A huge clash awaits this weekend on “Sunday Night Football” as a potential playoff preview comes to AT&T Stadium when the red-hot Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on a Dallas Cowboys squad looking to rebound. In addition to matching two of the best young quarterbacks in the game and some of the top receivers in the league, this one figures to be a fun one that has significant impact on the NFC playoff seeding.
Dallas is back at home and hoping to rebound after just its second loss of the season on a cold night against New York last week. The team ran off 11 straight after losing to the Giants in the season opener and are hoping for more of the same starting this week against Tampa Bay. Ezekiel Elliott continues to have an MVP-caliber season behind that big offensive line but the past few games have not been signal-caller Dak Prescott’s best as the team has struggled on third down.
Looking to take advantage of all that and keep up their winning ways are the Buccaneers, who have run off five in a row to surge into playoff contention with the No. 6 seed. That stretch has included victories over the Seahawks and Chiefs as the team is using a surprisingly stingy defense to pair effectively with the terrific combo of Jameis Winston and Mike Evans through the air. This should be the team’s biggest test left in the season and could prove a lot of doubters wrong.
It was a low-scoring affair when these two teams let last season, a 10-6 win for Tampa Bay as Winston ran for the game-winner with just under a minute left. The Cowboys have dominated the overall series however, with a 13-4 edge overall and a 10-1 mark against the Bucs in Dallas, including the pair’s only meeting at AT&T Stadium back in 2012.
Tampa Bay at Dallas
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 18, 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Cowboys -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Boys Bouncing Back
This has been a magical season in Dallas with the surprise resurgence of the Cowboys but suddenly eyebrows are raised after the offense has struggled the past two weeks and their 11-game winning streak came to an end against the Giants last Sunday. How will the team respond? We’re about to find out against a solid Tampa Bay team that has been playing as well as anybody in the NFC. Ezekiel Elliott still leads the NFL in rushing and will be aiming for his seventh game in a row with more than 100 total yards. One key to the ‘Boys getting back on track might be getting Dez Bryant back into the end zone, something he’s done four times in the past four home games.
2. Bucs’ Aerial Attack
The core of the Tampa Bay offense has taken its lumps at times the past two seasons but suddenly has turned into the unit everybody thought it would become with a productive quarterback in Jameis Winston, a couple of big-play threats at tailback and wide receiver Mike Evans blossoming into one of the league’s best during his third season in the league. Evans is third in the NFL in touchdown catches and has proven to be a matchup nightmare in the red zone with his size and skill. The emergence of Cameron Brate at tight end (six scores, most at the position) has helped Winston find a reliable second target as well and it should be fun to see the Bucs’ offense try to outscore the Cowboys. One thing Dallas has to do is slow down the wideouts, which the defense did to some degree against the Giants but still allowed several big plays downfield.
3. Dak Bouncing Back
Dallas has lost just two games all season, both to the same team in the division in a pair of close contests. Even after all that, the talk has already started to creep into the national conversation that quarterback Dak Prescott is struggling and it’s time for the team to consider making the change to backup Tony Romo. While Cowboys’ brass has insisted that the rookie is still the starter, all this talk hasn’t exactly been squashed so it will be interesting to see how the young signal-caller bounces back against Tampa Bay and its solid, young secondary. Prescott still has posted a QB rating of 100 or better in 10 of 13 games this season so last week’s two-interception outing may be more of an outlier than sign of things to come. But it’s still worth watching how he performs on third down and to see if he can’t come up with some big pass plays when he’s in the pocket.
If you told somebody before the season that Tampa Bay’s visit to Dallas would not only be flexed into “Sunday Night Football” but hold significant playoff implications in the NFC, you would probably draw a few funny looks. After all, the Cowboys were coming off a 4-12 season and starting a rookie quarterback while the Buccaneers were beginning a new era after firing their head coach and promoting their offensive coordinator.
But here we are. It’s been a special season in Big D as the team has turned into the sudden favorites in the NFC and is in line to capture home-field advantage throughout the postseason (the Super Bowl being played down the road in Houston might even count too). The game plan has been a constant from the boys in blue and a very successful one at that: run the ball, eat up the clock, play sound defense and let Dak Prescott work a little magic on third down. The team has struggled the past two weeks however and suddenly questions are popping up about whether this is a blip in the radar or something much more concerning.
Looking to take advantage and secure its spot in the postseason is Tampa Bay, who suddenly is one of the hottest teams in the league. While the defense was an Achilles heel for the team early in the year, the young Bucs have regrouped to look good down the stretch and have been boosted by an offense that has quarterback Jameis Winston maturing and finding a real connection with Mike Evans, who returns to the Lone Star State looking to leave a lasting impression and out-duel fellow star receiver Dez Bryant.
While that all may portend a low-scoring affair based on the way these two teams have been playing, we’ll go with something a tad more potent on the offensive end. Things may wind up being close but in the end, Dallas bounces back with a nice win at home and puts away a pesky Tampa Bay team.
Prediction: Cowboys 27, Buccaneers 21
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.