Meet your 2018 NFC East champions.
The Dallas Cowboys got back on track in their final home game of the regular season, providing an early Christmas present for their fans thanks to a 27-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the win, the Cowboys wrapped up a division crown for the 24th time in their long history, which also marked the second NFC East title in the last three seasons and their third in the last five.
In doing so, the Cowboys rode a defense that was outstanding for most of the day. The unit did surrender 383 total yards of offense to Tampa Bay, but Dallas limited the Buccaneers to only 68 yards rushing, produced three sacks, eight quarterback hits, four tackles for loss, six passes defensed and, of course, two key turnovers.
They carried the load for an offense that often struggled. Dak Prescott’s stat sheet certainly looked good, as he completed 80 percent of his passes and posted a passer rating of 106.8. But the team as a whole had only 232 yards of total offense with Ezekiel Elliott rushing 18 times for 85 yards. They were also hampered by several unfortunate penalties.
No matter, it was enough to get the job done on this day.
The game got off to a scary start, though, when defensive end Tyrone Crawford went down with an injury on the second play of the Buccaneers’ opening possession. He was carted off with a neck strain, and while he showed movement in his arms and legs, he was taken to a local hospital to be further evaluated.
With the Dallas defense clearly shaken, Winston then immediately connected with receiver Mike Evans for 38 yards down the left sideline. But from there, the Cowboys found their legs and limited the visitors to a 37-yard field goal. It would be the first and last time Dallas would trail in the game.
Prescott came right back and led his troops 75 yards to pay dirt, completing 4-of-5 passes for 50 yards, which included a honey of a throw to Michael Gallup along the right sideline for a nice 31-yard gain. Prescott eventually wrapped up the drive by taking the read-option himself off left tackle the final 7 yards to the end zone.
And then for the first time all season, the defense came up with a score. Early in the Buccaneers’ next possession, defensive end Randy Gregory was called for offsides on a third-and-4, giving Tampa Bay a first down. But six plays later, with the Bucs now facing a third-and-5 at the Cowboys’ 34-yard line, Gregory came in from behind Winston, knocking the ball loose from the quarterback with a sack.
Picking up the bouncing ball was linebacker Jaylon Smith, who then raced 69 yards untouched down the left sideline for the touchdown, giving the Cowboys a 14-3 lead heading into the second quarter.
The two teams went on to trade field goals, Tampa Bay good from 45 yards with Brett Maher later splitting the uprights from 59 yards out for the Cowboys. That came with 1:43 left in the half, which was just enough time for the Buccaneers to mount one last drive.
They took advantage. Helped by a pair of penalties – one for roughing the passer on Gregory and then an unnecessary roughness call on safety Xavier Woods – Tampa Bay reached the end zone in just eight plays with running back Jacquizz Rodgers powering in from the 2-yard line to narrow the score to an uncomfortable 17-13 at the break.
Dallas would start the third quarter with the ball, but the offensive struggles that plagued the team at the end of the first half carried over, the Cowboys going a quick three-and-out. After Tampa Bay missed a field goal from 52 yards, Dallas then started at its own 42 and worked its way down to a first-and-goal at the Buccaneers 10-yard line.
But while Tampa Bay had allowed a touchdown every previous time they’d faced a first-and-goal this season, Dallas’ red-zone woes continued. The Cowboys couldn’t punch it in, settling for a 20-yard field goal, although extending their lead to 20-13.
The Dallas defense, however, certainly wasn’t struggling as Gregory again came up big. When the Buccaneers mishandled a handoff at their own 23-yard line, the defensive end eventually fell on the prize back at the Tampa Bay 4. And this time, the Cowboys capitalized as Prescott lofted a pass to Gallup in the back right corner of the end zone for the touchdown and a now breathable 27-13 advantage.
Not that Tampa Bay didn’t make it interesting. After being stopped on fourth-and-6 at the Cowboys’ 7-yard line, the Buccaneers came back on their next possession and this time reached pay dirt. Traveling 71 yards in eight plays, Winston found Evans in the middle of the end zone from 7 yards out to close the gap to 27-20 with only 2:04 remaining on the clock.
But Leighton Vander Esch, who finished with a game-high 15 tackles, fell on the ensuing onside kick to give Dallas the ball. And with the Buccaneers out of timeouts, the Cowboys got the first down they needed to run out the clock.
The win improved Cowboys’ record to 9-6 on the season, ensuring a winning record for the third straight year. That’s the longest stretch since the team finished above. 500 in five consecutive seasons from 2005-09. Dallas will now wrap up the regular season schedule at the New York Giants next Sunday at noon.