One week after their 11-game winning streak ended, the Dallas Cowboys are on their way toward a new run.
Despite blowing a 17-3 first-half lead to trail by three in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys bounced back with a 26-20 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday night.
The loss breaks the Bucs' five-game winning streak as they fell to 8-6 on the year, creating a tough road to the postseason. Dallas improves to 12-2, tied with the New England Patriots for the best record in the NFL.
Dak Prescott quieted any concerns about his job status by finishing 32-of-36 for 279 yards with no turnovers. He also scored his sixth rushing touchdown of the season, setting a new Cowboys record previously held by Don Meredith, per the team's Twitter account.
Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders provided another note on the rookie's performance:
Ezekiel Elliott was as good as ever, scoring a touchdown while totaling a career-high 159 rushing yards with 29 more through the air.
Meanwhile, Clarence Hill Jr. of the Star-Telegram praised the men on the other side of the ball:
Jameis Winston overcame a slow start to the game to throw for 247 yards and two touchdowns. But Tampa Bay was undone by four turnovers, including two interceptions deep in its own territory. While one of his three interceptions came on a Hail Mary to end the first half, he didn't take care of the ball on the whole.
Kwon Alexander led an impressive effort by the Buccaneers defense, totaling an incredible 21 tackles and a forced fumble, but it wasn't enough to knock off one of the best teams in the NFL on the road.
Down 20-17 going into the fourth quarter, the Cowboys regained the lead but settled for just three field goals, earning a 26-20 advantage with just under three minutes remaining.
The Bucs offense went three-and-out, but Tampa Bay's defense gave Winston one more chance to win the game, down six with the ball and 1:36 left on the clock. However, the Dallas defense came through again with an Orlando Scandrick interception on fourth down.
The Cowboys are now two games ahead of the New York Giants in the NFC East with two games remaining, although Dallas doesn't own the tiebreaker.
Prescott and company looked like the better team from the start, although it didn't show up on the scoreboard right away. Tampa Bay took an early 3-0 lead, which stood through the first quarter.
Even after Dallas answered with its own field goal to make it 3-3, Skip Bayless of Fox Sports 1 explained why the score was a surprise:
The Cowboys held the ball for more than 11 minutes in the first quarter.
This domination eventually led to more points in the second quarter. Dallas capitalized on a Winston fumble when Elliott scored a touchdown from two yards out, featuring an interesting celebration:
A few minutes later, the home team added to the lead when Prescott took a quarterback draw into the end zone. David Moore of the Dallas Morning News joked about the pregame discussion:
If not for two missed field goals from Dan Bailey, the 17-6 halftime lead would have been even bigger.
Perhaps lucky to be down by only 11, the Buccaneers used the opportunity to get back into the game.
Tampa Bay scored its first touchdown on this fortunate tip to Adam Humphries on the first drive of the second half, via the NFL:
After a quick defensive stop, the Bucs drove down the field on a 10-play, 81-yard drive that ended with a Cameron Brate touchdown to help take a 20-17 lead.
Mike Sando of ESPN.com described the effort:
The lead held until a Cowboys field goal tied things up 20-20 in the fourth quarter.
While the final 15 minutes were far from perfect, Dallas took a six-point advantage on field goals, and the defense did the rest to secure its 12th win of the year.
The Cowboys will be on national television for the fifth game in a row next week with a Monday night battle against the 9-5 Detroit Lions. Dallas can clinch the division title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win or a Giants loss.
Tampa Bay will continue battling for a spot in the postseason with a road game against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday.
Prescott sent a message with his quality performance Sunday after some called for Tony Romo to return to the starting lineup. Elliott wanted to make sure people recognized the effort from the quarterback.
"That was for those fake fans," Elliott said, per David Helman of the team's official site. "Shut the hell up and let us work."
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers aren't looking for moral victories at this late stage of the season.
"Overall top to bottom, we did not play as well as we have been playing," head coach Dirk Koetter said, per Jenna Laine of ESPN.com. "This will serve us well down the road, but it hurts a lot tonight."
What we do know is even after a highly competitive Week 15 battle, both teams have more important games ahead of them this season.
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