DALLAS, Texas – The Buccaneers no doubt walked away from their prime-time trip to Jerry’s World wishing the Cowboys had indeed made a change at quarterback before the start of this game.
Dak Prescott, the Cowboys rookie whose recent struggles sparked suggestions he might be replaced by veteran Tony Romo, all but ended the quarterback controversy in Dallas, likely for good on Sunday.
Prescott completed each of his first nine passes and 32 of his 36 for 279 yards and ran 2 yards for a touchdown to lead the Cowboys to a 26-20 victory that brought the once-surging Bucs back to earth.
The Bucs had won five straight to gain a spot in the NFC playoff picture, including a share of first place in the NFC South, but they lost ground with an outing uncharacteristic of the game that made them contenders.
A Bucs defense that held opponents to 12.8 points per game through the streak, gave up 17 points in the first half alone, and it could have been worse had Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey not missed two field goal tries.
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What was missing Sunday was the ability to harass the quarterback that in recent weeks had helped the Bucs take down the likes of Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers and Drew Brees.
The best the Bucs could do against Prescott was score a pair of first-half sacks that led to missed field goal tries by kicker Dan Bailey but even with those misses, Dallas still led 17-6 at the half.
The reason was the continued poor play of the Bucs offense, lost a fumble that led to Dallas’ first touchdown and could notch only a pair of Roberto Aguayo field goals through the first half.
That offense caught fire in the third quarter, producing a pair of scores on 42- and 10-yard Jameis Winston touchdown passes to Adam Humphries and Cameron Brate that gave the Bucs a 20-17 lead, but that lead quickly evaporated.
On their next possession, the Cowboys moved steadily into position for a 40-yard Bailey field goal that tied the game and they took the lead on a 38-yard field goal one possession later.
The second of those possessions came as a result of an interception thrown by Winston, who was picked off inside his own 50 for only the second time since the start of Week 10 games when cornerback Anthony Brown stepped in front of a poorly thrown pass for Humphries.
The Cowboys tacked on another field goal late in the game, a 33-yarder, that came after Ezekiel Elliott broke off a 42-yard run on a first-and-10 play from the Dallas 24.
That series started, though, with the Cowboys backed up at their own 4-yard line. On second-and-9 from 5, though, Prescott hit Dez Bryant with 19-yard strike that gave the Cowboys the room they needed to work their offense.