FRISCO, Texas – Here the two biggest keys I think will determine who comes out of this Cowboys-Buccaneers game with a win.
Dallas Cowboys Win If:
During the Cowboys 11-game winning streak, it was all about offensive control. They executed five-minute drives that took 10 plays or more, usually resulting in points. It was positive plays on first down and conversions the next down. It was staying ahead of the chains and away from the third-down situations where long yardage was required to convert.
Offensive rhythm and balance. In these previous two games against the Vikings and Giants – they've lacked those elements to their attack. The Vikings and Giants were able to take their personnel and affect the way this offense likes to operate by taking away their receivers and tight ends with quality secondary play.
Defensively, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the personnel that can give the Cowboys problems. They might lack size in their front seven, but they make up for it with their speed. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith gets bodies to the ball in a hurry, and to be effective against them offensively, you have to be ready for that. Where the Cowboys have their strengths in ball control, the Buccaneers are able to match them. They are second in the league on third down defense and opponents' 10-play drives.
For the Cowboys to win this game, they're going to need to handle the Buccaneers' defensive speed, but also get back to what has made them so successful this season -- and that's controlling the ball. Scott Linehan needs to once again find that rhythm with his play calling, receivers need to get open and Dak Prescott needs to once again be sharp with his decision making, creative with his execution and assassin- like with his finish. When all these elements come together they're a hard team to beat.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Win If:
The Buccaneers defensively are good enough to handle this Cowboys offensive scheme. They match up well with their front seven and the secondary with Brent Grimes and rookie Vernon Hargreaves are capable cover men. Their defense can keep them in the game with pressure and creating turnovers, which has been a staple during their winning streak.
Where the Buccaneers will have to win this game is with their offense. Defensively, the Cowboys face an offense that is mid-pack when it comes to running the football. Their primary ball carrier, Doug Martin, missed six games this season and since his return has only averaged 58 yards per game. As a team, the Buccaneers have more negative rushing plays than anyone else in the NFL, with 48. Dirk Koetter wants to run the ball, and 57 percent of the time they are going to try on first down -- which is second in the league. But the problem that presents for Koetter in his play calling is they're one of the worst teams in the league when it comes to average yards to go on second down, with 8.32 yards.
The Cowboys have been outstanding all season when it has come to defending the run. What has been surprising is that opponents haven't tried to stick with the run. Only 33 percent of the time have opponents tried to run the ball on this defense. There could be a couple of factors here: the Cowboys offense rarely plays from behind and the lack of a pass rush gives opponents the comfort to believe they can throw the ball without harm to their quarterback.
For the Buccaneers to win this game, they're going to need to give the Cowboys a taste of their own medicine and run the ball -- especially on first down with success, which will open things up for Koetter and his play calling during the drive.