn't possess much of a pass rush and the Buccaneers have been turning the ball over in bunches as of late. However, the Cowboys have not performed well on the road this season, with both of their two victories as the visitor coming in overtime, and Tampa Bay should have some motivation here with a rare opportunity to play on national television and the bad taste that remains from a losing streak that's gone on for nearly two months. Look for an inspired Bucs team to play much better than last week and hang tough throughout, but ultimately make one too many costly mistake that will be the difference between winning and losing.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cowboys 27, Buccaneers 23