Both teams shared a disappointing conclusion to the '08 season, collapsing down the stretch to miss the playoffs.
For the Cowboys, the distraction of Terrell Owens is gone from the locker room, but so is his production. The Buccaneers went through a major overhaul in the offseason, firing their head coach and general manager while jettisoning several veterans.
What makes this game interesting is no one really knows what we will see with the Buccaneers. Head Coach Raheem Morris promised physical football, something that could be effective against a finesse team like Dallas.
Let's take a look at the matchups.
Dallas Running Game vs. Tampa Bay Run Defense
Felix Jones returns to bolster a running attack that finished 21st last season. Marion Barber is the main guy for Dallas, he pounded out 885 yds and 7 touchdowns last season. Barber also makes an impact in the passing game (he had 52 receptions in '08). The mercurial Jones was sorely missed after averaging 8.9 yds per carry.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers run defense has been revamped. No longer will the Bucs employ a smallish front four or play the more conservative Cover 1 and Cover 2 coverages of Monte Kiffin.
While preseason numbers certainly must be taken with a grain of salt, the Bucs new defensive style appeared to be working against the running game, ranking 2nd in the league against the run.
Run defense was the downfall for the Buccaneers down the stretch as they were shredded by opposing offenses. If the preseason numbers were a mirage, the Cowboys may hold the key to beating Tampa Bay.
If the Bucs run defense has indeed dramatically improved, it could force the game into the hands of quarterback Tony Romo and make Dallas one dimensional.
Dallas Passing Attack vs. Tampa Bay Pass Defense
Tampa Bay's greatest weakness happens to also be Dallas' on offense. It's strange to say but Tony Romo and the Cowboys passing attack appear to be the weakest part of the Dallas offense. Romo doesn't have his primary weapon, Terrell Owens anymore. Roy Williams and TE Jason Witten are the main targets.
The new-look Cowboys looked solid in the preseason, ranking fifth overall in passing.
While traditionally, the Buccaneers pass defense has been a strength, this season it could be their biggest liability. They still have Ronde Barber but the Bucs will be running a man-to-man defense this season.
It's going to take some time for the Bucs' secondary to adjust to the new defense and frankly, the depth just isn't there in the secondary. Too many times during the exhibition season did the Bucs defense get burned deep.
For Tampa Bay to have any chance to successfully defend the pass, they're going to have to produce pressure on the quarterback and force turnovers. The Bucs appear to be improved in those departments as well, as their defense registered a myriad of sacks and turnovers during the pre-season.
It will be interesting to see if that can transfer over when the bullets start flying for real.
Tampa Bay Running Game vs. Dallas Run Defense
Like the Buccaneers, one of the major weaknesses for the Cowboys defensively was their run defense. While they still ranked in the upper half of the league, they were susceptible to the run.
If preseason numbers are indicative of performance (and many times they're not), it appears Dallas hasn't improved much.
Meanwhile, the Bucs strength on offense is the run. The three-headed monster of Cadillac Williams, Derrick Ward, and Earnest Graham all appear to be poised to have big seasons behind Tampa Bay's talented offensive line.
The Bucs are now employing the zone blocking scheme, enabling more downhill running and cutback lanes that take advantage of the running backs' skill sets.
Tampa Bay ranked sixth in the league rushing during the preseason, improving by nearly twenty yards per game.
If the Bucs are to beat Dallas, they must do so in the running game, tiring out the Cowboy defense, and setting up play action.
Edge: Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay Passing Attack vs. Dallas Pass Defense
This is where the question really lies for the Buccaneers. Can Byron Leftwich pass with accuracy and get the ball to the Buccaneers myriad of options on offense?
Can the Bucs offensive line provide enough time for the stoic Leftwich to get the ball off?
With offensive weapons Antonio Bryant, Kellen Winslow, and Michael Clayton, the Bucs have a passing attack brimming with potential. Of course, as Bill Parcells says, potential means you haven't done it yet.
The Cowboys are terrific at pressuring the quarterback and causing havoc, ranking fifth in pass defense and number one in sacks in 2008.
Protecting Leftwich and making plays down field will be crucial for the Buccaneers to remain competitive in the football game.
Tampa Bay Special Teams vs. Dallas Special Teams
The Buccaneers special teams units have been among the best in the league under Rich Bisaccia, while the Cowboys coverage unit has struggled this preseason and is definitely an area of concern for Dallas.
Clifton Smith became the first Buccaneer to return a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown in the same season. Smith's ability is important in helping the Buccaneers win the battle for field position—a key component in this game.
Dirk Johnson takes over for Josh Bidwell as a punter. Bidwell's injury hurt the Bucs as Johnson doesn't have the leg power or consistency to put the ball where it needs to go.
Mike Nugent replaces Matt Bryant as the kicker for Tampa Bay. Nugent has a more powerful leg, but isn't as accurate as Bryant was.
Matt McBriar continues to provide Dallas a booming option at punter while Nick Folk is dependable as a kicker.
Miles Austin and company do a decent job returning kicks.
Edge: Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay Coaching vs. Dallas Coaching
Raheem Morris will make his first appearance in a regular season game as head coach of the Buccaneers. Wade Phillips (70-49) enters his third season in Dallas and his seventh as an NFL head coach. He's on the hotseat as the Cowboys look to return to prominence.
Tampa Bay has experienced coordinators in Greg Olsen (offense) and Jim Bates (defense).
Dallas' Jason Garrett has seen his star dim after a rough offensive campaign for the Cowboys in 2008. Phillips runs the defense himself.
The Dallas Cowboys were among the NFL's worst when it came to the turnover ratio (-11), while the Buccaneers were among the best (+4). Both trends continued during the preseason.
As with any NFL game, the turnover battle could be huge in this one.
Edge: Tampa Bay
Dallas will have to deal with the heat and humidity in Tampa Bay. While for a team based in Texas you'd think that wouldn't be an issue, the Cowboys practice in 78-degree air conditioning and play in a partial dome.
There's a chance for storms during the game as well. The Bucs have had the opportunity to practice and play in the elements for several months.
The Cowboys also may be overlooking Tampa Bay since their home opener in their new stadium against division rival New York looms next week.
Dallas has also had no film to review on the Buccaneers offensively or defensively. They are essentially going blind into this ballgame.
Edge: Tampa Bay
Dallas leads the overall series 8-3 and has won the last two meetings. Tampa Bay is 2-1 against the Cowboys in Tampa.
While Dallas is a large favorite in this game, I think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stand a good chance at pulling off the upset. Dallas doesn't have the offensive firepower they once had and their defense is vulnerable to the Buccaneers biggest strength, the running game.
Dallas doesn't protect the football and that may lead to extended periods where the Cowboys defense will be on the field in that Tampa Bay humidity.
Head coach Raheem Morris has promised a physical team and I believe the Bucs will deliver against Dallas.
Tampa Bay 23, Dallas 20