Big Picture: Third-Downs Might Play Role As Cowboys Host Red-Hot Bucs

Cowboys:

After nearly three full months without a loss, the Cowboys are going through a week of preparation with an unfamiliar feeling as they get ready for the Bucs, who just happen to be one of the NFL's hottest teams.

As for the playoff picture, it's a little more complicated now than it was last week, when the Cowboys just needed to beat the Giants to clinch both the NFC East title and a first-round bye. Both are still very obtainable, but along with winning their own game, the Cowboys need the Giants to lose at home to Detroit to clinch both the division and a bye. If the Cowboys and Giants both win, Dallas remains two games up on the Giants with two to play, but would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker should New York pull even.

With the Cowboys playing the Sunday night game, they will certainly know the outcome of the Giants-Lions game from earlier in the day. But either way, the focus will be to get back on the winning track, which should mean a resurgence from an offense that has only produced 24 points in two games.

To compare, the Cowboys scored at least 24 points in 10 straight games of the 11-game winning streak, but has since fallen off in two games against the Vikings and Giants.

Dak Prescott is coming off his worst game of the season, throwing two picks and just one touchdown for a career-low 45.4 QB rating. Worse than that, Prescott couldn't drive the offense to any second-half points with the game on the line.

Fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott managed 107 yards against the Giants, but it wasn't enough to sustain drives. And that has been the problem for the Cowboys in two straight games now – staying on the field.

The Cowboys followed up a 1-for-9 third-down conversion game against the Vikings with a whopping 1-for-15 against the Giants last week. Just two third downs have been converted in the last 24 attempts. Before then the Cowboys have been one of the NFL's best teams at staying on the field.

The Cowboys are hoping veteran Darren McFadden will add some offensive firepower, perhaps on third downs. He was added to the 53-man roster as the Cowboys waived rookie Darius Jackson, who had been inactive every week this year.

Defensively, the Cowboys are coming off their best game, especially with turnovers. Three takeaways, including a diving interception by Anthony Brown, highlighted the evening along with a Cowboys single-game record 22 tackles by Sean Lee.

Cornerback Brandon Carr did an admirable job in covering Odell Beckham Jr. but now the Cowboys have to figure out a different kind of beastly receiver in Mike Evans, who is dangerous in his own way.

Buccaneers:

With five straight wins, Tampa Bay enters Sunday's game on a roll, making them the perfect matchup on Sunday Night Football, a place no one expected this Cowboys-Bucs matchup to be when the season began.

Credit both the Bucs' offense and defense for the recent surge. Second-year quarterback Jaemis Winston has helped guide Tampa Bay's offense, even despite slightly-above-average numbers. In this five-game winning streak, Winston has just six touchdown passes, but only three interceptions.

Winston ranks 19th in the NFL with an 89.6 quarterback rating (Dak Prescott is third at 102.7). One of his favorite targets has been Mike Evans, who is one of just three receivers to have double-digit touchdown catches. Evans has 10 TD catches, but only two have occurred in this winning streak – with both occurring against the Seahawks in a 14-5 win. Still, Evans has been a reliable target for the Bucs, who have gotten solid production from David Humphries (42 catches) and tight end Cameron Brate (51 catches, six TDs).

The Bucs have three players ranked in the Top 50 in sacks, including defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who is tied for the NFL lead among defensive tackles with seven sacks. Tampa also has 5.5 sacks from Robert Ayers and rookie Noah Spence.

One area the Bucs are excelling in this year is third-down efficiency, where they rank second in the NFL, allowing a first down just 34.2 percent of the time. That should make for an interesting matchup with the Cowboys, who are 2-for-24 on third-down attempts the last two games. 

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