After an ugly loss to the Giants the week before and a shaky effort in a victory at Minnesota prior to that, many on the Cowboys bandwagon were starting to get a little nervous, seemingly paying no mind to the team's overall record.
But in front of 93,101 fans and a national television audience, the Cowboys proved again why they will be a team to reckon with this postseason, defeating the red-hot Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 26-20.
And you can thank the Dallas defense.
Sure, the offensive side of the ball did its part, totaling 449 yards overall, and Ezekiel Elliott in particular shined with 159 rushing yards and a touchdown. Dak Prescott also proved he could handle the pressure in the Cowboys' stretch run, as the rookie quarterback was outstanding, completing 89 percent of his passes (32-of-36) for 279 yards with no interceptions.
But when things looked bleak, when the Buccaneers seemingly had all the momentum, it was the defense that held its ground and got the Cowboys back in the game. For the third week in a row, and 10th time this season, Dallas held its opponent to no more than 20 points. Tampa Bay finished with 276 yards of total offense, were 4-of-12 on third downs and were limited to just 23:56 in time of possession, the Cowboys dominating with a 36:04 mark.
Of course, with the way the game started, there had to be much hand-wringing among the faithful that we were in for another rough night. Getting the ball first, the Cowboys seemingly could do no wrong, quickly marching to the Tampa Bay 29-yard line. But a holding penalty followed by a sack stalled the drive and Dan Bailey's attempt at a 56-yard field goal came up short.
That was soon followed by the Buccaneers being helped by a pass interference penalty on third down that resulted in a 21-yard infraction to the Dallas 25-yard line. The defense held, but Tampa Bay went up 3-0 on a 25-yard field goal.
But the lead for the Buccaneers' would be only temporary, as Dallas kept its offense rolling. After failing to score on their last 14 possessions, the Cowboys then put up points on each of their next three.
And they did so thanks to Prescott. On the team's next possession, the rookie quarterback completed 7-of-8 passes for 68 yards to move Dallas down to the Buccaneers' 9-yard line, where Bailey got the Cowboys on the board with a chip-shot 27-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter.
Ten seconds of game-clock later, Dallas had the ball right back. On Tampa Bay's first snap of its next series, defensive tackle Terrell McClain knocked the ball loose from Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston with rookie Maliek Collins falling on the prize.
Set up at the Buccaneers' 14-yard line, the Cowboys needed only five plays to cross the goal line. Elliott bolted in from the 2-yard line, but the highlight came when, in some holiday spirit fun, he then ran behind the end zone and jumped into the large red kettle promoting The Salvation Army. If ever there was a time to feel good about a penalty, this was it.
Now up 10-7, the Cowboys added to their total with another score, this one coming on a 10-play, 64-yard drive that saw Prescott scamper for a 15-yard gain and hit Brice Butler for a 21-yard completion. He then capped things off with a perfectly executed quarterback draw right up the middle for the score. That marked Prescott's first rushing touchdown of the season, which broke Don Meredith's record for the most rushing scores by a quarterback in Cowboys history.
[embeddedad0]The Buccaneers tacked on another field goal, this one from 34 yards out, but Dallas went into the half with a comfortable 17-6 advantage, dominating in total yards, 257-105, first downs, 16-7, and time of possession, 20:20- 9:40.
Still, Tampa Bay had to be feeling good about the fact that despite the stat sheet, the Cowboys only had an 11-point lead at that point. And the Buccaneers obviously felt much better when they then found their own offensive rhythm after the break and proceeded to reach paydirt on their first two possessions of the third quarter.
The first came on a 42-yard bomb from Winston to wide receiver Adam Humphries. Then after the Cowboys failed to move the chains on a third-and-2, Lucky Whitehead was unable to handle the exchange from Elliott on a reverse, Tampa Bay this time starting from its own 19-yard line after the punt.
Winston was masterful as he picked apart the Dallas defense with completions of 19, 17, 22, 17 and finally 10 yards. The last of those was a completion to tight end Cameron Brate that gave the Buccaneers a 20-17 lead.
With 17 unanswered points, it was now the visitors who held control. Again, though, the lead was only temporary.
The Cowboys finally found some offense again, this time driving 58 yards in 10 plays to set up Bailey with a 40-yard field goal to tie the game, 20-20, early in the fourth quarter.
And that's when the defense really stepped up its effort, beginning with its second big turnover of the night. Defensive lineman David Irving came hard on the rush, hitting Winston's elbow as he threw. That forced the ball high and into the waiting arms of safety Jeff Heath, who returned the interception to the Tampa Bay 22-yard line.
Unfortunately, though, the Cowboys had to settle for just three points, a 38-yarder from Bailey. They appeared to have scored a touchdown on their second snap of the series when Prescott hit Lance Dunbar across the middle. But Tyron Smith was called for holding, negating the play and forcing Dallas to eventually settle for the field goal.
With Dallas clinging to a three-point lead, the defense then forced consecutive punts, even doing so after Tampa Bay recovered a Jason Witten fumble that gave them possession at the Cowboys' 45-yard line. The time had come for the offense to put the game away.
And they did, well, sort of. Taking over at their own 4-yard line with 6:55 left in the game, the Cowboys reached the Tampa Bay 15-yard line, but again had to settle for another 40-yard Bailey field goal, inching their lead to 26-20. Perhaps just as important, they ate up nearly four minutes of the clock.
It would be up to the defense to bring it home. With the Buccaneers starting on their own 25-yard line, the Cowboys forced a three-and-out. But with the Dallas offense unable to do anything, Tampa Bay had one more chance with 1:36 left and no timeouts.
Make that no chance at all. The defense took care of business, Orlando Scandrick coming down with an interception to seal the victory.
With the win, the Cowboys improved their mark on the season to 12-2, tied for the league's best record and still two games ahead of the Giants for first place in the NFC East. They will be back in action again next weekend, hosting the Detroit Lions in a Monday night showdown.
A look at some of our favorite photos from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Dallas Cowboys game at AT&T Stadium on Sunday, December 18.